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‘We are scared of the police’: Community reels after Abdirahman Abdi’s death

A quiet neighborhood in Canada's capital is still reeling after a Somali-Canadian man died after being arrested by Ottawa police. An external investigation will determine whether the officers were at fault.
A woman enters the building where Abdi and his family lived. Friends and relatives are visiting the grieving family. (Hilary Beaumont)

A man steps around the dried blood on the bricks outside 55 Hilda Street on Thursday evening. Bouquets of flowers circle a tree near the entrance, and messages of support are written in chalk on the sidewalk.

Five days after witnesses allege 37-year-old Somali-Canadian Abdirahman Abdi was beaten to death by two officers, the man's blood still stains the ground outside his apartment building in Ottawa's usually quiet Hintonburg neighborhood.


As she walks toward the door, a woman mouths the words written in chalk: "Justice for Abdirahman." Tears trickle from her eyes. "He was a good boy!" she exclaims, wiping them away.

Friends, relatives and members of the local Somali-Canadian community have been visiting Abdi's family around the clock all week. His funeral is scheduled for Friday afternoon at the local mosque.

Abdi's immediate family is grieving and is not yet speaking publicly, but locals tell VICE News they saw the cops use "excessive force" on the man, who reportedly had a mental illness, and their actions have shaken the community's trust in police.

Neighbours and locals have been writing chalk messages on the building where police officers allegedly beat Abdi. (Hilary Beaumont)

"Now, we are scared of the police," a Somali woman says with wide eyes, as she and her friend exit 55 Hilda Street at dusk on Wednesday. They didn't know Abdi personally, but she says she has lost faith in police as a result of how they treated him.

Up the street, a sandwich board outside a hot dog stand reads: "Abdirahman Abdi, Black Lives Matter." A young woman who works there, Miesha-Lee Perry, wrote the words.

"I feel the force they used to take him down was really unnecessary," she said, although she didn't witness the incident. "I can't say it's because he's black, or what, but most of us feel that that's the case. We feel like they wouldn't have used such aggressive force if he hadn't been colored."

Rehan Ahmed, who knows the family but emphasized that she wasn't speaking on their behalf, said she doesn't believe racism motivated the officers. The police union president has vehemently denied that race had anything to do with what happened.


"But sometimes you ask yourself, what if Abdirahman was a white caucasian?" she said. "Maybe he would have had time to explain himself, and say, this happened, and then [police] would say, you're under arrest. But Abdirahman didn't get that chance."

While Ontario's Special Investigation Unit (SIU) digs into what happened, questions remain about why police acted the way they did. No charges have been laid in the man's death, and the allegations against the officers involved haven't been proven in court.

It's still unclear exactly what brought police to a popular Hintonburg cafe on Sunday morning.

Miesha-Lee Perry, who knew Abdi, drew this sign. (Hilary Beaumont)

Jen Gilchrist was at the cafe Sunday morning, sitting next to a couple who were sitting by the window.

Before Abdi walked into the cafe, she said "his actions were rather erratic." As he walked past her he seemed "a little bit disoriented." He walked up to a couple sitting in the window and shook their hands. "They were very open to it," but it didn't appear to her that he knew the couple, she said.

"And then I just saw her face change and she shielded herself with her arm." Abdi reached toward her chest, but she blocked his hand, Gilchrist said.

She heard the woman's partner say: "Call the police." Then the manager came up to the man and told him to leave.

She left the cafe shortly after to go to church, so she wasn't there when the police arrived. She didn't know who had called them.

"It shook up the whole place," she said. "It shook everyone up."


There are conflicting reports of what happened in the cafe. A CBC story published Thursday mentions a Francophone woman, but Gilchrist said the woman who shielded herself was not Francophone.

"I wanted to clear things up because I heard he had groped a woman, but he didn't," Gilchrist explained.

An employee at the cafe said she was not authorized to speak about the situation, referring VICE News to her manager, who did not reply to a request for comment.

A July 25 post on the cafe's Facebook page refers to "an unfortunate incident" at the coffee shop, and says "our staff followed protocols to ensure the safety of our customers and staff."

According to Ontario's Special Investigation Unit (SIU), someone called police to the cafe at 9:30 am. When police arrived, they found Abdi, and chased him down the street for about three blocks, passing small businesses and a community garden, and breaking the peace of the usually quiet neighborhood.

Screams and yells brought neighbors to their windows.

