According to the Toronto Police's own stats, not everyone gets served or protected equally. Photo via.
One night in the mid-80s, a bit before I was born, my parents went to a party in Mississauga. My mother is white and most of the people there were black, like my dad. As the party was winding down at about midnight, they went to leave through the backyard. At the gate that led out to the street, a group gathered, peering out through the fence at a police car parked nearby. Nobody wanted to leave. My mother, being white, described it like this: "There had been nothing illegal going on at the party that I knew of. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, so I said 'Let’s go.'" According to my mom, the black people at the party were more along the lines of: “I have done nothing wrong but the police are out there and we feel uncomfortable.” Ethics 101 aside, eventually my white mom and black dad left the party.
When they drove out of the neighbourhood, an unmarked police van stopped their car. They asked for ID, and when my mom said she didn’t have any on her, they asked if she was a “good girl,” probably insinuating that she was a sex worker. They did a background check but all they could find were some unpaid traffic tickets, which they said my dad had to pay on the spot. The police then followed them to an ATM, where my dad took out money amidst shouts of "nigger" from a guy outside the store. They didn’t get a receipt. My mom, not really sure what was going on during the hurried encounter, recounted to me later that it just didn’t seem right.
That was over twenty-five years ago. Alas, some things don’t change.
Last year, the Toronto Star published articles showing the breadth and significance of Toronto police’s carding practices. Analyzing the police’s own data obtained through a freedom of information request, the ongoing “Known to Police” series brought to light what black people already knew: black people—and black men in particular—are being “stopped and checked” at overwhelmingly disproportionate rates.
Soon after, Canadian activist organization the Black Action Defense Committee (BADC) announced it was suing the Toronto Police. Launched in November 2013, the lawsuits essentially attempt to gain recognition for years of racial profiling, carding, deportation and unequal treatment in prisons, alleging rights violations under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Human Rights Code. Earlier this month, BADC filed their class-action complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, seeking $100 million in damages.
One of the particular demands of BADC and other activist groups such as Justice is Not Colour-Blind is an end to police carding. “Carding” has become shorthand for police street checks—the demand for and recording of information without an arrest. Basically it's saying: if they don’t get you now, they’ll get you later. “Carding” had become the of-the-moment axis of discussion for abuses of power that had been going on in Toronto and in Canada for decades.
While this may seem like a Toronto-specific issue, it also needs to be looked at as endemic of the very way this country operates. Yes, carding is a problem of the Toronto Police Service, which has been called “the most powerful public-sector organization in the city” by one of BADC’s founders, and the police abuse of their carding policy points at a larger, often violent history.
Perhaps the apex of public awareness in and around police brutality in Toronto was in the late 1980s when the fatal shootings of a number of black people by the police cemented BADC’s founding in 1988. Following the Yonge Street "riots” in 1992 after BADC organized a rally to protest yet another shooting, there were more shootings by the police. To this day, one of BADC’s most commonly cited accomplishments is ultimately helping to create Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit in 1990, an independent agency designed to investigate police shootings (the same one that charged officer James Forcillo with second-degree murder in 18-year-old Sammy Yatim’s death last summer, a rare charge for Toronto police).
When I talked to BADC board member Valerie Steele over the phone, she emphasized the long history of the group’s organizing against racial profiling and police brutality.When I asked her about the timing of the lawsuits, her answer was aclear response to the we-need-to-work-together policy police PR spouts. “How long should we dialogue around the same thing? I call it the hamster mentality.”
There has been a bureaucratic police response to carding, which they are now attempting to rebrand as “community safety notes.” The police have called carding an “effective” investigative tool while also often pointing to the fact that Toronto Police Chief Blair acknowledged racial profiling years ago, or what is now being referred most prominently by the service as “bias in policing.”
As part of the Known to Police series, the Star looked at a carding pattern in patrol zone 523, which includes the so-called Entertainment District—which was once a heavily concentrated area of nightclubs that has since been dissolved by City Council. “For young black males, the ratio of individuals documented to the population there is 252:1. For brown young males, it is 65:1. For young white males, 23:1,” the Star writes.
Academic/activist Chris Williams and law student/community organizer Knia Singh's message to Bill Blair.
Despite the Star’s evidence, Meaghan Gray, Toronto police spokesperson, echoed Blair’s year-end interview, adding, “Racial profiling is illegal and so, as an example, any community safety note that was based wholly or in part on racial bias would be illegal and the officer would face significant sanction for any such activity.”
One way to think about the make-believe transparency that the police attempt to transmit in response to the recent publicity on carding is against a case like Clem Marshall, a former teacher who was pulled over in Parkdale in 2009 and subsequently filed a human rights complaint for racial profiling. The police didn’t admit liability, but they settled for an undisclosed amount of money.
