Guest Commentary

Jamie Nicholls

The Kid In The White Power T-Shirt

Victims and criminals share an intimate link that defies easy explanation.  It results from the collision of two lives, in which neither are ever exactly the same again. When people cast crime as black and white, good versus evil, I am reminded of all the shades of grey that exist in the middle – and then I think of Dennis.

He was a skinhead in a “White Power” t-shirt.

Dennis was known to neighbours in the North Park district of Victoria, where I lived in 1997. It was a rough-and-tumble neighbourhood. Dennis had a wife and baby; I had seen them going to the welfare office down the corner. He was violent, and he could get very drunk. I don’t think he ever finished high school.

I’d just returned to British Columbia after spending a year teaching English in South Korea, and was at a house party one evening with old friends I’d known in art school.

Dennis and another skinhead showed up at midnight. He had been drinking. I asked them to leave, and on his way out Dennis sucker punched me in the head. It was sudden, explosive. I was bleeding and in shock. He wore a spiked ring that left a scar by my eye.

Police arrived. I gave them my statement. Later there was an assault charge, a trial and conviction. The scar from Dennis’ hate-filled assault was not the only indelible mark.

I became fearful. I was 25 but had never experienced such jarring violence: I’d grown up in a peaceful family in the St. Lazare-Hudson area of Quebec, a tranquil area. It was the first time in my life that I’d seen such rage.

I did not want go out in North Park for fear I might meet Dennis. I cut my hair short, in the hope Dennis would not recognize me. Now I had this intimate link with a man I barely knew, and a question that all crime victims ask: why would he do that?

The police asked me to fill out a victim’s impact statement so Dennis might “understand” what I’d gone through. They said I might even qualify for compensation from a victims’ fund. I refused to fill out the form. I didn’t want their money. I wanted justice.

I believe in restorative healing, where victims and their tormentors reach for some understanding. Dennis’ skinhead friend enrolled in a program with the John Howard Society; he renounced white supremacy, and was eventually acquitted.

Dennis didn’t enroll. I wanted him in custody so he couldn’t hurt anyone else; I wanted a judge to order him to wear an electronic ankle bracelet so police could monitor his movements. I can’t say if restorative justice would have done Dennis much good.  Afterward I wondered, what brought Dennis to the point in his life that he was so hateful, so angry, he would shave his head and wear a “White Power” t-shirt and look for someone to hurt?

Of course my fear is gone, sixteen years later. But this remains a vivid memory. To this day I tend to be more alert than other people in urban environments. I also have a better understanding of victims of such crimes. And I know crime is a wicked problem more complex than political rhetoric, and requires multi-faced solutions.

I often wonder what became of Dennis.

(Editor’s note: the author is former New Democrat MP for Vaudreuil-Soulanges, Que.)

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