Ontario’s former attorney-general was charged with criminal negligence causing death after a tragic and bizarre encounter with Darcy Allan Sheppard on Bloor Street Monday night. Mr. Sheppard, a bike courier, apparently had an altercation with Michael Bryant, which somehow led to the latter driving down Bloor Street in the wrong lane with the former clinging to the car. Mr. Sheppard apparently slammed into a mailbox and fell from the car, the rear wheels of which then ran over him. Within a few minutes, Mr. Sheppard was taken to the hospital without vital signs, soon to be declared dead, and Mr. Bryant was calling the police.
What is the deeper meaning of the Michael Bryant case? With such a high-profile defendant, commentators of all kinds rushed to find some deeper lessons.
For me, the news on Tuesday morning explained the irritation of Monday night. I had been at Varsity Stadium for a late summer exhibition game on a perfect night for football. Who knew that a man was being dragged to his death just a block away? After the game our egress was frustrated as Bloor Street was blocked by a police cruiser. Such is urban life that a man’s death is experienced principally as a traffic annoyance. The next morning’s news made me feel guilty about that trivial irritation, now juxtaposed against the horror of what happened.
Is there more to it than that? Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities immediately came to mind, the novel that so expertly captured 1980s New York City. Wolfe’s story was built around a so-called “Master of the Universe” Sherman McCoy, a wealthy bond trader, who hits a young black man, Henry Lamb, and then leaves the scene. The undoing of McCoy by the accident and the attempted cover-up explores the political, racial and social tensions of New York.
The Bryant case has hints of that. The day after Mr. Sheppard’s death, bike couriers came to pay him homage at the scene of the alleged crime. Mr. Bryant, meanwhile, hired a public relations firm to handle the matter. Robin Sears, last seen doing spin for Brian Mulroney at the Schreiber inquiry, confirmed that his firm was on the Bryant case within hours of Mr. Sheppard being pronounced dead. Bike couriers vs. high-priced spin doctors. Bicycles vs. Mr. Bryant’s Saab convertible. A courier with a checkered past vs. a glamorous public official with a bright political future. Tom Wolfe could do something with this.
Yet it seems that truth is more complicated that fiction might be, and there are, at this stage, good reasons to believe that Mr. Bryant may well have feared assault and panicked into his ill-advised, and deadly, drive down Bloor Street. Sometimes an accident is just that, with terrible consequences. In a collision between car and bike, the car will always seem the (literal) heavy, but media reports suggest Mr. Sheppard may have been out looking for trouble. So it may well be true, according to the letter released by Mr. Bryant’s PR firm yesterday, that he is innocent.
Is there a lesson here about cars and bicycles and road infrastructure and Toronto’s urban planning? Many people have said that Mr. Sheppard’s death proves the need for better bicycle lanes to make cyclists safer. Perhaps, but I think there are few lessons of general applicability to be gleaned there.
Mr. Sheppard’s death is not required for people to learn that downtown Toronto is a terrible place to drive. I would not hold out much hope for change. After all, in Toronto the streetcar is thought of as a vehicle of the future rather than a relic of the past. Cyclists avoid the streetcar roads, lest they get stuck in the tracks. Which is just as well, because the streetcar system requires disgorging passengers directly into the path of oncoming traffic — a danger sufficient to keep one anxious without adding cyclists to the mix.
So what is the deeper meaning of the Michael Bryant case? Likely nothing, save to remind us that terrible things happen in the city for no good reason, and they happen right beside us, even on perfect nights for football.