By Neil Armstrong
Pride Contributing Writer
TORONTO, Ontario – A protest held outside the U.S. consulate in Toronto last week to show solidary for the family of black teenager, 18-year-old Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer who killed him, also shone a light on policing issues here in the city.
Rodney Diverlus, one of organizers of the “Black Lives Matter” protest, said what happened in Ferguson resonated in Toronto because “as black folks, especially young black people, we all know deep inside of us there is a general distrust of the police.”
He alluded to a number of situations that have evolved in Toronto, from the carding issue to the recent lawsuit against the police to the death of Jermaine Carby, resulting in hundreds – a mixed crowd comprising black, non-black people of colour and white — showing up on November 25 outside the consulate.
Carby, 33, was shot and killed during a traffic stop in Brampton on September 25 by a Peel Regional Police officer.
Wearing black and shouting “Black bodies under attack, what do we do? We fight back,” many protesters carried placards with messages such as “Toronto Stands With Ferguson” and “Our Skin: No Target Practice.”
“This has been boiling up for a while, in terms of our relationship with the Toronto police, especially TAVIS. So, for a lot of us it was really emotional because it’s a reminder that this situation is not in Ferguson alone but we, ourselves, are living in a state where state sanctioned violence by the police is impacted upon black bodies,” said the activist and former president of United Black Students Ryerson.
According to the police, the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) is an intensive, violence reduction and community mobilization strategy intended to reduce crime and increase safety in neighbourhoods.
Diverlus was with a group of ten friends watching the news last week when the decision not to indict Wilson was announced.
“Before we could even think about action and what next, folks were really emotional. We kind of just sat there silently because we all knew it was going to happen. There’s nothing that can prepare you for the realization that yes, 500 years later we’re still living in a state where black lives are still precarious. Black lives still don’t matter and our death and our lives are really just numbers in a particular system.”
Karen Tomlinson, a Pan Africanist, said she was there because she really felt it for African Americans.
“The 12-year-old child that got shot just a few days before that and just constantly being shut out and shut down in the system in a way that really takes away their dignity.”
She said she was there because police brutality and harassment happens in Canada as well.
“It’s part of the police force way of doing things,” she said, noting that police profile black people here and in the U.S.
Tomlinson said that the police come up with different names for the practice, which she likened to the passes that black South Africans had to show under apartheid.
“It’s almost like that, like we don’t belong. We’re not supposed to be on the street and we always have to account for where we’re going. Our bodies are constantly being policed, whether it’s an apartheid law or whether it’s carding or whether it’s profiling, our whereabouts have to be tracked all the time. This is what goes on when we’re in a predominantly white place where white people are ruling,” she said.
Rinaldo Walcott, director of the Women and Gender Studies Institute, and associate professor at the Department of Social Justice Education at OISE, University of Toronto was also at the protest.
He said the situation in Ferguson resonated here because people in Toronto have that history of police killing people and not having to face the criminal justice system in any shape or form.
“I think also that this particular case is so egregious and it’s so very clear that from the beginning, from the moment that Mike Brown was murdered in the streets of Ferguson that there was an attempt to make sure that no price would be paid by the person who murdered him. It was so clear; it’s so egregious that I think that any moral, ethical person would have to have some kind of response. I think that’s why it resonated with young black people in this city and their allies.”
Walcott thinks youth in Toronto feel that they are living the evidence of over policing as a daily reality.
“The idea that Mike Brown was stopped because he was walking in the street and told to get on the sidewalk. They are living with those micro forms of policing where they’re stopped just walking down the street on the sidewalk in their neighbourhoods. So, there is an intimate identification with everything that led up to it, everything during it and everything after,” he said.
Diverlus, a former president of the Ryerson Students’ Union, said whether black people are in Canada or the US, this could have happened here and it became the straw that led them to do something about it.
One week before the ruling, he and friends worked on a Facebook message about getting together and having an action to see what the reaction would be like.
The conversation was loose and they thought about what it could look like and what it could be.
“We told ourselves that 24 hours after the announcement was made we would have an action,” he said, noting that they tapped into their networks of student unions, community organizers and service agencies.
“It actually happened pretty seamlessly. We were hurt and then we were like, let’s get moving, let’s do it, and it was one of the most empowering ways of organizing that I think I’ve ever been a part of.”
Among those who spoke were La Tanya Grant, the cousin of Jermaine Carby, and a supporter of that case, and a queer and trans person.
Tomlinson said she wanted to hear from black men, saying they, more than anybody else, are affected by this.
She noticed that all the speakers were black women except for a non-black man who is supporting Grant in her cousin’s case.
She also observed that most of the protesters were not black which was a new phenomenon to her, especially having attended protests of police shootings of black people in the 90s, in which the majority of protesters were black.
However, Diverlus said it was important for organizers that when talking about police violence against black communities to include women and a voice that is never brought up – black trans people.
He said a high disproportionate number of trans people, particularly black trans people, face police violence and are not reported or talked about.
“In the U.S. a lot of the discourse is targeted solely on the experience of black men. And, while it really is important to talk about the ways that black men are demonized by the police, I think it’s actually all black bodies that are targeted by the police.”
He said black women are almost never believed in cases of sexual assault, their bodies are constantly taken advantage of and their experiences forgotten, and black trans people just don’t exist.
“Black trans people don’t exist in the statistics, black trans people are erased, often on the streets themselves and are constantly dealing with the police. So, for us, we really wanted to just broaden it because we believe that, at the end of the day, whether you’re man, you’re woman or you’re trans, our experiences are different but we all face state sanctioned violence by the police,” he said.
