Introduction with Barb (Video, Audio & Transcript)
A few years ago, I found myself cataloguing all the things I do in public to avoid being seen as a threat or a perpetrator. Making sure not to rummage through my backpack whenever I enter a store, making sure any items I pick up are clearly visible to the employees until I’m ready to pay, making sure not to look around too suspiciously, and of course… Making direct eye contact with the store clerk when you notice them tailing you through the store. It happens more often than you’d think if it’s not something you’ve ever had to worry about.
I also noticed the way my behaviour and body language would shift almost immediately the moment I spot a police vehicle in my vicinity. I’d slow my pace, stare straight ahead, and try to look as inconspicuous as humanly possible.
These were things that I did instinctually because I felt that I needed to, because even without clocking my behaviour, I was very much aware of how I, as a Black woman, was being perceived by some individuals as I moved through the world.
For me, it’s not always fear that I feel when I see police approaching. It’s more of an extreme discomfort and anxiety, despite having nothing to hide. There’s simply no trust, no feeling of safety or protection. These men and women are given so much power over us and it’s become all too clear that a great number of them pick and choose who to protect and whose lives are expendable.
Over in the States, tensions are at an all-time high. Racial inequality, systemic racism, and police brutality make up the meat and potatoes in the boiling pandemic stew that is COVID-19, and the heat keeps getting turned up. But what about here at home in Canada? Ask the right political leader and they may tell you that Canada is far better off than the United States, and that “we don’t have the systemic, deep roots they have had for years.”
Considering Canada’s turbulent history with Indigenous peoples, that comment made by Ontario Premier Doug Ford is laughable at best, and incredibly harmful to the already marginalized black and brown members of our community.
Whether it’s the history of slavery or the history of colonization, the deadly brutality and devastating genocides have led to many of the same societal and economic issues that are still prevalent today, and the mistreatment of people of colour by the OPP and RCMP in Canada is a long and depraved narrative.
In November 2019, The Globe and Mail reported that “between 2007 and 2017, more than 1/3 of people shot to death by the RCMP were Indigenous. Indigenous peoples make up less than 5% of the population.”
And according to a study by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, “Black Torontonians are 20 times more likely to be shot by police than the city’s white residents.”
These numbers are barely a glimpse into the stats surrounding these issues.
A look deeper and you’ll come face to face with the overwhelming number of incidents involving police shootings of Black and Indigenous mental health sufferers, or the frightening statistics surrounding the Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women and Girls, and the inaction of the RCMP for decades despite pleas and protests from their loved ones.
“Between 2000 and 2008, Aboriginal women and girls represented approximately 10% of all female homicides in Canada” despite only comprising 3% of the female population.
The numbers are staggering, and yet for so many decades, no one was even talking about it. Their lives simply did not matter enough. In Saskatoon, the phrase “Starlight Tours” referred to the practice of police abandoning Aboriginal peoples, said to be drunk or rowdy, on the outskirts of town in the dead of winter. The practice resulted in three freezing deaths, and very little police accountability.
The fact is, the recent protests are the result of decades of oppression, decades of inaction, decades of repressed anger, resentment and mistreatment. Protesting is how we demand the change we need.
Protests and riots, peaceful and violent have always been a part of history, many of which have led to changes in law and legislation. The Stonewall riots of 1969 led to the movement for equality in the LGBT community during a time when being gay or lesbian was still illegal in many parts of the Western world.
The Detroit Riots of 1967, however, had a number of negative outcomes that still impact its residents to this day. Not unlike the troubles of today, the riots stemmed from racial tension and discrimination, police brutality, unlawful profiling and good ol’ racism.
Following the riots, President Johnson appointed a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder, often referred to as the Kerner Commission of Illinois. An excerpt from the 426-page report reads:
“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal. Reaction to last summer’s disorders has quickened the movement and deepened the division. Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American.” It goes on to say, “This deepening racial division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed… What the rioters appeared to be seeking was fuller participation in the social order and the material benefits enjoyed by the majority of American citizens. Rather than rejecting the American system, they were anxious to obtain a place for themselves in it.”
Referring to the riots as “last summer’s disorders” truly brings to light the disconnect between the writer and the rioters, but aside from all of that, the last part is really just a convoluted way of saying that Black people were tired of being treated like slaves and second-class citizens and wanted to live a life not only free of police brutality and discrimination, but wanted to be treated as equals with the rights and opportunities owed to them.
It is now the year 2021. 54 years have passed, but racial profiling and police brutality amongst the Black community is still very much alive and well.
Last year, after the senseless and negligent killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, outrage in the Black community came to a head and protesting efforts intensified.
For most people, the injustice and brutality that Black people are facing in their own communities at the hands of law enforcement may be incomprehensible. Let’s face it, without the video proof, most people would find it too hard to believe, or try to rationalize and explain away the facts.
Imagine trying to describe to someone the minute-by-minute events that led to George Floyd’s death. Their initial reaction would be one of shock and dismay. Their next thought would probably be, “he must have posed an immediate threat,” or “he must have been resisting,” or “there must have been a weapon involved.” But none of these things are true. The fact is: the man was murdered over a counterfeit 20-dollar bill. The anger, the frustration, the injustice, these are not new realities for the individuals under attack, but it is a heck of a lot harder to dismiss the brutality when you play the video back and plaster it all over social media.
