Photo by Michael Toledano for VICE Canada.
It’s been about 84 hours since Sammy Yatim was shot nine times by a Toronto Police officer—who has been recently identified as Constable James Forcillo—in the normally peaceful Trinity Bellwoods neighbourhood. On Monday night, hundreds of people protested from the centre of Toronto’s downtown core at Yonge and Dundas Square, to the scene of Sammy’s death, and lastly to the Toronto Police’s 14 division station from which James Forcillo and 22 other cops were sent to handle Sammy Yatim, early Saturday morning. Anger is running high in Toronto while the city awaits the official results of the Police’s SIU investigation, and while I can understand a lot of the outrage, there is also a significant, often antagonistic, response to those who are against Sammy's killing that I find deeply troubling.
One of the most controversial responses to the death of Sammy Yatim was that the police had no other choice but to fire their guns at him. Matt Gurney over at the National Post was one of the most notable journalists to argue in favour of the police, as he referenced a 30-year-old police study—conducted by a Sargeant named Dennis Tueler from Utah—that concluded any knife-wielding person within 21 feet of an armed police officer is a lethal threat.
Even Matt agrees that Dennis Tueler’s study “does not seem… [to] apply to Saturday’s incident in Toronto,” so why bring it up? The study’s incompatibility with Sammy Yatim’s death is especially clear considering that the officers already had their guns drawn—which means there was no lost time spent un-holstering their pistols in the first place. Add this to the fact that Sammy Yatim was in an enclosed space, the officers had the option to close the streetcar doors on him and lock him inside, and that they could have used a taser, and all of a sudden this defense seems very unstable. Why ignore so many crucial possibilities and details while leaning on an old, irrelevant study? I don’t believe it’s making the Toronto Police look any better.
Since Matt Gurney’s article, the National Post came out with a new bit of information from one of their sources that claims James Forcillo “first called for a taser,” and only fired at Sammy when he took a step forward. We already knew the gunshots came after Sammy took that step, so I’m unclear on what this information is useful for. It would seem to indicate that the police were either too slow to bring the taser out, or that after Sammy lurched forward, James Forcillo decided nine gunshots was a better way to proceed at the last second. This also does not answer the question of why the taser was used on Sammy after those nine bullets had left James Forcillo’s gun.
While I have not read a defensive explanation that’s airtight enough to justify James Forcillo’s actions, things got much worse yesterday when Metro News cleverly mixed muted surveillance footage from the scene of the crime with the original iPhone footage (where gunshots can be heard) and discovered that for six of the nine shots fired at Sammy Yatim, the 18-year-old was already on the ground. With this in mind, I have to ask, why did James Forcillo continue to fire at a downed teenager, in a crowded area of a residential neighbourhood? This is an incredibly important question that will hopefully be answered effectively by the SIU’s investigation—and if you're asking this question yourself, watch Global News go through the footage of Sammy's death, blow-by-blow, with a former police investigator.
With such important, unanswered questions floating around the aftermath of Sammy’s death, it’s no surprise that at Monday night’s protest, the city’s anger was palpable. As we reported, some protesters took to yelling things like “Fuck the Police!” which was apparently too uncomfortable for people like Sarah Robertson, who questioned the protest in her article for the Huffington Post: “At what point does a sincere protest become a parade of stupidity on our streets?” Reductive thinking like this—when it comes to analyzing the effect of a public demonstration, that was born out of complete outrage against the authorities that are supposed to protect us—is dangerous. Anytime a crowd of upset and loud protesters are in one place, it becomes very simple to single out the most radical sect and immediately discredit the entire movement. It was used to take power away from the Occupy movement, then Idle No More, and now the Sammy Yatim protests. It’s simply just poor thinking.
While it’s unclear if Sarah was actually at the protest (she says she watched it all “unfold live”) I was there in person, and the overwhelming feeling I got was not that the mob wanted all cops to burn, because that would be stupid, but it was that people are genuinely upset and concerned about the quality of police officers that are patrolling our city streets with deadly weapons. This is a logical and disarming concern for any critical thinking, responsible citizen, and to discount the protests as “noise just for the sake of making noise” as Ms. Robertson says, we are doing our democratic right to protest—and be angry about things that should make people angry—an irresponsibly grave disservice.
Beyond discrediting the public’s outrage and the protests themselves, a type of news-meme is floating around that shows screenshots of Sammy Yatim’s Facebook page. I first noticed it on Monday, and a concerned reader emailed it to me again last night. I won’t link it here, out of respect for his family and friends’ privacy, but it’s a series of images that shows Sammy’s Facebook Cover Photo as being a ring of assault rifles, while also showing photos of him and his friends making gang-esque signs to the camera, and generally attempts to paint Sammy as a delinquent—with the apparent subtext being he deserved what he got. While no sane person would condone the behaviour of Sammy Yatim on the night of his death, whoever built this virtual dossier on Sammy’s online activity needs to take a step backwards. If I were the victim of police violence at 18, and someone picked and chose tidbits of my online footprint to portray the truth of my being, I could easily have been painted as the reckless lunatic that I sometimes was. The same would have certainly applied to any of the friends I had around that age. This is the same kind of bullshit that came up in the Trayvon Martin case—when the prosecutor used a picture of a weed plant, a gun, and texts about drug use that were found on his own personal cell phone as evidence of there being a “different picture” than the one Trayvon’s family and defense attorney were painting. As Trayvon’s attorney Benjamin Crump asked at the time, “Is the defense trying to prove Trayvon deserved to be killed?”
At a time like this, there are all sorts of truly crazy attitudes and opinions regarding what really happened to Sammy Yatim, and how it was handled. The facts, however, are that he was shot nine times by a police officer—who is apparently now “devastated”—and six of those shots were fired when Sammy was on the ground. There were numerous cops surrounding the front door of the streetcar, where Sammy stood with a three-inch knife. If the best these cops can do in such a situation is load a teenager up with bullets, I personally hope to never be around a more lethal threat in public with this kind of police strategy being used in Toronto.
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire
More on Sammy Yatim: