There is more to Desmond Cole than meets the eye. Witness him in person and his humility is palpable — we recall how gracefully he moderated Azeezah Kanji’s 2016 Hart House Hancock Lecture, or how open he was to conversation when we, a couple of strangers, encountered him on the street earlier this year. When the public eye puts pressure on him, however, he does not prioritize respectability or diplomacy. He unleashes an incisive logic that is difficult to swallow and impossible to ignore.
Freshly named ‘Best Activist’ in Now Magazine, Cole specializes in doggedly raising uncomfortable truths to those in power. Over the past two years, we’ve observed Cole confront such truths in many forms: as columnist, radio host, public speaker, and critic. And now, we’re ready to see him do so as mayor.
Last month, Newstalk 1010 released a poll which asked Torontonians whom they would consider to vote for as mayor — and Cole’s name was included without his prior knowledge. Of more than 800 Torontonians polled, 30 per cent indicated they would give Cole “a great deal” or “some” consideration. Later, on Facebook, Cole announced he was considering running against current mayor John Tory in the 2018 municipal election.
In a sense, Cole and Tory are not simply hypothetical political opponents; they have long been at odds. The 35-year-old Black activist-journalist has consistently and directly challenged the older, white career politician and businessman, especially with regard to police accountability and race relations. But Cole has a vision that eludes his incumbent: one that can inspire the public to imagine a radically better future.
The personal is the professional
Prior to holding the municipal government to account, Cole was more intimately concerned with another powerful institution. In a 2015 Toronto Life article titled “The Skin I’m In,” he gained widespread attention for his description of how he has been followed, stopped, and interrogated by police without cause — a total of over 50 instances. His story shone a bright light on the police practice of carding, which was found to target Black Torontonians 17 times more than white Torontonians in parts of the city.
During his subsequent tenure as a columnist for the Toronto Star, Cole grounded his personal experiences with police within wider commentaries on racial justice, ranging from the anti-Blackness of Pride Toronto to the indefinite detention of migrants in Canada’s prisons — all of which demanded accountability from powerful institutions. Not only did these issues frequently pit him against Tory and the Toronto Police, but they caused him to butt heads with the Star’s own publisher, John Honderich, who admonished Cole for writing about race too often. Soon, Cole found that his weekly articles had been cut down to a column once every other week.
Nonetheless, Cole remained headstrong in the public sphere. In 2016, at an anti-racism public consultation, he challenged Tory to explain why he never met with Black Lives Matter Toronto during their 15-day protest campout in front of police headquarters. “I should have been there,” the Mayor conceded.
In April this year, Cole again rattled the establishment by holding up a Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB) meeting where Tory was present, as he rebuked their decision not to destroy the data collected from carding. The Star again policed Cole’s behaviour, arguing he had breached the paper’s apparent policy that journalists cannot play both “actor and critic.” In response, Cole resigned from his columnist post. “If I must choose between a newspaper column and the actions I must take to liberate myself and my community,” he said, “I choose activism in the service of Black liberation.”
The false dichotomy between activism and journalism peddled by his editors at the Star reveals how uncomfortable the city’s powerful, predominantly white institutions still remain on addressing race relations. But for Cole, the personal is the professional; his identity as a Black man is inextricably connected to his work.
His resignation from the Star, his protests at the police board meeting, and his contemplation of the mayoralty convey one clear quality: being neutral is not an option. He clearly and unwaveringly champions principles of accountability and justice, and acts on them at a personal cost. Toronto urgently needs to bring marginalized communities into the politics from which they are normally excluded — and Cole’s strong, personal connection to such constituencies represents the kind of strength we need in the leadership of this city.
Freedom and justice: all or nothing
Speaking about race, reconciliation, and Canada 150 at the “Glorious & Free?” panel at the 2017 International Festival of Authors, Cole asked the audience, “Are you free if I’m not free?” He was referring not only to how Black liberation is intertwined with other struggles for freedom, but also to his upcoming court date on November 23, further to his arrest at another TPSB meeting in July.
Cole explained what happened in a statement on Facebook. “I went to speak about Dafonte Miller, 19, who was beaten by a Toronto Police officer… but the police board did not put his situation on its agenda. When I spoke about Dafonte anyway, I was arrested and charged with trespassing — at a public meeting.” Cole’s stand for Dafonte reminds all Torontonians that if any one of us is subject to institutional violence and suppression, none of us are truly free.
As mayor, Cole would likely prioritize the cornerstone issue of police accountability, which affects many minority communities in Toronto. We might expect him to start by dismantling the current governance structure of Toronto Police, implementing direct and democratic community ownership of the city’s law enforcement system, and finally, removing the presence of armed police from public schools.
At the same time, racial justice is not the only issue on Cole’s mind. Indeed, being a progressive candidate would mean fighting for all who are marginalized.
Through his Newstalk 1010 radio show, 70,000-strong Twitter audience, and journalistic work, Cole has devoted coverage to various key concerns affecting people in the city, including the overdose crisis, lack of affordable housing, austerity measures, and transit issues. He has also mapped solidarities with Indigenous, migrant, queer, and trans people in the city. Because Cole wants to prioritize issues marginalized by the incumbent, he would be a clear progressive option who could draw alternative perspectives from his work on the ground and make the mayoralty about the many, not the few.
“My future in politics”
A Cole mayoralty would mean many things to many people. At the moment, only Doug Ford has been confirmed as an official mayoral candidate. Both Ford and Tory are elite figures who represent the interests of the right and centre-right respectively. Even if Tory runs and wins a second term, the critical value in having a candidate like Cole is that he has the potential to smash the eliteness and mediocrity that currently immobilizes Toronto’s politics.
Additionally, a majority of Toronto’s residents identify themselves as visible minorities. The visibility of a mayor of colour in a city of colour would thereby align with the rise to power of other racialized leaders: think federal New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh and Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi.
However, electing Cole as mayor is not a matter of novelty or tokenism. In his own right, Cole has demonstrated his active and unwavering commitment to progressive issues. The mayoralty would simply offer him a larger scope to continue to reshape dialogue and embolden grassroots progressive movements toward intersectional justice. He could do for this city’s stale politics what Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn achieved with their own campaigns: provide the vision of an outsider who does not shy away from radical social change.
In 2006, as a Toronto City Council Candidate for Ward 20 (Trinity-Spadina), a 24-year-old Desmond Cole was profiled by a Varsity writer. Contemplating the possibility of his electoral loss, Cole foreshadowed to The Varsity: “I still accomplished something. I’ve built a base for myself and for my future in politics.” He continued, “This has been too much of a success to let it be a one-off.”
Eleven years later, we, as part of another generation of Varsity writers, are ready for Cole to finally realize that future in politics — if he decides to run.
Clement Cheng is a third-year student at Victoria College studying Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies, Geography, and English.
Ibnul Chowdhury is a third-year student at Trinity College studying Economics and Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies. He is The Varsity‘s Associate Comment Editor.