Anyone who has read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report (2015), the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (2019) or the United Nations report on African Canadians (2017) knows that race and racism has played an integral role in defining “Law and Order” in Canada.
Canada was founded on a relationship of explicit non-consent with Indigenous and Black people. Our laws, policies, institutions, markets and value systems – the very structures that police are expected to “serve and protect” – were not designed with Indigenous (First Nations, Metis and Inuit) and Black voices and did not take into account Indigenous and Black humanity. Indigenous and Black people did not write the laws that police enforce nor were they given an opportunity to define themselves before racial bias defined them.
As a society, we are reeling from deep pain, grief and rage that has sparked one of the biggest civil rights movement in known human history: #BlackLivesMatter and its Canadian sister movement, #IndigenousLivesMatter. We are waking up to horrific realities: Black and Indigenous people are more likely to be victims of violent crime and more likely to be harmed by the police. Indigenous women face astonishing rates of violence, making up two per cent of the population but 25 per cent of murdered women. In Toronto alone, Black people are 20 times more likely to be shot by police. Black and Indigenous people are significantly over-represented in federal prisons, a trend Dr. Ivan Zinger, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, called a “disturbing and entrenched imbalance.”
This is structural violence that took centuries of aggressive stereotyping and disenfranchisement. Expecting the police to reform its way out of systemic racism is not only unfair, it is impossible. The police does not and did not write our laws. That role is reserved for parliament and legislatures and our laws historically have been written to protect the property and privileges of those in power. Thriving, safe and healthy communities can only exist in the context of a consensual relationship between police, the public and the society that creates the laws. Without this consent, the relationship will always be rooted in violence and injustice that begets more violence and injustice.
There is ample evidence that police officers themselves understand there is an inherent violence in policing Indigenous and Black communities that cannot be mitigated. In a fascinating 2019 doctoral thesis, “To Swerve and Neglect: De-Policing throughout Today’s Front-line police work,” former police officer George Roy Brown details his interviews with more than 4,000 officers from Canada and New York City. An overwhelming majority – 79.2 per cent – admitted that they perceive interactions with visible minorities to be “riskier” than those with white citizens. Apprehension surrounding the personal and professional risk of citizen interaction in which an officer may become the “next viral video” face of police brutality has led to a phenomenon known as FIDO – “Fuck it, Drive on.”
When public demands for transparency and accountability are interpreted as an attack on the police, we must acknowledge we have a deeper issue. Individual officers cannot be solely accountable for police violence – this only pushes the false paradigm of individualism. There can be no justification that the line between “normal police conduct” and “catastrophic, career ending police brutality” should be so razor thin. This is not fair to police and reflects the reality that the police is not, and cannot be, the solution to everything. Community Based Policing, which rests on the expectation that officers can rely on intuition to prevent crime, forces police to use Canada’s baked-in racial biases as a decision-making tool.
Police officers are expected to respond to mental health crises, overdoses, domestic crises, broken down cars, lost cats and acts of terror, shootings, threats, abducted children and manage homelessness, clean up vagrancy, monitor petty crime and prevent crime and investigate and solve crimes after the fact and on and on. We must stop and ask: What is the strategic rationale behind which police officers are deployed in our communities with such an un-attainable mandate? It is no wonder the budget keeps climbing – because this task can never be completed through policing. We have set the police on a fool’s errand: the more we de-fund communities, the more “in need” of policing the community becomes. More policing means bigger police budgets at the expense of community resources. The dog is chasing its tail.
The safest communities are not the communities with the most policing. They are the communities that are empowered and well resourced. In Canada, the No. 1 predictor of income is race. The No. 1 predictor of health is income. Our COVID hotspot maps mirror our low-income hotspots that mirror our highest police and emergency services use neighbourhoods.
By the strength of this mass movement, we now have an opportunity to create a solutions-based approach to our social woes by stopping, reflecting and #DefundingthePolice. This notion is neither novel nor radical. Defunding the police involves re-allocating limited resources of our budget in an intentional manner that reflects solutions.
My mother, whose family was ravaged by the Indian Residential School system, started marching for Black Lives in the 1960s. My father, a Sudanese writer and poet, raised us on tales of the Mahdi revolution. In 2014, my heart broke as I watched my 1- and 3-year-old sons march down University Ave. chanting “Black Lives Matter!” in their beautiful little baby voices. It is 2020, I am now a mother to three sons whose father hails from Haiti, the world’s first self-liberated slave colony. My immediate family alone has spent more than 70 years fighting for transformative change while Black and Indigenous peoples have been at this fight for centuries. We cannot let the structures that led to the deaths of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Chantal Moore, George Floyd or Ejaz Ahmed Choudry remain in place. I cannot tolerate a society in which my sons’ beautiful skin, hair and faces are a threat to their lives.
We can and must capitalize on this opportunity to evoke transformative change.
Policing must be a response to the needs of the public – and at this moment in time, the public is speaking loudly, clearly and passionately. We cannot police our way out of systemic racism and systemic poverty. Defund the police and resource our communities. Invest in education, recreation, health, climate change mitigation, housing, mental health and cultural resources, designed for and by Indigenous and Black people.
Photo by Gabe Pierce on Unsplash