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Changing public institutions also requires changing the people who build and maintain them

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Police officer at a Toronto Black Lives Matter demonstration in June, 2020. Image: Mitchel Raphael

At age eight, I moved from Ghana to a remote Indigenous community in northern Manitoba, where my mother had taken a job. I had little command of English and no exposure to people other than Black Africans. Along with my western education came exposure to media and entertainment. 

I quickly came to believe that Black people in the U.S. occupied a separate space than white Americans -- the former group characterized by poverty, crime, addiction and limited opportunity. The Black population in my Manitoba community consisted of my mother, brother and me, but we saw ourselves as African, not "Black." Police activity in that tiny reservation almost always involved Indigenous people. 

When my family moved to northern B.C. after my mother took a new job there, I saw that the dynamic between police and Indigenous people remained the same. As I became acclimatized to life in Canada, I drew the same conclusions about Indigenous people in my community as I did about African Americans. 

Like most white people in those rural Canadian communities, I saw police as trusted civil servants who kept me safe. Back then, I didn't consider the fact that Black people in the U.S. and Indigenous people in Canada were dying at the hands of police and what that said about how our lives are valued. That might explain why when my elementary class did an art project where we traced silhouettes of our faces, and my teacher singled mine out as particularly ugly, I confusedly joined in the laughs. It was a joke that everyone, but me, understood.  

While attending university in Quebec in the late '90s, I came out and began finding a place among the LGBTQ+ community. One cold Friday evening, I sat excited in the passenger seat of a new Volvo SUV as my friend drove us to Montreal. We decided to treat ourselves to a weekend away and he had rented the car for the occasion.

As we entered downtown Montreal, we were suddenly surrounded by three police cruisers, sirens blaring, lights flashing. Two officers emerged from each cruiser with their guns drawn. Some were shouting in French while others pointed. 

They handcuffed my friend and me and shoved us forcefully into the back of separate police cars. At the precinct, I was processed and made to remove my shoelaces and belt. I stumbled into a jail cell, where I remained until Sunday afternoon. An officer attempted to interrogate me, first accusing me of random crimes, apparently hoping that one would stick. I had to remind him that being gay is not a crime in Canada. 

No charges were laid and I received no explanation for why I was detained. That Sunday night, I was driven in the locked back seat of a police cruiser to a bus station where I made my way home to Sherbrooke.

I wouldn't see my friend again for several months. We never spoke of that weekend. I think we both felt ashamed because we should have known that two young Black men in a nice car, or doing anything, would raise suspicion and make us a target for police. It was a lesson quickly learned. 

I joined Ontario's Workplace Safety and Insurance Board in 2014 in a role that helps people transition back to work. For a time, many of my clients were municipal police officers and correction officers. Most were taking their first steps back to work in policing after being off due to mental health issues related to their work. I got a glimpse into the world of law enforcement and I got to know many police officers very well. 

My attitude towards police changed dramatically during that time. I consoled men and women who found themselves unsure whether they could return to the work they love -- a career they often grew up knowing they would pursue. When I met with them, we were simply human beings who occupy different roles, but share similar goals for our lives, our families and for our communities. 

As we celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride this June, my hope is that we remember that police brutality was the reason why the Stonewall riots started. But the persecution, abandonment and hatred they experience from their families, faith groups and communities is the reason why members of the LBGTQ+ community suffer higher rates of homelessness, mental health issues and suicide. 

The biases of the people who build artificial intelligence technology are the reason why they lead to biased outcomes when used. The prejudices of health-care providers is the reason why people of colour and Indigenous persons often receive inferior care and are less likely to access needed healthcare.

It is the exclusion of perceived "others" that leads to decision-makers denying people of colour opportunities in education, housing and employment. The confidence in her position of privilege and awareness of the inequities inherent in law enforcement practices compelled a woman to call for police intervention when a Black birdwatcher asked her, respectfully, to honour the social contract around walking dogs in public.

That episode provided a rare window into the events and actions that often take place mere moments before the assassination of another Black citizen. I wonder about the characters of the people who observe a person of colour and perceive a threat grave enough to warrant a call for an armed response.

Although there is much to do, LGBTQ+ rights and awareness has improved since Stonewall. I believe this is in large part because people in the majority began to acknowledge the humanity of LGBTQ+ people -- to recognize them as their brother, aunt, cousin, neighbour, classmate or colleague. But so, too, are members of law enforcement. 

Police violence against Black citizens sparked the current movement, but the conversation continues to evolve, and all of our institutions are now under scrutiny. As we look towards reforming our law enforcement and other institutions, I hope we start by answering a few questions of ourselves. Questions like: What am I feeling right now? If I'm angry, or fed-up, with whom and why? What is my place in making the changes I want to see? Are we asking too much of police, or are we asking the wrong things of them? What is the risk that we are denying others the very humanity we demand from them?

My hope is that while we look to make sweeping institutional changes, we also look inward at ourselves, our biases and behaviours to see how we may be contributing to the problems we want to solve. I also hope we can find the courage to suspend judgement and have those difficult conversations with our friends and neighbours when we see injustice in real time.

Let us take this opportunity to educate ourselves on the topics we may have avoided until now. Most importantly, my hope is that we continue to share our experiences with one another.

The hope is that by hearing stories from our peers, we can see the true omnipresence of injustice; that we might see ourselves reflected in some of those stories; and that we can reconcile ourselves to the fact that changes to our institutions will only succeed if we change the people who build and maintain them too.

Francis Carbonu is a 42 year-old corporate mental health consultant who has lived and worked in several countries. He now lives in Toronto where he and his husband celebrated their 10-year wedding anniversary in June.

Image: Mitchel Raphael

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