After Ferguson: Defend the dead

| November 27, 2014
Photo: Rebel Sage

Black people across North America are living in a state of emergency. It has been a long and unbroken state of emergency.

In every instance that something called change or progress occurs other factors quickly arrive to maintain the state of emergency. From the ongoing conditions of poverty, to substandard and unequal educational opportunities, to unemployment and underemployment, to over policing and death -- each day black people are reminded our lives do not matter.

In the wake of Ferguson the insistence that "Black Lives Matter" is the desire to draw attention to the very conditions that seek to make black life an impossible life in North America.

Defend the dead

On Tuesday night, hundreds of Torontonians gathered in support and solidarity with the citizens of Ferguson and indeed to make the links with there and here. The night's protest was largely lead by young black women and was an inspiring example of what is foreclosed when an entire structure does not value so many of us.

Think of what forms of innovation those young women could have spent that time performing if they lived in a supportive environment that valued them fully? If they did not have to devote their time to insisting along with their now long gone ancestors that black life matters?

The intellectual talent on display Tuesday night could be better used for all of humankind had it not had to be called on to yet again to "defend the dead" as Nourbese Phillip has put it.

Significantly, young black people, especially black women, are never credited for their creative and innovative contributions in our culture, but instead are continually seen as a problem for the culture, ridiculed, disappeared and reviled.

Defend the dead

But from music to dance to fashion young black people are creators and innovators and the secret drivers of much of the cultural economy. And yet they are systematically shut out of it when it is monetized.

If you listen to pop music of any genre, young black people are at its creative font. If you dress in "urban casual," young black people are its cool inspiration. If you have a desire for dramatic hairstyles, young black women beat you to it and have been at it for a while now. If you now wear large earphones for your subway commute, who do you think began the trend?

And yet, in case after case young black peoples' creative energies are used against them, initially criminalized and demonized, until monetized and sold to others. Indeed, such practices are not so far removed from the black flesh sold as a slave-commodity.

We live in a culture that will cannibalize and monetize young black peoples' creative innovations and simultaneously kill them for those same creative innovations with impunity. Make no doubt about that.

Defend the dead

The litany of young black people murdered in the streets of North America at the hands of the police simply cannot continue. To allow this "normal" to set in is to make clear a logic of genocide has been launched at black people in this historical moment. Make no doubt about that either.

Tuesday night, the young women put the Toronto Police Service "on notice" that they will no longer tolerate deaths at their hands. In the bedroom suburb of Peel, they put that police service on notice too. Reminding us of the profound silence in this province around the police killing of Jermaine Carby in Peel, Toronto met Ferguson only too intimately.

The young women detailed the over-policing of black and people of colour neighbourhoods and they demanded that racial profiling come to end, right now.

The desire to curb racial profiling has been one of the central demands coming from black communities since the 1970s in the city of Toronto. Incredibly the late Jennifer Hodge De Silva's Home Feeling: The Struggle for a Community (1983) and Dionne Brand's Sisters in the Struggle (1991) are still relevant documents of black peoples' struggles with over policing and death at the hands of police. The issues those films document are practices still fully operational today - now 30 years later. Taken together those two films offer deep insights into the historical conditions of how policing has shaped and continues to shape black life in Toronto, and indeed across Canada.

Defend the dead

The Toronto Star has lead two significant investigations of Toronto Police Services (TPS) racial profiling. "Race Matters" (2002) and "Known to Police" (2013) are two Star investigations that demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt who is targeted by over-policing in the city of Toronto -- poor black and brown people, mostly men but not exclusively so.

In each of those investigations using the TPS' own data the Star has found significant targeting of black men and men of colour.

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's police. The evidence was so glaringly negative that it has led to the implementation of lukewarm changes.

Maybe one day the Star will find a way to do a similar study specifically on black women and women of colour. But it would suffice to say that very seldom do we get the evidence of how women are forced to live both with the same levels of police harassment, and also manage the aftermath for themselves and the remainder of their families when it impacts the men in their lives.