The quiet street where Abdirahman's life ended. (Hilary Beaumont)

When Abdi reached the door of 55 Hilda Street, he tried to get inside, but a witness whose window looks directly onto the scene said he saw two officers push the man against the front door of the building.

"The guy was trying to wrestle them a bit," the witness, who didn't want to be named for fear of police reprisal, told VICE News. But the two officers took him down.

According to the witness, they used both a billy club and their fists to beat him.


Abdi was yelling in a language that wasn't English, the witness said. "It sounded like he was begging for his life."

When the officers took him down, he said they continued to beat him. He couldn't see the top of Abdi's body, but he saw the arms of one officer punching him repeatedly. It was "a good beating" that lasted about 10 minutes, he said.

"He was screaming and his feet were dangling and then at some point the feet stopped dangling and he wasn't screaming anymore."

He estimated the officers hit the man about 30 times between them.

"Sometimes I agree they have to use force, but that was excessive force," he said.

"Judge, jury and executioner," he said of the police officers.

Related: It's Impossible To Find Out Exactly How Many People Are Shot By Cops in Canada

The witness expressed a sentiment that many neighbors communicated to VICE News. While charges haven't been laid and the cause of death has not been released, many believe the police killed Abdi.

Ray Miran, who lives across the street, was also drawn to his window when he heard the screams.

He saw the officers hit Abdi with a billy club. "He went down after the billy club," he said. "They had him down. They put him in handcuffs and they started beating up on him."

He said one cop was particularly ruthless. "He hit him at least a dozen times.

"One was standing over him and the other was on his knees and just punching him, punching him, punching him. I guess he passed out. Then they left him on the ground."


"It was awful, It was real awful," Miran said. "The man was down, he didn't need to be beaten up anymore. Once you're down with the billy club, he's down. Put the handcuffs on him and that's it. Don't beat up on him like crazy."

By the time Abdi was on the ground, the whole neighborhood was watching. People peered over their balconies and looked out their windows, recording video of the aftermath and yelling down at the police.

A YouTube video posted on Wednesday showed the aftermath from inside the front doors of the building. Behind the doors, off camera, his family members scream as they see him lying motionless on the ground outside. Two officers appear to block the doors so they can't leave the building.

According to another video of the incident, a full 10 minutes passes before a paramedic arrives and begins CPR on the man.

Initially, police reports stated he was brought to hospital in critical condition, but a family spokesperson later said he had already been dead for 45 minutes when he arrived at the hospital and was seen by doctors.

Dried blood marks the spot where Abdi died. (Hilary Beaumont)

On Friday, Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau said the city's officers have been taunted and filmed following Sunday's incident. "People are reacting right now, but I think we need to take a step back," he told Ottawa Morning.

"This is a tragic incident, and it's involving members of the police service," he said. "It's impacting the Abdi family, and it's impacting the greater community. We appreciate that, we understand that.


"I know they want answers, and that's why the SIU has been called in. It's important to allow that process to take place."

Related: Somali community demands answers after altercation with police leaves mentally ill man dead in Canada

Though his family wasn't ready to speak, locals remembered Abdi as a quiet, polite man.

"He was actually a very quiet person, he didn't talk much, which I like, and he was very polite," Perry said. "When he would come in, he would always say, 'Hi, how are you today?'

"He wasn't an aggressive person whatsoever. He wasn't the most stable, but he's never ever did anything, said anything disrespectful toward me ever, so to hear that he did that was a surprise," she said, referring to the neighborhood rumor that he had groped a woman at the cafe.

The shop owner of Al-Jazeera, a Middle Eastern and Indian grocery store down the street, said Abdi would come in from time to time. He also knew him and his family from the local mosque.

"[He was] very nice, very peaceful," he said of Abdi. "I think he will go to heaven."

He was smiling all the time, never complained and didn't interfere with anyone's business, he said. Abdi worked at a local car wash, but the business closed down about a year ago and he was looking for a job, he remembered.

"Friends, family, he has a huge community that's supporting him right now," Perry said. "We just hope we get the true story. And I personally don't think those cops should have a job right now."

Ahmed says a full, transparent investigation is needed to restore the community's trust.

"I have trust in the police and I still believe in the police in Ottawa and everywhere in Canada, but my trust was shaken by what happened Sunday," she said. "And I have a lot of concern about police brutality. So the city needs to do something to regain the trust of the community because everybody was shaken."

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