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This article was published 18/4/2020 (644 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The hardest part, for Ellen, is the shock of what happened, the coming to terms with the fact the girl she knew with the bright smile is gone.
The next hardest thing is the comments about how she died, written by people who never knew Eishia Hudson in life, comments that are almost uniformly angry and brutal.
On social media, people thanked police officers for shooting the 16-year-old girl: "good kill for WPS," one person wrote. "Good riddance," wrote multiple others. "Another one bites the dust." Some called her a "thug," a "criminal dirtbag" and "a piece of s--t" who "should have been slow tortured."
These are agony to someone who cared about Eishia. Ellen can hardly bring herself to read them. She knows the circumstances around the teen’s death, how she was shot by police while behind the wheel of a stolen SUV fleeing the scene of a liquor store robbery, an incident now under review by the Independent Investigation Unit, Manitoba’s police watchdog.
But unlike the commenters, Ellen knew Eishia as so much more than that: as the girl who cherished her baby nieces and nephews. The one who volunteered to help clean classrooms after school, wiping down tables and picking trash off the floor. The bright girl who kept trying, even when circumstances in her life made that challenging.
"I’m not making excuses," Ellen says. "She chose to do what she did and unfortunately it cost her her life. And it’s sad. It hits home.... Everybody has a story. Unless you’ve read it from beginning to end you have no room to judge. Nobody knows everything this girl went through."
For years, Ellen — not her real name; she asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of her work — was one of Eishia’s mentors. They kept in touch as the girl grew older, and right up until days before she was killed, Eishia would often message Ellen on Facebook to talk about her family, her life and her goals for the future.
The teen had many such goals. She had written her resume and was excited to show it to Ellen. She’d done well on an algebra test, and was proud of how well she understood the material. She was eager to finish high school, and hoped to someday move out on her own: "I can graduate next year if I try," she wrote in one recent message.
"It hurts to know what she could have been," Ellen says.
When she completed the Training Resources for Youth program, a life-skills course that gives youth real-world work experience, she posed proudly with her certificate in a graduation cap and blue gown. She’d earned a food-handling certificate through that program and wanted to be a chef. She loved to cook, Ellen says.
Once, she sent Ellen a photo of a hashbrowns-and-eggs breakfast she’d cooked. She said that cooking helped her relax, and it made her feel good about herself, but she didn’t always feel that way; she was "very hard on herself," Ellen says, and often worried about disappointing the people she loved, especially her family.
She had her struggles, her ups and downs. There was a lot of pain in her life, and a lot of difficult circumstances. Sometimes, she told Ellen that she was trying to stay out of trouble, and the mentor could see how she meant it. Eishia would stay home more, and tell Ellen how she wished for more structure in her life.
"I’d always tell her I worried about her," Ellen says. "She’d say she knew."
And she was not, as strangers later assumed and insisted, involved with gangs. Ellen bristles at that allegation. After Eishia was killed, observers hunting for dirt grabbed photos from Facebook, where she was holding up a "W" symbol, for "west side," with her hands: but most kids in the area do that, Ellen says.
"It doesn’t have anything to do with gangs, period," she says.
Yet to those who leave celebratory comments over her death, the distinction hardly matters. In Eishia’s death, she became an empty vessel to be filled with the rage and, yes, the racism that permeates the city. The facts of her life and her death are made nearly irrelevant. She becomes only what vengeance demands her to be.
This process compounds the tragedy by putting a veil over justice. Right now, the facts of the shooting available to the public are scant; the IIU won’t comment until its investigation is complete. The Indigenous Bar Association has called on the province to launch an independent inquiry, but even if that happens, it will take time.
That process of pushing for a full and transparent accounting of what happened must continue.
For now, what we do know is that, of all the powers belonging to the state and its agents, none is more grave than the ability to take a life. None is more irreversible. So none should be more intensely scrutinized by the public or more soberly evaluated with cautious skepticism.
Above all, the use of lethal force should never be cheered.
But when it is cheered, what hope is there for that sober scrutiny? What chance is there for constructive discussion about the events that collided at that intersection, or more nuanced understanding? As advocates call for justice for Eishia, they face an uphill battle, and it starts with this widespread public disdain for her life.
When tragedies happen, there is lip service paid to making Winnipeg a healthier city for vulnerable youth, especially Indigenous kids. But when those youth struggle, the sentiment that spills out betrays the truth of how some actually perceive them: that they are already irredeemable, worthless. That they deserve to die for their mistakes.
Then we wonder why some youth look around and see no brighter future out there for them.
In this way, the anger that boiled over after Eishia’s death represents both a failure of compassion and of hope. To assert her life had no value is to declare that there is no possibility of healing or change. It is to believe that, by age 16, all that a person is or can ever be is already decided by a few hours, or even a few panicked seconds.
There are many victims in this story. Pain always spreads outwards, in ripples. There are the staff and customers at the Liquor Mart and the witnesses at the intersection who watched a terrifying and traumatizing scene. All of them were hurt in some way by the events that unfolded and some, no doubt, were left permanently shaken and changed by what they experienced.
There is also Eishia. No matter what someone judges of the circumstances of her death, the fact remains that she was a child who was more than one series of events. She was loved, and she loved others. She had dreams, and took steps to achieve them. She didn’t always get it right, but she tried, and that belongs in this story, too.
Now, it falls to Eishia’s family and friends to desperately try to humanize her for the public, a portion of which, before many facts were known, had already decided she was less than human. But to deny her humanity is to avoid seeing the whole truth, one that is never as black and white as a headline or a police press release suggests.
"In the end, she’s a kid who tried very hard to make good choices," Ellen says. "She had a great heart... I don’t know what was going on in her mind, but this is a child who made a mistake. She’s already paid for it. Why do people have to continue (the negative comments)? Let it be. What’s done is done."
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.