From today’s Montreal Gazette, an excellent op ed piece by No One Is Illegal member Jaggi Singh, about the 1999 police murder of Jean-Pierre Lizotte, a homeless PWA, in the trendy Plateau Montreal neighbourhood:
The ‘poet of Bordeaux’ spent many years in prison, but he possessed a simple dignity
Lawyer Michael Stober takes offence at a Gazette report on the death of Jean-Pierre Lizotte in 1999. In his Gazette opinion piece (“Police were not responsible in the death of homeless man,” Sept. 12) Stober, lawyer for Montreal police constable Giovanni Stante, writes that the report gives the “false impression that Lizotte was a victim of police brutality.”
Stober reiterates that Stante was acquitted by a jury in 2002, and cleared by the Police Ethics Tribunal for inappropriate use of force just last month. These are cold, hard facts.
Stante stands acquitted, but it’s still completely valid, and necessary, to question the actions of the Montreal police, despite the police procedures that apparently allow for the punching of an unarmed man held by someone else. One simple fact that readers should consider: Police did not reveal Jean-Pierre Lizotte’s death in 1999 to the public until 53 days later.
There is one witness to the events on the early morning of Sept. 5, 1999, outside the Shed Café on St. Laurent Bvld. who will never get to tell his side, and that’s Jean-Pierre Lizotte himself. Lizotte died following the substantial injuries he suffered that fateful night.
While vigilantly defending Stante almost a decade after the incident, Stober goes on to cite Lizotte’s extensive criminal record. Dead men tell no tales, as the saying goes.
But, fortunately, despite two decades in and out of prison, this particular dead man had a lot to say, and he said it poignantly and insightfully. Jean- Pierre Lizotte deserves his voice, too, as much as Stante has his voice through his lawyer’s skillful advocacy.
Thanks to a remarkable radio program called Souverains anonymes, which encouraged the creative side of prisoners at Bordeaux, we still have a record of many of Lizotte’s words.
After learning of his death, the producers of Souverains Anonymes recalled something Lizotte wrote to Abla Farhoud – a Quebec playwright, writer and actress, originally from Lebanon – who had participated in one show at the Bordeaux prison. Lizotte was responding to the words of the main character of Farhoud’s novel, Le bonheur a la queue glissante, who observed, “My country is that place where my children are happy.”
Lizotte’s response to Farhoud is moving, as he seeks common ground while reflecting on his own life. It’s worth citing in full:
“Hello Abla, my name is J-P Lizotte. For the 21 years that I’ve been returning inside, prison has become my country. When I leave it, I become an immigrant! I experience all that an immigrant might experience when they miss their country of origin. When I’m inside, I want to leave. And when I’m outside, I miss the inside. Sometimes I say to myself, ‘If I had a grandmother or a grandfather, things would have been different for me.’ But how can you have a grandmother when you’ve hardly had either a mother or father. The memories that I have make me cry, so I won’t tell them to you. But, a grandmother, like the one in your novel, is not given to everyone. So, I say to everyone who has a grandmother or grandfather, take advantage of it. Thanks.”
(The French text of Lizotte’s note and other writings are available at: http://www.souverains.qc.ca/recidivi.html)
His fellow prisoners dubbed Lizotte the “Poet of Bordeaux,” and he wrote prolifically. His poems, in a rhyming and often humourous style, address deeply personal themes: his difficult childhood, his lack of a caring mother, his father’s alcoholism, depression, his HIV-positive status, his drug problems, along with subjects like music, prison and revolt. He even wrote an unpublished memoir about his itinerant life titled, Voler par amour, pleurer en silence.
Clearly, there are underlying and understandable reasons why Lizotte was in and out of prison for more than two decades, beyond the list of criminal offences that Stante’s lawyer provides, without context.
Lizotte lived a harsh reality, right from his childhood, as he shared in his poems and writings with simple honesty.
On Sept. 5, 1999, on a trendy and expensive part of St. Laurent Blvd., Lizotte’s reality came up against the contrasting reality of restaurant patrons, bouncers and police officers. Lizotte was allegedly causing some sort of disturbance, and he had to be restrained in a full-nelson hold and punched at least twice, according to Stante’s own testimony. (Some witnesses claim that Lizotte was punched “repeatedly” and excessively.) Witnesses said there was a pool of blood left at the scene. One witness referred to Lizotte being thrown into a police van “like a sack of potatoes.”
Stante was duly acquitted by a jury in 2002. Police officers are often acquitted – on the rare occasions that they’re charged – within a criminal-justice system that appropriately demands proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” before conviction.
But, what if there were a video of what happened outside the Shed Café in 1999, instead of the imperfect and contradictory memories of witnesses at 2:30 in the morning? What if JeanPierre Lizotte were present in the courtroom, in a wheelchair and paralyzed, in front of the jury’s own eyes?
At Stante’s trial and again in The Gazette’s pages, Stante’s lawyer put a dead man who can’t defend himself on trial. Lizotte openly acknowledged who he was. What’s unfortunate is to continue denying Jean-Pierre Lizotte – the homeless “criminal” – his full humanity and dignity, because he possessed both in such stunning abundance.