Riding against rage

As a cyclist, I was deeply distressed at the death of a bike courier in Toronto earlier this week, after a run-in with a motorist. Who wasn’t? The story is appalling, horrible, and tragic in every way.

The more details emerge about the apparent altercation between the cyclist, Darcy Sheppard and the driver, former Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant, the worse it appears.

I don’t believe I’m a member of a “cycling community.” I ride a bike around Toronto like many people drive station wagons. The bike is my wheels. It’s how I get around. I’ve largely reduced my dependence on a car, and I feel freer and happier and healthier and luckier to get to ride around town on my own power.

I also feel more vulnerable, and when a cyclist dies under tragic circumstances, perhaps I feel that a little more keenly.

So I showed up last evening at 5 PM for what I thought was a vigil, at the corner near Bloor and Bay, close to where Sheppard was senselessly killed in a brutal incident that’s shaken up this whole city. I was there because I wanted my bicycle to be counted along with the thousands of others. I was there because I’m saddened by the rage that seems to have turned an ordinary moment on a city street into a death scene. I was there because I see people dividing into campscars versus bikes – and because I feel we’ve all lost our senses a little bit. I was there because one life was ended and another virtually destroyed in the brief span of a few intense seconds. Those were my reasons. Others had their own.

I waited with the quiet crowd on the corner for a few moments. I had no sense that I was part of a protest or a collective expression of anger. It felt like a funeral to me. As more and more cyclists showed up, the media were gathering, helicopters were circling, and there was a sense of gloom. I was grateful for the presence of police – mostly also on bikes – who calmly added an aura of security, and maybe some implicit comradeship too. Anyone who rides knows what it’s like on the streets.

After a short while, a few dozen cyclists came riding eastbound on Bloor, one man in the lead with a black flag held high overhead. I was uncomfortable with that, but everyone mourns in his or her own way, and I was there to mourn in mine. Gradually, the mass bikes peeled off the sidewalk and followed the leaders, across Bloor, down Yonge to Queen, up University past Queen’s Park (where the former AG used to spend his working days) and onto Avenue Road before turning back onto Bloor where there’s a makeshift memorial on a tree near where Darcy Sheppard died.

It was a quiet ride, a thoughtful ride, I thought. We rang our bicycle bells intermittently, instinctively. The sound was haunting. At every intersection, the police politely held back the traffic and waved the vast parade of cyclists past. There was some honking of horns, presumably because folks in cars were held up for long minutes as the wave of wheels washed through. There were also tears and peace signs and nods and waves from pedestrians, seemingly supporting the show of solidarity and sadness. Everyone knows it’s an awful story. And everyone knows it’s complicated.

I couldn’t look around much, but periodically from behind me I heard a woman’s voice, thanking the drivers and the pedestrians for their patience. I also heard a woman’s voice saying from time to time, “Our friend was murdered by the former Attorney General.” Maybe it was the same voice. Regardless, she didn’t speak for me. I didn’t know Darcy Sheppard. And I’ll wait for due process of the law to determine the responsibility for his death.

Back on Bloor Street it was a media frenzy, as the mass ride blocked most of the street around the memorial. Led by bike couriers, many in the crowd lifted their bikes overhead. There were some shouts: “Unacceptable!” was one. “Murder!” was another. Unacceptable is right. Murder? Again, that’s for the courts to decide. But the cameras were whirring and clicking non-stop.

Then there was a pause, and we all stood next to our bikes, motionless. The bulk of those there, I thought, were like me: ordinary riders just wanting to be counted and to mourn a tragic death. I waited a bit – word was, the 6 o’clock news would be live from the scene, so it made sense to be there at the top of the hour. And sure enough, a bunch of reporters and anchors were there with lights and microphones, and cameras rolling. By now you’ve probably seen read about it. It was on the news all night, and it was a front page story this morning.

Cyclist vigil on Bloor Street

I removed my helmet. I took some pictures. I shot some video. I walked up to the memorial to pay my respects. And then I rode off home, shaken. What more was there to say or do? I posted on my Facebook page that I “rode against rage.” And I tried to get on with my evening.

But the rage continued: angry comments on my Facebook update; a text from a friend saying the media reports indicated the crowd was “seething.” Today I posted a Sun story to the Canoe Dossier Twitter feed, titled “Dead cyclist a fraud suspect.” I got a reply saying “shame on you.” Would I have gotten the same reply if the story had been about Michael Bryant? I don’t know. But it’s important to the story that we understand everything about it.

That’s a lofty goal, of course. Personally I don’t expect ever to understand. I only know this: two nights ago, while riding my bike along Queen Street, I was nearly hit by a car pulling a rapid u-turn without looking. I reacted angrily, though not irrationally. I told the driver to use his mirrors. I told him to do a shoulder check. I told him there were bikes on the road. I reminded him a cyclist had just been killed.

He looked sick. I felt sick. He could have been me. I could have been him.

And that’s why when I rode, I rode against rage. Mine, and everyone’s.

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