A City in Mourning

In 2006 Windsor Police Constable John Atkinson was shot and killed during a botched drug deal in the city’s East side. He was the first officer in the force’s history to be killed in the line of duty. His memorial was held on the campus at the University of Windsor. Left with knowing I had to cover it, but knowing I’d never get the access to do a straight news report, all I could do was bear witness. This piece appeared in the May 17 edition of The Lance.

They call it pathetic fallacy: the suggestion that nonhuman phenomena react to human emotions.

It’s considered cliché in literature, but it’s hard not to believe in it today, bracing against a blistering wind and pacing the rainslicked curb of College Avenueacross from the St. Denis Centre.

Inside, thousands have gathered to say their final goodbyes to Constable John Atkinson.

Outside, we silently replay the last week in our heads: 37-years-old, father of two, suspected drug deal, 18-year-old suspects, first officer murdered in the history of the force; we try and descramble the details until they make sense.
The mourning is not limited to this stretch of road. Memorials have been erected across the city, from flowers left at the intersection where he was killed, to the blue banners draped across the windows of local businesses.

On College, children from a nearby school display signs bearing messages of gratitude and remembrance. The kids still giggle occasionally, crack jokeswhen teachers aren’t looking. They’re welcome gusts of innocence for a city worried its own may be lost.

Most people along the street are silent. What little conversation there is remains limited to speculation on when and where the procession will begin.
To my right one voice, smoke weathered and raspy, cuts through the howl of the wind, “He was just a cop, it’s not like he was the mayor or the president or anything.”

Just a cop. A grim reminder of how much we take our police for granted, and a statement on the tenuous relationship between class and courtesy.

Walking to the west entrance of the centre, passing a row of over 80 police motorcycles lining College like dominoes. A symbol of how the country has mobilized to support us, the bikes provide a roll call: London, Toronto, Hamilton, Peel, O.P.P., New York, Detroit.

Inside, these cities and others from across the continent hear tributes from dignitaries and receive comfort from clergy.

Outside, more have gathered along the curb, including a small throng of journalists tentatively looking for the prime spot to record the procession when it leaves.

Two city buses arrive, delivering groups of young students; classmates of Atkinson’s children, in yellow and green rain ponchos, holding balloons.

As bagpipe music fills the air, two large masses of officers emerge from both sides of the building. The out of towners file onto the street from the western exit, the Windsor Police from the east.

We examine the faces of the men and women in front of us, in their formal dress. There is grief in their eyes, but there is also pride, a determination to always remember what they lost, but never be crippled by it. There is power in their strength, and it will be needed, both by a city left to mourn when the media spotlight moves on, and most importantly by a wife and children who lost something irreplaceable.

The pipers begin again, barely stifling the roar of the motorcycles starting down the street.

Orders are barked out, and the officers start to march. Hundreds pass by, all wearing the same expression: the resolution that if they can do nothing else, they have to keep marching. We take solace in their every step.

As the vehicles containing Atkinson and his family enter the procession, the children let go of their balloons, as six white doves are released into the air. One of the doves lands on the roof of the limo containing Atkinson’s wife and children. Those who need to take it as a symbol.

As the procession moves down College and out of sight, we slowly file away, back to our lives. The day will fade in our minds, but we will never stop struggling with the knowledgethat we now live in a place where cops can get gunned down in the streets in broad daylight.

God help us, we’ll never forget it.


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