By Mark Brown
PRIDE Guest Columnist
It is the spring of 1990. A hard winter is on its way out and I was looking forward to exchanging the big winter coat for the long shorts and matching shirt that I had bought in a shop at Eglington and Oakwood, at the end of the previous summer.
I recall thinking about how good the shorts set would look with my high-top Bobby Brown/New Edition cameo hair style with a fade at the back. That was the must-have hairstyle for young Black males at that time.
I was 18 years old and I had just graduated from high school in January of that same year and was planning to go to Humber College in the fall.
Without warning, my thoughts were interrupted by my father’s voice saying, “Son, you have finished school now, so you are going to work. There is work at the post office.”
What the……..? would have likely been the next thought in my head.
I dare not be so bold as to say that out loud, because anyone who has grown up with West Indian parents knows, that if you are a boy, being 18 years old does not make you too big for a good spanking.
I had worked several warehouse jobs, part-time, after school, through agencies, so I had some idea of how the job market worked at that time. The general rule, as I understood it was, if the job paid a decent wage and benefits they did not hire Black people.
For those companies that would hire Blacks, we were often the last ones hired and the first ones laid off. Knowing that, I was convinced there was no way that a big corporation like Canada Post would hire me.
I may get an interview with my British name (Mark Brown) but I believed, once they saw my face, it was game over.
Even though I was a young Black man, I knew that my British name gave me privilege – not White privilege, but some privilege. Unlike other names such as Kofi or Abdi I knew they would have to see me before they could discriminate against me.
My father went on to say, “Get dressed we are going to the Canada Post office on Yonge Sterrt, and you are going to fill out an application.”
While I was convinced that I had no chance of being hired, I knew better than to debate that with my father. The bottom line was, if I didn’t fill out the application, I would hear about it, daily, until I was age 40, so off we went.
I filled out the application, eventually I got an interview and, to my surprise, they hired me, on an on-call basis to work in their sorting plant on the midnight shift.
Could I have been wrong about my assessment? Has anti-Black racism ended and no one bothered to tell me?
I worked there every week night. It was not easy work, but it was honest work. I soon met other young Black workers, about my age, and we eventually started carpooling to and from work.
The summer months were traditionally the slow months and with less work, rather than lay us off, they would send us home early until the mail volume picked back up. We felt pain each time we saw our pay checks but at least we had a job.
Earlier I asked the question, “Has anti-Black racism ended and no one bothered to tell me?”
Well on this night, in particular, I received my answer; it was about 1:00 am in the middle of the week. The mail volume was low so the management sent all the on-call workers home.
Three of my co-workers, along with myself, got in two separate cars as we would carpool home. We were all young Black males and there were two of us in each car.
These were not new, or expensive, cars, (I am not suggesting that Black males in newer cars are a bad thing) but our cars would not have attracted much attention.
We pulled out of the parking lot on route to the highway and got about one block before seeing the familiar red cherries flashing in the rear view mirrors. It became apparent that a police car was pulling both of our vehicles over.
To put things in context, these were the days before the cell phone camera; before the days of the dashboard camera or the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) that is supposed to investigate police shootings of civilians.
I am not suggesting that the SIU is the saviour of the young Black man, but that may be the subject of a future article.
The point I am trying to convey is that it is his word against ours, no other witnesses and the officer will likely get away with whatever he chooses to do at that moment. Unfortunately, we know the routine all too well.
We pulled over, I turned on the interior lights, locked the doors, placed both hands on the steering wheel, or in plain sight, and I rolled down the driver’s side window just enough to talk to the officer, but not enough for him to reach in and grab me.
We were determined not to give him any excuse to justify whatever wrong he may choose to do that night. I watched in the side mirror as he walked up the driver’s side of the vehicle.
He is a White male in his thirties with a look that I would describe as the look of a good ol’ boy. The police force was not as diverse as it is today, especially where we were, in Peel Region.
“Where are you coming from?” he asked, while looking throughout the front and rear seats.
“Work,” I responded.
“Where are you going?”
“Home,” I replied without any expression on my face.
“Are you with the people in the other car also?”
“Yes,” I replied, “we are just coming from work.”
“Drivers licence, ownership and insurance” he said, with an authoritative voice.
“Is there a reason you pulled us over?” I asked.
“Routine check,” he stated, with a smirk, as he took my paperwork and went back to the car.
Soon after, he returned, gave me back the papers and sent us on our way. What was that about? I say to the passenger in the car with me as we drive away.
Then the revelation hits us, like a sea of rushing water. The officer saw four young Black men driving, one behind the other, in two separate cars. That was more than enough justification for the infamous “routine check”.
A few months pass and it is now the fall of 1990. It is about 11:00 pm and I’m on my way into work for the midnight shift. I arrive at the same intersection as I was when I was pulled over this past summer.
