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Ferguson: Not so far away


Picture this: it's about midnight, and two black men are walking up the street in their neighbourhood after enjoying a meal out.

Up ahead in the distance, four young white men, guitars on their backs and shoulders, are walking on the street. The two black men notice a Toronto Police Services car coming south towards them. The car passes the young white men, but as it approaches the two black men, it slows down deliberately. The two officers look at the black men, making sure the men see their stare, as they continue to drive slowly down the street.

My partner and I now regularly receive this watchful drive-by from police. It is the precursor to being stopped, questioned, carded, possibly frisked, and maybe even accused of something. Policing violence does not just begin with a gun drawn and discharged; it begins with the assumption of who is already a suspect and a criminal. It begins with profiling.

And for some of us, just being out on the street places us in the category of suspect and criminal.

The fatal shooting of an unarmed black youth, Michael Brown, by police and the resultant protests in Ferguson, Missouri, are watched from a distance in Canada. The festering ‘racial’ tensions often interpreted as something remote and inapplicable to Canadians. As I watch from afar, however, I know only too well that racially motivated police violence is very real and present in Canada, that the experience in Ferguson is not so far away.

In urban areas like Toronto, racism and classism inflect standard police practices. Two groups of people in particular carry the designation of ‘already suspect and criminal:’ black and Aboriginal people. And the younger they are the more tightly the designation fits them.

The Toronto Star has lead two significant investigations of police racial profiling. In each of those investigations -- using the police’s own data -- the Star has found significant targeting of black men and men of color. The Toronto Police Services and its oversight civilian board has not been able to disprove the Star’s analysis of the data.

In the most recent investigation on carding, the evidence pointed directly to the overwhelming stops and questioning that black men in particular experience at the hands of Toronto police. The numbers were so glaring, that some (lukewarm) changes will be implemented soon. The changes consist of eliminating race and age as reasons to stop and card unless acting from a description of a suspect; carding for unsubstantiated suspicion is no longer allowed; and receipts must be given out when police interact with those carded.

But whether these changes can actually curb racial profiling is doubtful. Significantly, the Star also broke a story, about four young men who asserted their rights not to be stopped and questioned by the police only to be assaulted by the police and have a gun drawn on them all captured on CCTV. Therefore, while activists have correctly responded to community policing tactics like carding by running workshops on rights when interacting with police, simply asserting those rights can often lead to police violence.

Canadians became privy to the experience that many black, Aboriginal and poor people endure during the G8/G20 summit when various police forces took over the city and suspended the collective rights of those of us who took to the streets to protest. The G8/G20 summit was an awakening for many who are not subject to the police roving through their neighborhoods everyday. Many were shocked to have their rights summarily withdrawn by booming, aggressive police who insisted on unwarranted searches and wielded military-grade weapons.

The G8/G20 experience was less shocking for those of us who are used to being targeted. As debates about the militarization of American police forces and targeting of African-Americans has resurfaced in the wake of Ferguson, I’ve thought often of the impact of TAVIS (Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy) on Toronto’s marginalized communities.  

I often watch from my balcony as TAVIS rides through my neighbourhood randomly stopping people, searching them and then sending them on their way, for no apparent reason. TAVIS is also a unit of policing that roams (they say “patrols”) poor, working-class and quickly gentrifying neighbourhoods looking for acts of “street crime” like petty drug dealing. TAVIS can be seen as a localized element of a broader, and dubious, war on drugs -- a war now recognized as wholly racialized and as having achieved little more than increased prison populations of black, Aboriginal and men of colour in Canada.

Any keen observer of policing cannot but not recognize that modern policing reinforces particular inequalities. It protects the property and the wealth of those who have it and keeps those dispossessed in their places of dispossession. Such a stark reality means that minor reforms to policing will never produce the kind of change we need. 

Toronto, like Ferguson, is not an anomaly when it comes to racialized policing of certain groups. Indeed, Aboriginal men in Saskatoon have been “dumped outside the city” and left to freeze to death by police officers who took them there. And of course there is the current anger over multiple police services ongoing disinterest in thorough investigations into missing and murdered indigenous women. Add to that history Aboriginal deaths in custody and the story becomes unbearable.

All of these practices scream out for significant change not just reform, for a full and total transformation of the institution of policing. Policing is only one node in a judicial system that was not conceived as a mode of justice for Aboriginal peoples and black peoples in the Americas. For these communities, the criminal justice system is a significant aspect of the oppressive nature of contemporary life and there is no doubt that contemporary and historical policing practices send a strong message of whose rights (and lives) matter and why.

Many of us in the black community have parents who raised us with some notion that the police must and should be trusted. Too many of us know that our interactions with police teach us otherwise. Whenever I hear noise at a certain level in the street or the lane way behind my building, I run to my balcony with phone in hand ready to record the police violations of peoples' right to just be.  But as I do so, I do it with the sober reality that the two-sides of the “dispute” always only favours one-side, that of the police.

If Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson is to stand for something, let it stand at least for questioning police everywhere.

Rinaldo Walcott is a Broadbent Policy Fellow and Associate Professor of Humanities, Social Sciences and Social Justice Education at OISE University of Toronto.

Photo: Chris Huggins.  Used under a creative commons BY-2.0 license.