The organizers of the Toronto protest were students or people who graduated in the last eight years who are all 30 years old and under. They are artists, educators, community workers and students — all from different walks of life — who knew each other loosely and came together to organize the show of solidarity.
The associate professor said the women were tremendously impressive and the language that they used was of intersectional politics.
“They had trans people up front speaking, participating, gay and lesbian and bi people. They honoured the ancestors; you had various forms of black religious, spiritual practices present. They engaged in the honouring of the lands and so on, so it’s a different tenure, it’s a different group of people. They’re young, they are thoughtful, they’re smart and they are young black women taking up space and articulating what the movement will mean for them. That’s a good thing.”
Walcott said the young women put the Toronto Police Services on notice that they are not going to tolerate any more deaths or racial profiling at their hands. They did the same for Peel Regional Police and Toronto’s new mayor, John Tory.
Diverlus thinks carding leads to a dangerous thread of not only distrust for the police but aggression towards the police.
“So what we see in Toronto, I experience it; my black friends experience it. I’ve been carded numerous times, in that it’s me against you automatically and it’s not even doing anything. I’m walking to places, I’m going out with friends.”
He said carding also, unfortunately, turns people into statistics and puts black people into the system.
The outspoken activist said the lawsuits and Toronto seemingly moving away from carding is a realization that black folks, particularly black men in Toronto, are in the criminal justice system way too quickly and are entering at wrong and false assumptions.
On the matter of the qualities that the next Chief of Police should have as the Toronto Police Services Board searches for a replacement of Chief Bill Blair in 2015, Diverlus is not optimistic.
“My personal politics is that no matter what we put out there. The actual institution itself and the position itself automatically situate the person opposite the black, brown and indigenous bodies. I think that’s just history, that’s how the particular police institution is structured.”
He said it is better to have a non-racist than a racist and a candidate that demonstrates an acknowledgment that the police institution as its created and manifest itself right now is a racist institution.
Diverlus said a person can be idealistic and want to change it and they should but they have to come from the understanding that if they want to change it, they have to change it because it’s racist and stop denying it.
He would like the next chief to have some experience in community work, proactive restorative justice, as opposed to punitive, and community rehabilitation. He wouldn’t mind seeing someone of colour in the top position as well.
Tomlinson said she has no faith in the system regarding the selection of the new police chief.
“It is the police services; their very identity, their very reason of being seems to be to oppress and to hold down and to keep black people in their place.”
She said Obama as president will not go against the status quo and a new chief of police will not go against the status quo but will uphold it.
“I can’t fool myself and say I would like to see a chief that would put an end to racial profiling or carding. I would like to see a chief that comes down harder on officers that have numerous complaints. I can say that but I feel that it’s wishful thinking.”
Walcott said that we live in this city that likes to boast about its diversity and its multiculturalism and so on.
He anticipates that there will be a lot of rhetoric around that, community policing, and maybe its time for a chief of colour, for the next police chief.
“But if there are no serious discussions around reforming the police, it doesn’t matter who sits in that seat. If we don’t have a chief who can walk in that position and work with the Toronto Police Services Board, and, in fact say to them, I don’t want to be chief of this city if carding continues to be a practice, even if it is the receipts. I don’t want to be chief of a police services that is premised upon racial profiling. If you don’t have those kinds of conversations, I couldn’t care less about the size of the police budget.”
He said the budget is being used to target poor black people and people of colour.
Meanwhile, the Urban Alliance on Race Relations says it stands in solidarity with people in Ferguson, Missouri, and people worldwide who are protesting for fairness and accountability in policing and in the justice system.
“UARR works in Toronto on emerging issues; we are not experts on U.S. law. However, anti-black racism is a social issue and is common in both the U.S. and in Canada; our respective histories, political landscape and justice systems provide a different context,” said Gary Pieters, president.
It said people are protesting in Ferguson, and in other parts of the U.S. and here in Toronto because there are disturbing patterns that illustrate that non-white citizens and residents are more vulnerable to state violence than white citizens and residents.
The UARR has been involved in race relations issues since 1975, often working in the area of policing to hold police accountable for bias.
Currently, its focus is Toronto Police Services Community Contact policy, commonly known as ‘carding’ – which has been found to be a form of racial profiling. A small proportion of Toronto’s population is “known to police” as a result of multiple police contacts, where personal information is taken, without any reason that is related to a crime.
“Too often, black and brown youth are considered dangerous when they are not; or criminalized when crisis intervention is a better solution; over scrutinized in almost any civic encounter. Walking or driving while black, or being followed in a store because you are black – these are real experiences, not paranoia. Discriminatory policing shames and diminishes us all when some people are more vulnerable to police action – from carding to lethal force – just because of the colour of their skin.
Black lives matter does not mean that only black people care, or that only the black community is concerned – this should be everyone’s concern, because we are all in this society together, and police services exist for all of us,” said Pieters.
Meanwhile, on December 2, the Toronto Police Service held a forum with Dr. Phillip Goff from the Center for Policing Equity (CPE), which is based out of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) at City Hall.
Dr. Goff is an associate professor of social psychology at UCLA and is also the co-founder and president of the CPE, a renowned research institute which focuses on collaborations between law enforcement agencies and empirical social science.
He and his organization have been retained to conduct an audit of the recommendations contained within the Police and Community Engagement Review (PACER), which are all expected to be implemented by the end of 2016.
Since March 2012, the service has been undertaking a review of the way in which it engages with the community.
It was initiated by Chief Blair, in response to growing concerns by individuals, public groups, and organizations in the community, that the police were unfairly targeting some people.
There were also growing concerns about the nature of the information being gathered, what was being done with that information, and how that information might affect an individual.