Again, black women's work or labour goes missing, especially when it is a benefit to all of us.

Defend the dead

The TPS and its oversight board, the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSD) have not been able to disprove the Star's excellent analysis of their own data. In fact, in the face of the overwhelming evidence of the problem the TPSD issued new guidelines for carding.

Recent reports however, reveal that in the Northwest of the city the TPS has refused to enforce the new rules for carding. The new rules require officers give a receipt to the citizens they stop for questioning and require them to have a justifiable reason, meaning an investigative reason, for the stop. It is understood that the police have refused to implement these practices.

Indeed, the TPS can only be described as going rogue, along with its leadership, Chief William Blair, in refusing to abide by the new carding guidelines. As David Tanovich writes in the Star, the only response is to abolish carding altogether. But something else is at stake as well. Chief Blair's refusal to enforce and or sanction officers for not implementing the policy demonstrates that police forces are entities unto themselves. Blair's defiance can be understood as a demand that police see themselves as at war with poor communities.

Defend the Dead

In an era of declining crime, increased inequality and more severe spatial separations of the rich and the poor, the police have increasingly become crucial to maintaining how we experience inequality.

In cities like Chicago, Michigan Avenue's shopping district has so many police lining it that one might mistake them as shoppers in uniform or store greeters. It is not too far fetched to say that cities in Canada are headed that way too.

In fact we can see the beginning of such practices on the East Side of Vancouver and on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg as well and as the Pan Am Games approach in areas Southeast of Toronto. Indeed these are global patterns and trends. In the Vancouver and Winnipeg cases it is Aboriginal peoples who must maneuver life around harsh police practices.

Make no mistake the police, as a sub-military force, now understands its own existence to be built on the premise of keeping the poor as far away as possible from the wealthy. Indeed, it is significant then that police budgets increase as inequality increases and as our leading cities elect very wealthy men to run them.

Those millionaire and billionaire mayors have a vested interest in police forces that over-police the poor and contain them in communities far from the wealthy. We are about to get a bigger dose of this in Toronto once John Tory takes office December 1.

Defend the dead

The question of policing budgets should not be posed in the context of the drop in crime but rather with its realignment with protecting the rich from the have-nots, a significant element of the history of modern policing.

We need broad based discussions about the future of modern policing and what it is really for.

We need to imagine a time when police are not needed. In the interim we need to disarm the police.

We must require police to work in communities they live in and make them accountable to communities they police.

We need to work towards forms of being in community where conflict is resolved within communities and where resolution is not necessarily oriented towards punishment.

These ways of being are not beyond us, indeed these ways of being are shared by many among us.

We need only recognize and acknowledge that such knowledge exists and the practice is doable.

In essence, any moral and ethical society willing to confront the deeper reasons why policing exist at all would be working towards its abolition.

Defend the dead

I say all of the above because in my mind I make no distinction between the wars waged outside Canada and those waged by the police on poor black and people of colour in our and their neighbourhoods.

In the decade  Stephen Harper has been in government (and even before that) there is not a war overseas that he has not desired to be a part of. And in that same decade the number of black people in prisons has risen by 80 per cent.

Indeed the future looks rather scary for black people in Toronto once John Tory takes office, while Harper still hold power. We saw a glimpse of what is to come when Mayor-elect Tory recently had much to say about the Uber licensing policy issues but nothing on the carding issue and not much on the question of poverty. Poverty in Toronto is experienced most acutely by the very demographic that the TPS now target as well -- poor black and people of colour.

I would have to put my head in the sand not to notice that the Canadians state, on every level, is at war with black people and poor people. Tuesday night the young women put John Tory and Stephen Harper on notice too. Will you stand with them? I know I will.

Defend the Dead.


Rinaldo Walcott is the Director of Women and Gender Studies and an Associate Professor at the Department of Social Justice Education at OISE University of Toronto.  

All photos courtesy of Photo: Rebel Sage



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