I stop at the red light, which remained red for some time. There are cars in the lane beside me and behind me also stopped at the red light. As the light turns green, I slowly accelerate before seeing the familiar red cherry’s flashing in the rear view mirror.
I was not aware that the headlights shining from the car behind me was that of a police car. Here I go again. I still know the routine far too well and this time I’m alone in the car.
I pull over, I turn on the interior lights, lock the doors, place both hands on the steering wheel and I role down the driver’s side window just enough to talk to the officer but not enough for him to reach in and grab me.
Once again, I watch in the mirror as the officer walks up the driver’s side of the car, looking throughout the rear and front of the vehicle’s interior on his way to the driver’s side window. This time it’s a different officer who is also a white male in his late 20s or early 30s.
“Drivers’ licence, ownership and insurance,” he says.
“Is there a reason you pulled me over?” I ask, as I give him my paperwork?”
He looks at me and says with a smirk, similar to the smirk of the officer who pulled me over previously, “You stopped at the red light but when the light turned green you took too long before you drove off”.
I felt like my bottom jaw fell into my lap. I was shocked. Not that he would accuse me of accelerating too slow on a green light, but rather that he didn’t appear to feel the need to come up with a half believable reason for pulling me over.
Like the previous officer, he reviewed my paperwork and let me go.
While these were two examples of me getting the “routine check”, there were several other times that I received the “routine check”. I spent many days and nights wondering why, besides me being Black, that these officers kept singling me out for a “routine check”.
Eureka! I have the answer (so I thought). Yes it is because I am Black.
That was a given however, it is also because I am young. I wear my hair a certain way, I dress a certain way, and that was the reason for the “routine checks” (so I thought).
This meant that there would be a light at the end of the tunnel. This meant that when I became the age of my parents, which was mid-to-late-40’s, the police would not bother with me, as they would be busy harassing the next generation.
It was a terrible thought, however it appeared to be the reality at that time. After all, many of my peers were going through similar situations with the police and, as far as I knew, their parents were not.
Let’s advance the clock about 25 years. The year is now 2015.
I am now an elected officer with the Union at Canada Post and, equally important, I am now the age that my parents were.
As an elected officer, my job duties have now changed. Part of my job includes conducting educational seminars. Four times per year, I am responsible for bringing participants off-site and training them in things like human rights, health and safety, violence in the workplace, and more.
In order to do this, I would gather the education material, load it into a rental van and drive to the site. On this particular day, the rental company did not have any vans available so they gave me a Chevy Suburban. As long as everything fit, I was fine with that.
After loading the materials in the back, I started the drive to where the training would be held. The drive would be about an hour-and-a-half, so I pulled into the Tim Horton’s near my home for a coffee.
As I was walking into the door, also entering the doorway was a police man, in full uniform, who had just exited an unmarked police vehicle. You could tell by his demeanour that this was not a rookie officer. This officer had seniority and, just like the others, was a White male but this time, middle-aged.
We both arrived in the doorway at the same time.
I don’t recall if he held the door open for me or if I held the door open for him but, one of us held the door open and our eyes met as we passed through the doorframe.
With a serious face and a firm voice I said, “Good morning. How are you today?”
The officer looked over at the new Suburban I just got out of and, without knowing it was a rental, looked at me and said, “I don’t know as I have to work for a living”.
Then he turned and walked away to the bathroom.
To me the implication was clear. In order for me, now a middle-aged Black man to drive that vehicle I must be a drug dealer.
He did not see that I was the second highest ranking elected union official within my union in all of Toronto.
He did not see that I had been working for the same employer for 25 years. He did not see that the vehicle he used to judge me was a rental.
All he saw was my Black face and that was enough to justify the hate.
Then just like the revelation that hit my passenger and I, in 1990, a second revelation hit me again, like a sea of rushing water. One cannot outgrow anti-Black racism.
Anti-Black racism is racism that specifically targets the Black community. The anti-Black racism that I experience, I experience as a man however, I feel compelled to ask the question, “What if I was a woman?”
What if I experienced anti-Black racism and misogyny?
What if I was a Black woman of visible faith, like a Muslim woman wearing a Hijab, or a Rastafarian woman with visible dreadlocks?
What if I was a transsexual or differently-abled Black woman?
One can only imagine what the various Black lives, at these life intersections, go through on a daily basis.
What I am certain of is, that All the Black Lives Matter.
Today “The Routine Check” is called Carding.
This is the police practice of stopping people (disproportionately Black males) and recording their information, even though they may not be suspected of committing a crime.
While the practice itself has been suspended, pending new provincial regulations, there is growing concern that any future law banning the practice may be loop-holed by the officer saying the words, “You fit the description”.
It’s a term that young Black men know all too well. In doing so, the practice that was once called a “routine check”, then “carding”, may soon be called an investigation.
Mark Brown is the Chair of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council’s Equity Committee, a member of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionist (CBTU) and a member of the Toronto Local of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000658149978