Black Lives Matter has put racist police brutality in the spotlight, but the police continue to operate with impunity, writes John Clarke
The scale and resilience of the movement that has sprung up in the US and beyond, following the racist police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, has been inspiring and truly amazing. However, while the resistance on the streets has deeply impacted the thinking of millions of people and created crises for those in political power, it is striking that it has been largely business as usual for the police themselves. The brutality that they unleash on poor and racialised communities has not abated. This was recently demonstrated in the US, quite horribly, by the shooting down of Jacob Blake.
It really does say something about the role and nature of the institution of ‘law enforcement’ that, in the face of a veritable uprising against the police threat to Black lives, a cop in Kenosha, Wisconsin would pump seven bullets into the back of a Black man, in front of his terrified children. Even now, as protests again flare up across the country, the Kenosha cops allow far right killer Kyle Rittenhouse to walk away, after gunning down protesters; and their chief defends them. Though fully aware that international attention is focused on them, the police actually shackled the badly wounded and paralysed Jacob Blake to his hospital bed. Clearly, the cops leave the public relations side of things to the politicians and operate with a sense of virtual impunity.
The situation in Canada is not fundamentally different. In an earlier article, I described the way in which brutal police racism here meant that solidarity actions over the killing of George Floyd simultaneously expressed the grievances of targeted communities in this country. As in the US, the Canadian protest movement has deeply impacted the thinking of millions of people and created a political storm that the governing institutions have had to deal with but it is quite astounding how little impact this has had on the police themselves.
In May, thousands of people marched through the streets of Toronto to demand justice for Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a young Black woman who ‘fell’ from the 24th floor of the high rise building she lived in after police were called to her home. Her death occurred in the context of the massive ‘over policing’ of Black people in Toronto. The Ontario Human Rights Commission has found that they are twenty times more likely to be shot dead by the police than white residents. Such tragedies, however, are only the lethal expression of a daily routine of racist persecution by the police.
Despite the protests and the high level of public attention that has been focused on the death of Korchinski-Paquet, however, Ontario’s sham ‘police oversight’ body, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), went ahead with their standard ritual of clearing the cops involved, regardless of public outrage. Yet a participant in an independent investigation has concluded that one or more of the police present that day should have been charged with ‘failure to provide the necessaries of life or criminal negligence causing death.’
In June, police in Mississauga, to the west of Toronto, arrived at the home of Ejaz Ahmed Choudry, a sixty-two year old man with a mental health diagnosis who spoke no English. Paramedics had reported that he had a knife. Police refused to allow his family to try and communicate with him and decided they would force entry into his home ‘to check on his well-being.’ Shortly after this, having first tasered him, they shot him to death.
In the case of Canada’s federal force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), recent months have seen them battered by a series of high-profile incidents highlighting the violence they unleash on the hundreds of Indigenous communities they police. This included the killing of Chantal Moore, an Indigenous woman in New Brunswick, shot by an RCMP officer who was conducting a ‘wellness check’ on her at her home. This led to an absurd round of public hand wringing by the force’s Commissioner, Brenda Lucki, over whether her officers merely suffered from ‘unconscious bias’ or the more serious condition of ‘systemic racism’. She finally admitted to the latter.
Given all this, we might have supposed the RCMP would at least try to watch their behaviour for a while but this is absolutely not the case. Recently, the mother of Jonas Hardlotte, a thirty three year old Cree man who lives north of Saskatoon, called the local health clinic because he was suffering from depression. The nurses were preceded by an RCMP officer who was captured on video demanding entry to the home, swearing, threatening to return with a sledgehammer and finally striding into the place with an axe in his hand. If there was any wellness in the house, he seemed ready to deal with it decisively.
The Police Role
That police forces across North America have not even pretended to soften their ‘patrol and control’ approach to the communities they target and oppress, is significant and telling. In my view, it expresses the role they play at the point of contact between state power and working-class populations. During the years I spent working as an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), I frequently saw how the police deal with people living in poverty or facing homelessness. Two experiences among many stand out as particularly useful in demonstrating their approach. On one occasion, I dealt with a homeless man who had been given a ticket by the police for ‘camping in a park without a permit.’ I arrived just as the cop was leaving and, far from camping, the man was sitting on the ground with a closed bag beside him. He was told that he was getting the ticket because local businesses didn’t want homeless people entering that park.
The second example happened during a picket line we put out outside a restaurant whose owner had caused the closing of a nearby homeless shelter. Our action led to it being reopened. During the picket, however, I was told by a police sergeant that he considered it his most important duty as a police officer to rid the central part of the city of ‘vagrants’ in order to ensure commercial businesses would thrive.
What’s striking about these incidents is that, in each case, the police officers were in clear violation of the laws and standards they were supposed to follow and yet they, and hundreds just like them, were acting in ways that were being encouraged and condoned. No lawmaker or judge could openly endorse the proposition that some areas of public space should be off limits to people, based on how poor they are. Still, vast public resources are devoted to a police operation that has precisely this objective. In liberal democracies that pretend to afford equal rights under the law, the persecution and intimidation of poor and racialised communities that is the mainstay of police operations requires a certain creative tension between theory and practice. The courts sometimes wrap police knuckles and liberal politicians may express dismay at their ‘excesses’ but, for the most part, they get the job done with something very close to impunity.
From this it flows that movements that challenge police brutality will fail if they hope to reform the police themselves. Police power can be curtailed, however, to the extent that their budgets can be cut and their field of operations limited. This means the diversion of resources from police operations towards the meeting of real social needs. It also means getting the police out of such functions as crisis intervention so that people can receive support instead of violence. The movements in the US and Canada that are presently demanding the defunding or abolition of the police are well placed to win partial victories along these lines. Fundamentally challenging the repressive role of the police, however, brings us face to face with the need to confront the capitalist system they serve and protect. The refusal of communities to any longer tolerate intimidation and terror and the movement that this has thrown up, with its call for police abolition, points in just this direction.
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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.
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