At the start of 2021, most of the world watched in astonishment as a group of mostly white pro-Trump extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol, assaulting guards and officers, vandalizing government property and wreaking havoc on sacred territory.
The angry mob, galvanized by their leader, erected makeshift gallows complete with a noose, and chanted with confidence and single-minded determination to hang the former Vice President. Armed with pipe bombs and guns, they were on the hunt for lawmakers and they intended to do harm. The last time there was a breach of this magnitude on the Capitol was in 1814, during the war of 1812… 200 years ago! Talk about setting us back.
As astounding as the events were, it was really the police and government response to the brazen riots that was truly perplexing.
When Black Lives Matter members and supporters met to protest in Washington following the death of George Floyd, they were met with rows upon rows of officers in tactical gear lining the steps of the Lincoln memorial. Later they were sprayed with rubber bullets and tear gassed.
The expectation was that BLM protesters posed a greater threat of violence and destruction, whereas the Capitol protests were expected to be, as quoted, a “pretty vanilla affair.”
The casual and restrained response to the Capitol riots in stark contrast to the aggressive and over-response to the mostly peaceful BLM protests has no doubt inflamed outrage and frustration in the already festering wounds of racism and injustice.
“Double standards” does not even begin to describe the differences in response and action. Joe Biden was quoted as saying, “No one can tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting yesterday, they wouldn’t have been treated very, very, differently than the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol.”
America’s former president, whom for me is becoming a mere distant memory with each passing day, has continuously referred to BLM protesters as thugs, anarchists, and “violent demonstrators with evil intentions.” And in response to BLM protests outside of the White House following the death of George Floyd, he tweeted:
“If any of those protestors got too close to the White House, “they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen.”
However, following the Capitol riots that left five people dead, including a member of law enforcement, his response to that was a heartfelt and empathetic statement that referred to the rioters as very special. I’d share the entire statement, however I’d rather your head didn’t explode.
Here in Canada, most people may not even be aware of the decades spanning dispute between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people over fishing rights in Nova Scotia. The dispute has more accurately been in existence for hundreds of years.
Since September of 2020, after legally being awarded the right to establish “their first moderate livelihood lobster fishery in St. Mary’s Bay”, the Indigenous peoples there have had to deal with threats, intimidation, and acts of extreme violence by non-Indigenous fishermen. One victim of the attacks stated that “200 non-Indigenous guys showed up, threw stones at the vicinity, broke windows and damaged his van. He watched them cut his wires, slash his tires, piss in his van and then set it on fire.”
A big surprise to no one has been the lack of protection by the RCMP. The Indigenous peoples there have effectively been left to fend for themselves as their rights are violated, their livelihood is burned to the ground, and their people are attacked by angry non-Indigenous competitors.
The events of this past year are enough to diminish anyone’s resolve, but there is hope yet. This past year deserves an entire chapter (or ten) in the history books, but despite a number of low blows, there is no denying that major changes to life and the world as we know it are in procession. I am hopeful and optimistic that police reform both in the States and right here at home in Canada will be amongst one of the major changes for the better.
There has been an intense demand for the defunding of the police, and a call to hold the individuals responsible for the violence and the brutality accountable. These are indeed steps towards change, but they are not solutions. There are deep-rooted issues that will need time and continued attention to resolve. There needs to be better training and recruitment procedures, proper allocation of funds, accountability, and acknowledgment of inequality.
Here in Canada, Prime Minister Trudeau has run on campaigns that promised “a new relationship with Indigenous peoples, built on respect, rights, and a commitment to end the status quo.” However, many Indigenous peoples are still living in less than Third World conditions. And in light of the protests and opposition by Indigenous peoples surrounding the natural gas pipeline in British Columbia that will run right through their land, it is clear that their rights, ownership, and freedoms are still being violated.
But still, I cannot think of a better time, amidst all the craziness of the coronavirus, a new and hopefully stable American president, and all the changes yet to come, for us to stand together as allies and work towards the changes that will inevitably benefit society as a whole. Changes that will shape our new world-view, and help dictate the way we lead our lives individually and as a collective.
For me, it is a great relief to see such a diverse group of people taking part in the protests and showing the same outrage as the people that are affected.
A wise friend and ally wrote, “the policy of violent oppression affects all of us, kills, maims and scars all of us; Black, Indigenous, Disabled, People with Mental Health issues, the poor and even whites…
We have Church, Synagogue and Mosque community groups. Many of us belong to unions, federations, guilds and associations. All of our organizations often ally, take public stances and donate money to politicians and political parties during an election. They demonstrate when opposing legislation. There is no reason we cannot harness our at-hand resources to effect change.”
Despite the efforts of the pro-Trump extremists, the newly appointed American president has outlined an agenda that aims not only to tackle racial inequality, but also a detailed plan to address racial inequity across the American economy.
We will have to wait and see if the new administration can begin to heal the wounds and change the course, but in the meantime, we can all make an effort to inform ourselves, take advantage of the resources available to us in our own communities and take action; if not for us, then for the generations that follow.
Be sure to check-in to Road to Equality as we dive into social justice, equality, and explore how we can all take part in the fight for change.