mercedes

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One of the sticking points that has arisen from Black Lives Matter Toronto’s protest and delay of the march at Toronto Pride has been the participation of police in an institutional capacity, rather than simply as LGBTQ and allied individuals.  It brings to mind an odd experience a few years ago, which taught me a lot about the nature of the interplay between authorities and marginalized, policed communities.

In Calgary, circa 2008, the trans* community was still mostly on its own with regard to activism. The local community centre provided meeting space and the Executive Director wanted to do more, so it was improving — but beyond the efforts of grassroots LGBTQ organizers, failures of understanding and other past resentments persisted, and being part of the “community” was still an uneasy thing, at times.

Into this mix one evening in early summer walked the Calgary Police Service’s LGBTQ Liaison, attending the local support group meeting with not much prior notice, and little opportunity for advance discussion.  The liaison’s appearance wasn’t a particularly comfortable event, considering the number of trans* people who were homeless or facing poverty, and who experienced a lot of everyday harassment at the hands of local cops (which was a part of why many attendees were seeking support).  The suggestion that she might “drop in” on future meetings didn’t sit well, either.  But most interesting of all was the reason why she was there.

The CPS liaison representative wanted to extend an olive branch to Calgary trans* people by letting us know that the CPS had finally put into place a policy on how to accommodate and interact with trans* people when it came to investigations, searches, communications and incarceration.  But there was a catch:

She couldn’t tell us what it was.  For all we knew, the policy could be that they take us into a back room and beat us with sticks.

And that sort of drove home the sort of cluelessness that characterizes the tumultuous relationship that exists between law enforcement and marginalized communities. I realized at that moment just how ingrained authoritarian, patriarchal attitudes were, and how completely foreign the idea seemed to them that we might not just simply and blindly trust them like we were expected to.

In police culture, there persists the blind belief that cops can do no wrong (and if they do, it’s just a rare exception, a “bad cop,” etc. — certainly not something systemic or characteristic of police culture), and that anyone who doesn’t see them as society’s staunch protectors is obviously a person with something to hide.

In practical reality, on the other hand, minorities often experience the police as intrusive, overreacting figures subjecting them to excessive scrutiny, and looking for an excuse to badger or arrest them.

I know personally how the world is big enough that both of those perspectives can authentically exist simultaneously.

Working a graveyard shift, I became an impromptu confidante of a regular customer with the Edmonton Police Service, after his colleague had been shot and killed…and got to know that officer during one of those moments where people are at their most human.

Having been a sex worker, trans*, a leftie protester (when I was physically able), and with some Aboriginal heritage (four of the “favourite kinds of people”), I’ve also experienced first-hand being under scrutiny, and the disenfranchised side of police harassment. Though relatively privileged (I look white and not all that visibly trans*) and never actually charged with a crime, I’ve still nonetheless experienced carding, unwarranted scrutiny, intimidation, and a rough ride while cuffed in the back of a police van.  But I’m one of the lucky ones, and I know well enough to be very conscious of that privilege.

Now, to be fair to that liaison officer those years ago, when people started pushing her for information, she did disclose some of what the policy entailed (in short, it basically brought the CPS into line with changes made by the Peel Regional Police after they lost a human rights complaint stemming from a strip search and humiliation of a black trans* woman) — and she wasn’t really supposed to. I do believe that she wanted to do something positive, while at the same time working for an organization that was so worried about backlash from Albertan conservatives that it didn’t even ponder why trans* people would want to see a policy in writing (I mean, how can you assert your rights when you don’t even know what they are? And word-of-mouth is not a reliable dissemination approach).

I can’t speak for Black Lives Matter Toronto, nor would I try, but I empathize with the group and its aims. And from an activist’s perspective, it’s angering that a community would choose not to side with it’s most intersectionally disenfranchised populations, but rather with an organization that has been authoritarian and biased in the past – and continues to be for people of colour, trans* folks and those in poverty. LGBTQ organizations cannot say that they want to be inclusive of and advocate for LGBTQ people of colour, while abdicating concern about institutional racism.  Building a movement focused narrowly “only on the issues that affect all of us” is merely a polite way of saying “we want you to add to our numbers and strength, but don’t want to have to do anything for you in return” — and if that’s “inclusion,” then it’s about as smarmy and cynical a word as “tolerance.”

That is not to say that I don’t understand Pride organizations wanting to engage with and welcome the police.  Beyond the privilege, there is also something very cathartic in having the institution that was once the means of ones own oppression now showing solidarity.  This is especially the case in the coverage of the first Pride march in Steinbach, Manitoba — right in the heart of the province’s bible belt — with the local RCMP leading the parade, and perhaps sending a signal to those who might wish to do the participants harm.

It’s a feeling of having “arrived,” and of finally being accepted.

But not everyone can share in that, just yet.  Embracing law enforcement as allies is premature, at best.  Police departments still have a long way to go if they truly want to be allies to all of us. If they want to be allies, they should be taking up the challenge of ferreting out these continued issues.

And out of respect for that, the LGBTQ community owes its siblings the right to be not just heard, but respected and supported.

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Mercedes Allen

Mercedes Allen

Mercedes Allen is a graphic designer and advocate for transsexual and transgender communities in Alberta. She writes on equality, human rights, LGBT and sexual minority issues in Canada, and the cross-border...