"To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time." - James A. Baldwin
It was January 15, 2011 when Mutaz Elmardy, a Sudanese man residing in Toronto, was en route home on Shuter Street after an evening of prayers at his local mosque. Elmardy testified that, with both of his hands in pocket, his identification was requested before being punched twice by Const. Andrew Pak, then handcuffed for approximately 25 minutes on the ground. A victim of racial profiling, he won a suit of $27,000 against Toronto Police Services Board last month for battery, assault, and unlawful arrest, alongside the violation of his Charter rights. The claim of his suit attributed the colour of his skin as reason for his brutal arrest.
The policy for carding in Toronto at this time was set so that revelation of personal information was only voluntary: it was completely within Elmardy's right to deny providing his personal identification or warranting an illegal search. That changed earlier this year as Toronto Police announced revisions of its policy so that collection of personal information, stopping, and questioning people without arrest would become legal, providing leeway for more cases like Elmardy to potentially occur. A spokesperson for the Toronto Police has confirmed that this policy is currently on hold until further changes are made. This has come at a time where continuous dialogue has emerged across North America about the intricate relationship between authority and anti-blackness.
One month ago came the international news of Freddie Gray's murder: a 25-year old Baltimore native whose demise came abruptly at the hands of police. That event incited one of the largest riots in connection with #BlackLivesMatter since the movement's conception in 2013, with its emphasis on black suffering and the value of black life. Protests have since erupted internationally in solidarity with Baltimore, including Toronto—the same week that Mark Saunders, Toronto's new (and first black) Chief of Police, vowed to continue carding practices (without intent to arrest) despite evidence of racial profiling towards black and brown bodies more than others in the GTA.
"Black nihilism," a concept introduced by Cornel West, is black life textured with an overwhelming sense of meaninglessness, feelings of lack of hope and lovelessness. At its worst, the feeling leads to a path of self-destruction: living life without meaning, as black suffering transcends into an obstructive disposition towards the world. From police brutality to racist policies, black nihilism permeates black communities everywhere.
From Baltimore to Toronto, there is a history of anti-blackness in the relationship between police and citizen safety that is paradoxical, leading to the experience of black nihilism: the suffering of some citizens (black bodies) in protection of "all" (non-black bodies). However, black suffering is not and has never been an exclusive experience to Americans—a narrative often perpetuated through the telling of Canadian history as a "they" problem opposed to a "we."
Canada has perpetuated a multicultural con game through the guise of "progressive tolerance" for far too long: the notion that cities, such as Toronto, illustrate its country's diversity by emphasizing its spurts of immigration since the 1960s. However, this selective narrative has hidden Canada's longstanding history of anti-blackness: the prohibition of Black immigration from 1896 to 1915; buried slaves in cemeteries entitled Nigger Rock; the atrocities against black communities in Africville, or two centuries worth of slavery in Quebec since the 1600s.
This hidden history of anti-blackness has a direct relationship with contemporary black life in Canada from high unemployment rates, to over-representation (and poor conditions) of black bodies in prisons, alongside the current growing issue of racist carding practices in Canadian cities. Anti-black racism is not exclusively an American affair and never has been. The erasure and misrepresentation of an anti-black Canadian history serves as another form of black nihilism: the degradation of a history of black existence.
Evidence shows that in Toronto alone there is a disproportionate degree of carding towards black bodies compared to any other group; statistics that arguably show comparable numbers to racist carding practices in New York. After being appointed his new role, Saunders openly defended the practice of stopping and carding individuals not under arrest and recording the encounter—a new system very similar to New York's controversial Stop and Frisk program.
Saunders' carding controversy, however, has left Toronto's black community at a divide: serving in the role of first black police chief has sparked support for those who emphasize representation versus those in favour of substance and foundation. How progressive is a black figure as police chief if his impact is inimical for his community?
Saunders' public support of current carding practices—despite evidence of its many flaws— opens gateway to the potential increase of police harassment on black Canadian bodies in particular. His argument stands that although he is committed to putting a halt to random checks of innocent citizens, current carding practices are targeted to "suspected gang members" in hopes of making the city safer by getting rid of "collateral damage."
The negligence in perceived notions of who "suspected gang members" are or the racial implications that come with identities under these titles is what makes Saunders' new policy dangerous. The argument of safety becomes ironic here as open carding policies leaves an entire population, specifically 8.5 percent of Torontonians, unsafe and open to legal harassment by authorities, leaving citizens like Elmardy vulnerable to more black suffering.
A group of activists, academics, and community organizers have openly questioned and requested statistics from the Toronto Police Services Board to defend the premise that carding impacts crime in Toronto. To date, no stats have ever been publicly provided. In response, a petition went viral earlier this month calling for signatures against carding, urging Toronto Mayor John Tory, Police Services Board Chair Alok Mukherjee, and Saunders himself to cease the practice, in efforts to create a city that is "inclusive, diverse, welcoming, and respectful." Within 24 hours since its conception 2,500 people had signed.
Ignoring the ramifications of carding practices in Toronto, much like the denial of police brutality on black bodies in cities such as Baltimore, plays into the continuous dismissal of black suffering. The systems that have continuously allowed for police brutality against black bodies to occur almost daily in America have endured within Canadian borders with minimal mention in the country's history.
The most alarming part of black nihilism, after the progression of what James Baldwin describes as "Negro rage," is the development of a sense of pointlessness: a reclusive, sometimes deadly, depression that cultivates and expands every time another black body is harassed or murdered, serving as an umpteen reminder that black lives have never mattered, neither here nor there.
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