By Ajamu Nangwaya, Ph.D.
As a member of the African-Canadian community, I am quite puzzled by the exuberant display of irrationality and misplaced expectations by some African-Canadians over the possibility of the appointment of either Deputy Chief Peter Sloly or Deputy Chief Mark Saunders as the next chief of the Toronto Police Service (TPS).
Peter Sloly’s candidacy for this position recently received a ringing and enthusiastic endorsement from the Share newspaper, the weekly publication with the highest circulation in Toronto’s African-Canadian community.
The African Canadian Legal Clinic (ACLC), an organization that owes its existence to the May 1992 Yonge Street Uprising against anti-African police violence, has also offered its unbridled support to both Deputy Chiefs Sloly and Saunders as worthy candidates to replace Police Chief Bill Blair.
The appeal to personal experience of racism as an indicator of the future anti-racism performance of an African person in a position of power is a discredited but often repeated one. The late poet and educator Maya Angelou made the same erroneous claim in her 1991 support for the nomination of the rabid conservative Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court.
On social media platforms and other community spaces, it is the African-Canadian petty bourgeois elements who are loudly clamouring or serving as cheerleaders for the respective candidacies of Sloly and Saunders. As always, the voices and interests of the African-Canadian working-class are axed from the conversation.
It is quite likely that these middle-class actors see the elevation of Sloly or Saunders into the chair of the police chief as a positive indicator of their prospects for integration into the Canadian Dream or as a role model for young African-Canadians.
These social climbing characters are infatuated with celebrating the “first Black” this and the “first Black” that, as if they are the measurement of a substantive change in the economic, social and political condition of working-class African-Canadians.
However, if we survey the heavily racialized, working-class neighbourhoods of Jane and Finch, Malvern, Lawrence Heights, Kingston-Galloway, and Jamestown, African youth will not be worrying over the professional fate of Sloly or Saunders as police chief aspirants.
They would be more interested in the deputy chiefs’ record fighting racial profiling and its unjust channeling of Africans into the prison industrial complex.
Deputy Chief Sloly once held a senior management position at 31 Division that patrols the Jane and Finch community. African people still had complaints about undue acts of police violence during his tenure as an Inspector at 31 Division.
Racial profiling by way of carding enjoys widespread opposition and disapproval within the community. Many African-Canadian groups and individuals are calling for an end to this practice of stopping, questioning and documenting information from civilians in non-criminal encounters.
In spite of the racist impact of carding on the African-Canadian community, Deputy Chief Sloly is opposed to ending it. He asserts in a Toronto Life interview, “I’m trying to reform it. The Police Act requires us to interact with the public. Carding provides data on who’s being stopped and by which officers.”
Saunders is a strong defender of carding and claims that it is not indiscriminately targeting African-Canadians and others, “It’s intelligence-led. So you’re not ever going to have a unit commander say we need you to identify every single type of person. It is going to be based upon what criminal activities are happening in that neighbourhood.”
Carding should be confined to the “Museum of Outdated Social Contraptions” by the top brass. It ought to give emphasis to measures that would terminate the jobs of cops who engage in racial profiling and other acts of police violence.
Many of us within Toronto’s African-Canadian community need a more sophisticated political analysis and understanding of race, power and co-optation in an institutionally racist society.
To what extent are we realistically expecting an African-Canadian police chief to be more committed to fighting institutional racism than a white one? Deputy Chiefs Peter Sloly and Mark Saunders have not made it this far up the organizational ladder, because of their tendency to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Furthermore, merely having an African-Canadian person at the helm will not end police brutality or mend the community’s relations with the force.
For a sobering dose of reality about race, class and policing, we may look at the behaviour of the police in major American cities that have or had African-American police chiefs or at police violence in global South countries such as Nigeria, South Africa, Brazil, Haiti, Kenya and Jamaica.
We ought to have learned something from our unreserved political excitement and support for Barack Obama and his “change we can believe in” bill of goods! It is the organized power and resistance of the people that will serve as the antidote to police violence.
Ajamu Nangwaya is an educator and organizer. He is an organizer with the Toronto-based Network for the Elimination of Police Violence.