Police brutality and wider societal marginalisation of people will be challenged as the BLM movement gathers pace, says John Clarke
It has become abundantly clear that the brutal police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis has touched a mood of anger and a deep sense of grievance throughout the US and internationally. Even in the midst of the present pandemic, people have felt compelled to take to the streets by the hundreds of thousands to challenge racist police brutality and, in some cases, confront the symbols of the past that underlie the racist present.
The powerful uprising in the US has inspired a movement that has taken to the streets in many communities across Canada in solidarity with the struggle to the south but, also, to challenge the brutal reality of racist policing here. In the largest cities of Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto, there have been powerful mobilisations. However, there have been protests from coast to coast, including in many smaller communities. In Toronto, the challenge to racism and its police enforcers focused on the recent death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a young Black woman who recently ‘fell’ from a 24th-floor balcony of the high rise building her family lived in. This took place when police were called there in response, they say, to ‘reports of an assault.’ The matter is presently under investigation by the toothless and ineffective Special Investigations Unit (SIU), a body that makes a mockery of its supposed duty to investigate incidents involving police where people suffer serious injury or death. The family and its supporters are demanding a real investigation and meaningful answers. To put this tragedy in context, between 2000 and 2017, an appalling 36.5% of those who died at the hands of the police in Toronto were Black, even though Black people make up only 8.3% of the city's population.
The history of policing in Canada has been shaped by its colonial roots. Early police forces here drew on the lead given in Britain. The formation of the London Metropolitan Police, in 1829, and the creation of a force that could ‘patrol and control’ working-class communities, served as a model for the authorities in the Canadian colony. Hence, Toronto established its first police body in 1834. With large scale immigration into Canada, it was inevitable that policing here would place a major emphasis on the targeting of immigrant communities.
Poor and racialised communities in Canadian cities have long seethed with anger at the brutal treatment they receive from cops on a daily basis. There is a history of challenging that brutality within the Black community in Toronto, with such organisations at the Black Action Defence Committee and, more recently, Black Lives Matter, relentlessly challenging ongoing and frequently lethal police violence. “When it comes to law enforcement, when it comes to the police, there is an overarching reality of violence that is often a part of the fabric of everyday life for black people in this country,” says Robyn Maynard, author of Policing Black Lives.
The racist brutality of local police forces in Canada is compounded by the extraordinary nature of the federal police institution, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), a body that can be accurately described as Canada’s colonial police force. Originally named the North West Mounted Police (NWMP), it was formed in 1873 in order to facilitate the dispossession of the Indigenous nations living on the western plains. It was set up as a paramilitary force that would ensure the theft of Indigenous land and its transfer to white settlers, in violation of supposedly binding treaty obligations. The Indigenous people were forced onto impoverished reserves and made to accept a pass system very similar to that operated by South African Apartheid. The RCMP was the armed enforcer of this racist operation.
Today, the RCMP ‘serves’ more than 600 Indigenous communities across Canada. The nature of this service can be assessed from the words of Aluki Kotierk, an Inuit representative. “Many of us grew up with a fear of the RCMP and what is it they’re going to do? You walk in your community, and you see the RCMP drive by. And you take stock of what has happened. Are they looking at you? You hear a knock on the door and you think, ‘oh my goodness, who is that, is that the RCMP?’” Sworn affidavits from Indigenous people that were filed with a federal court last year, horrifically detail the basis for the fear Kotierk describes.
On June 4, an RCMP officer fired six bullets into the body of Chantel Moore, an Indigenous woman living in Edmunston, New Brunswick. The killing took place as the officer was conducting a ‘wellness check’ on her. Then, on June 12, another RCMP officer in the same province shot and killed Rodney Levi, a Mi’kmaq man, claiming he charged at them with a knife. RCMP dashcam footage has also now emerged of an arrest in Alberta of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam. He clearly confronts the cops angrily as he expresses his frustration at their ongoing harassment. However, their claim of justified force is utterly disproved. Two cops take down the man, punching him and putting him in a chokehold. His swollen and bruised face leaves no doubt as to the extreme brutality he was subjected to.
This spate of high profile brutality has come at an inconvenient time for the RCMP. This past week, the force’s Commissioner, Brenda Lucki, has been publicly agonising on whether her officers merely suffer from ‘unconscious bias’ or the more serious malaise of ‘systemic racism.’ Under pressure, she has owned up to the latter but in both cases she maintains the pretence that the issue is one of bad attitudes. While the role of the RCMP officer is not likely to attract many warriors for social justice, the racism in the force is not primarily an attitudinal one but something that flows from the role of the organisation. Hundreds of impoverished Indigenous communities are kept in line by Canada’s colonial police force. Whenever the discontent of those communities finds expression in social action, the RCMP is ready to try and crush it.
Last December, it emerged that RCMP planners, preparing to move against unarmed Wet’suwet’en land defenders blockading construction of a natural gas pipeline in northern British Columbia, argued for ‘lethal overwatch’ (snipers) to be deployed in the operation and that commanders told their officers to “use as much violence toward the gate as you want,” when they moved in to remove a roadblock. We can hardly be surprised when a racist function is carried out by racists.
Defund the Police
In Canada, as in the US, the present round of struggle has brought to the fore the demand to ‘defund the police.’ It can first be said that, whatever this is taken to mean and however it may be developed in the period ahead, the call is already part of the public discourse and is having a major impact. In Vancouver, where the police board recently rejected a miserable 1% cut in the police budget, the public debate has been renewed. The Montreal Mayor has also been drawn into the discussion in that city. A motion is to be put before Toronto City Council calling for a 10% reduction in the police budget, while the nearby city of Hamilton is discussing a 20% reduction. On the east coast, Halifax has cancelled a $368,000 armoured vehicle it had ordered for its police force, deciding to put the money into anti-racism programmes instead. None of these is anything approaching abolitionist initiatives, of course, but they do reflect the great pressure that is being exerted by the movement that has spread from the US into Canada. It is more than likely that reductions in swollen police budgets and the placing of limits on the harmful role police play in the communities they target can be won in the weeks ahead.
That a movement has sprung up at this time that advances a radical call to defund police agencies speaks well to the prospects for broader struggles that lie ahead. In the period that follows pandemic lockdowns, we may expect enormous attacks on workers and communities to unfold. Vital public services will face austerity-driven cutbacks and, in continuing conditions of mass unemployment, enormous numbers of tenants will face the prospect of eviction. In the US, the present ban on evictions will expire in a matter of weeks and the loss of housing will become a massive social question. Black and Latino people in the US are twice as likely to rent as white people, so the element of racial injustice will be as central as it is in the matter of police brutality. The same threat hangs over tenants in both the UK and Canada. A militant fight to prevent people being removed from their homes, linked to strong demands to ban evictions and cancel rental arrears could well be the basis for another massive wave of struggle.
What is clear is that it would very wrong to assume that the impact of the crisis that the pandemic has unleashed is going to produce shocked passivity. The killing by the police of George Floyd in Minneapolis happened at a time when a deep and volatile mood of anger has welled up. There is every reason to expect that the incredible movement that has been unleashed in the wake of this brutal murder is no aberration but that it points to a period ahead that will be marked by massive and powerful working-class resistance.
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John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.