But for the BADC, the lawsuits come after hitting a wall: the common tune of reform by police, and little action. Years of increased institutional enforcements—policing, incarceration, and deportation to name a few—coupled with ongoing attention to New York City’s racist stop-and-frisk practices has culminated in the perfect storm of scrutiny to the issue.
It can’t be ignored that part of the reason why the Toronto police’s carding practices have gotten even the smallest iota of attention is due to both NYC’s activism and juridical responses. Most recently, new mayor Bill de Blasio, who when running launched an ad saying he has talked to his black son about someday being stopped-and-frisked, settled his predecessor Michael Bloomberg’s appeal to a judge ruling in August that the practice was unconstitutional.
When I asked Rinaldo Walcott, Associate Professor of Humanities, Social Sciences and Social Justice Education at the OISE at the University of Toronto, he confirmed, and noted that the way in which stop-and-frisk news in the US has made waves internationally, it would make sense that a major Canadian newspaper would want to investigate something similar.
He continued: “What is striking is that they look into it, they use the police evidence to demonstrate the significant problem and at the same time, it doesn’t spark a national debate. I don’t think that the Prime Minister has ever made a comment about the egregiousness of these practices. There has been no sustained conversation about it at the provincial level. While activists have been adamant in trying to push conversations at the city level and have been somewhat successful, one would think that every day there would be stories about the ways in which this works in the newspapers.”
“By the mid-2000s, we get this so-called new police chief Bill Blair who is sold to the City of Toronto as the police chief who is going to be all for community policing,” Walcott said. “And what does he give us? He gives us something called TAVIS, which is one of the most paramilitary police organizations, segments of the police force that specialize in multijurisdictional raids, breaking down the doors of grandmothers and mothers to get boys who are selling weed and crack. The same boys who are selling weed and crack to our current city mayor, who’s walking the street, but they’re in jail.”
Yet the policing, surveillance, and imprisonment of black bodies in Canada is nothing new. Walcott pointed to the decades of activism by black communities starting most strikingly with the police shooting of Albert Johnson in his home in 1979. “When we look carefully at the history of this country, this kind of egregious policing has been happening for a very long time and at multiple levels of government,” Walcott told me.
Canada’s multicultural ethos, which some see as a full-on fable, tends to overshadow the country’s deeply rooted and brutal disregard for black people in Canada, which goes far beyond the recent carding “controversy.” We already know that individuals like Marshall (an officer allegedly taunted him by asking: “Who do you think you are, fucking Obama?”), that is, those who stand out as “high-achieving” and “articulate” posterchildren for a post-racial society, aren’t exactly exempt from anti-black racism. But that’s hardly the point. More to the point is what Walcott cited: 40% of black people in Canada live below the poverty line. And according to the November report by Howard Sapers, Canada’s correctional investigator, the black inmate population has increased 90% since 2003, which is just one small piece of the ever-growing Canadian prison population.
There are a number of organizations working alongside and in the vein of BADC, a Stop Police Carding campaign asking people who have been carded to participate, a new city-based cop-watch app, publicity galvanized by Yatim’s death, a chorus against police behaviour at the 2010 G20 protests, and the lawsuit resulting from when TAVIS arrested four black teenagers attempting to “exercise their rights” at a Toronto Community Housing complex in 2011 and the police pointed a gun to their face. These recent incidents, the history of police shootings in Toronto, my parents, and the hundreds of thousands of people “carded” each year, are illustrative not only of individuals being demeaned by individual cops but also of the institutional depth of governing through criminality all over the country.
For many black folks in particular, police presence is one of the furthest things from safety. If “safety” means the Dixon Road Raids, the militarization of communities of colour, and the schemes of Toronto Community Housing Corp complexes, get me far away from safety. “We are creating a society where youth are afraid of police even to the point of hatred,” BADC’s Kingsley Gilliam told NOW in December. “You don’t have enough guns and tasers to control a society that hates police.”
Walcott sees the issue of carding as part of a greater fundamental problem. “We can’t really begin to address the question of policing until we can address the question of the structural place of black people in Canadian society,” he said. “If black people continue to be understood as outside of Canadian society, even the mildest policing—where police aren’t carrying guns—we’re still going to have these forms of abuse. There’s a significant question to be answered about why it is so difficult for the national institutions, whether it’s policing or education, to recognize black people as part of the polity.”
Twenty-five years after my mother and father experienced the effects of racial profiling firsthand, her persisting recollection of the night still strikes as poignant today:
“What are you gonna do?” she told me, “It’s the police.”