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Rob Ford and the truth about privilege


Renowned lawyer Clayton Ruby’s intervention into the Rob Ford spectacle got me thinking about the ways in which this civic mess has unfolded. Namely, it has brought into focus how privilege continues to be accrued unfairly to certain individuals and communities and not others in Canadian society.

Toronto Police Chief William Blair’s announcement concerning the recovery of the infamous video came just as a judge’s ruling on disclosure of the warrant became public. Some of what has been revealed in those documents is more damning than the reality of the video. The video vindicates the reporters and the Toronto Star in particular. However, the documents raise a whole other set of issues and concerns, ones that are bigger than Rob Ford and the specifics of his actions and represent a far more troubling, systemic scandal.

The revealed documents strike at the heart of how and who is given respect, the benefit of the doubt, and a thorough attempt to make sure that no mistakes are made when they are a “suspect” in an investigation. Anyone who pays close attention to urban life and policing would find it difficult to understand why the police had not intervened with Ford earlier given what the documents have thus far revealed. We all know that police constantly stop, question and card young black people and aboriginal people with less evidence of suspicious activity than the warrant documents concerning Ford and Lisi reveal.

So why didn’t the police intervene with Ford earlier?

Of course some will say that given this is the Mayor of the city that the measures police took are justified. I would say that all of us should be accorded the same level attention as has been afforded Ford by the police services in their investigation.

Looking at the police decision from my vantage point it appears that Ford has been afforded a different measure of policing. It is a measure of policing that most poor and working class people never get. It is a measure of policing that is definitely not practiced in my neighborhood. In fact, I often look off my balcony and watch police officers stop, question and search people only to then send them on their way. Often I wonder what they saw that caused them to interrupt that person’s day.

Police can use the flimsiest of suspicion to stop, question, and search. In the Ford case a different perception of policing is evident. It appears that there are different laws, different ethical standards and different moral stances for those who are wealthy, white and male. Taken together such behavior casts significant doubt on how policing works for some communities vis-à-vis other communities and for some people versus others.

The Ford case points very clearly to differential policing. It appears that some communities and therefore some individuals are fundamentally understood as always already suspicious and therefore criminal, while others are given the benefit of the doubt, and when there is doubt, a full and robust investigation. Such different practices for different people, especially differently racialized people, demonstrate that policing works to serve and protect particular people and communities and to contain other communities and people.

More significantly, the attitude that Chief Blair demonstrated with the Ford investigation is one that strikes much more deeply and broadly across this city and our society. When Chief Blair’s TAVIS (Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy) makes it raids in mainly poor, black and people of colour communities, all kinds of people are swept up in the arrests because of their proximity at the time of the raids. Were it to end there, one might say such is the nature of policing. However, what is equally disturbing is the manner in which police and media appear to cohere in such events. Police arrive to do their sweep and media arrive to document and report. Indeed entire families are often shown trying to make sense of the raid and its immediate devastating consequences and no one seems to care whether or not those not involved will be damaged by the media coverage and exposure. Such raids clearly demonstrate one moment where the media and the police appear in sync. And it is precisely such moments that further stigmatize communities and re-enforce the idea that crime, criminal behavior and other forms of illegal activities are associated with certain communities and their residents.

It was interesting to me when I read a tweet by a journalist asking her colleagues to give Ford a break while he enjoyed Halloween with his children. The tweet got my attention because it asked for an exception that is never granted the poor, working class, black and other people of colour when they become embroiled in public events. However when white politicians, and even wealthy public figures run into trouble as is evident with Mayor Ford, some journalists are quick to remind each other about not covering family.

This double standard is quite problematic for a number of reasons. Politicians often use their families as elements of their public persona and most expressly in their election campaigns. I am sure that last night Ford was also sending a message with his trick or treat outing. So why is it acceptable for poor and working class families to be accorded no “privacy” in matters of policing and media, but a different standard be imposed for white, male politicians and their families?

It is precisely such contradictions evident in both policing and media practices that demonstrate the ways in which equality remains a deep and profound fiction in our society. Until poor and working class people, especially black, aboriginal and other people of colour can count on all the institutions to treat them in the same manner as the wealthy, the white and male are treated, our society will remain still-born in terms of the claims of democracy, equality and justice. What we are witnessing with the outcome of this civic fiasco is a naked form of how white privilege works.

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

Photo: blmurch. Used under a Creative Commons BY-2.0 licence.