With all the noise from our neighbours to the south occupying the airwaves, it is easy for many Canadians to buy into the myth that they don’t face the issues of racial inequalities and police brutality that exist in the United States. This is, simply put, ignorant. Racial injustice continues to exist in latent and blatant forms, and in a manner that is agonizingly real to Black and Indigenous peoples.
Most notably, these issues were thrust into the spotlight recently, when hundreds of activists took to the streets following the announcement by the Special Investigations Unit that yet another officer who killed a Black man in the line of duty would not be charged.
Andrew Loku, a 45-year-old mentally ill South Sudanese refugee living in an apartment leased by the Canadian Mental Health Association, was shot to death in his doorway last summer while allegedly wielding what appeared to be a wooden hammer. Not only did the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) — the taskforce assigned to investigate such incidents — deem the excessive use of force to be “justified,” the only other witness at the scene has disputed the description of events used by the SIU to reach the decision.
The decisions not to press charges and to maintain the anonymity of the officer are angering, given the long history of racial discrimination by the police that the Black community has had to put up with. Studies have shown that there is a clear over-representation of black men in cases where police have used force against civilians, and black, brown, and Indigenous men have been victims of carding and racial profiling at rates far higher than the white population.
Introduce mental illness to the picture, and the statistics become more troubling. Since 1988, over 50 per cent of the civilians who were affected by a mental health crisis and killed by Toronto Police have been black males. The decision to mask the identity of the officer who killed Loku also reduces accountability and highlights the tendency of the police force to protect their own rather than the communities they are employed to guard.
Black Lives Matter-Toronto –— the organizers behind many protests, including the ongoing sit-in outside the Toronto Police Headquarters — are not only calling for justice for Andrew Loku but for the city to address the violence that the Black community has suffered at the hands of police. In addition, they would like to see the elimination of carding (a practice rife with racial profiling), as well as the restoration of Afrofest, North America’s largest African music festival and one of the most important cultural events in Toronto, to its regular length of two days.
Although not necessarily indicative of discrimination on the part of police, it also illustrates anti-Black discrimination in Toronto. The decision to cut the length of Afrofest from two days to one, based solely off of eight noise complaints made against the performers, was met with anger from people who rightfully pointed out the double standard. Local residents say that Afrofest’s noise levels are in line with the several other festivals that occur each year at Woodbine Park. The city did not provide decibel reports to back up this decision, so it seems that Afrofest’s blackness was the motivating factor to cut the festival short.
Fortunately, the city scrambled to restore Afrofest after outcry from Torontonians, particularly the ones on the ground rallying at the Toronto Police Headquarters. Black Lives Matter-Toronto and the Black community at large also notched another win under their belts when Toronto City Council unanimously passed a motion calling for the Ontario government to review the conduct of the SIU on Friday. The core of the movement is, therefore, quickly picking up speed, and it is certainly a cause we must support.
Black Lives Matter-Toronto has been criticized for their tactics but it is clear that these demonstrations provide results. After all, when the situation is this dire, we cannot simply trust city officials who have done little for years to address these critical issues, falling in favour of order and bureaucracy. Activism isn’t meant to be orderly; history has shown that rallies, shutdowns, and sit-ins — all manifestations of the burning rage of the people — are in many cases what ultimately forces governments to respond to the demands of the people they serve.
The passionate persistence of those participating in the #BLMTOTentCity in order to make the city safer for its black citizens mirrors the same resilience in the face of oppression displayed by civil rights activists in the 1960s. It is crucial for all Canadians to stop ignoring issues of racism and discrimination and support their plight against injustice.
Mohamed Ali is a first-year student at Victoria College studying the sciences.