Features  Ferguson, mon amour

Reflections on racial profiling and police brutality

Over five months have passed since the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the safety of black people in the U.S. is a more pressing issue than ever. This is due in part to the continued execution of unarmed black people in the U.S. by police, and in part to the increasing tenacity with which the Black Lives Matter and other Ferguson-related, anti-racist movements are making their voices heard. The Daily interviewed students in the U.S. and Canada who are affected by these issues and shared their experiences and perspectives. Melanie Enama, a U3 student in Political Science at McGill, and Takunda Ndoro, a student at the University of Maryland in the U.S., both note the increased media coverage of anti-black police brutality since the events of Ferguson began to unroll. Enama says, “In regard to the U.S., I guess it’s this [broken] taboo, that no one [in the media] talked about before, even though it existed.” Ndoro says he is “glad that the issues of police brutality and unequal treatment in the justice system are receiving more attention from those outside of the black community than ever before.”

Racialized police brutality in the U.S. and Canada

According to a report published by the Malcom X Grassroots Movement, “Every 28 hours in 2012 someone employed or protected by the US government killed a Black man, woman, or child.” This statistic is terrifying to say the least, and highly indicative of the dire changes that need to take place within the U.S. to preserve the human rights and dignity of all those living within the country. Ndoro points to ignorance as a contributing factor to racialized police brutality. “In a perfect world, police brutality and race would be two concepts that have no causal relationship with one another at all. However, as pessimistic as this may seem, in today’s world, police brutality and race are very connected, despite the many strides social justice and humanitarian movements have made to promote and educate the world about racial equality. I believe that the link between police brutality and race is ignorance. A police officer [who] is ill-informed or fearful of a particular group of people is one who is at risk of making misjudgements about a situation that could lead to the use of unnecessary or excess force in the course of duty. If prejudice and inexperience are eliminated, and cultural and racial sensitivity become the norm in police ranks across the country, we will see a decline in instances of brutality and wrongful harm during police activity.”

Enama also takes other factors into consideration when talking about police brutality. “Race is not always a reason behind police brutality; there are other factors at play,” she says “I am not saying that there aren’t instances where police brutality was motivated by race; however, what I am saying is that there are other factors that should also be addressed. For example, police accountability for their actions, or better training for those entering the police force.” By police accountability, Enama means police stepping up and taking responsibility for their actions, as opposed to trying to defend and justify them. She adds, “Ferguson’s case was a reminder that much still needs to be done in the U.S. in regard to holding police officers accountable for what they do, and that [racial divides] and stereotypes are still very much alive in the U.S.”

While fingers are often – and most of the time rightfully – pointed at the U.S. for its dismissive attitude toward its black-identifying population (as Human Rights Watch did after the verdict of the Ferguson non-indictment was released, and as journalist Nicholas Kristof did when he pointed out that U.S. incarcerates more black men than apartheid South Africa), does pointing a finger at the U.S. and claiming your country, your province, your city, is ‘not that bad,’ remove you from the responsibility to be critical of your own community, and to facilitate change within it? Many, such as Enama, feel that “saying that you are better than someone else doesn’t make you exempt from eradicating the problem. What I hear from many Canadians is that the situation in Canada is better than that of the U.S.. I assume that this is true, but the problem is still present.”

“The thing that scares me the most in this world is losing one of my siblings to police brutality.”

Kai Thomas, a McGill student in African Studies and Anthropology, also points to multiple oppressive practices that underscore the ways in which police brutality manifests itself in Montreal – one of which is the use of unnecessary aggressiveness by the police. “Just the other day I was talking to somebody who was born and raised in New York, and was recently incarcerated in Montreal, and he remarked that he noticed an even more intense degree of aggressive behavior when dealing with police in Montreal as opposed to New York. And that’s not to say that that’s a statistic or anything like that, but these are the kind of reflections that are not actually so uncommon to have or hear [with regard to interactions] with the police in Montreal.”

The mass incarceration of black and Indigenous populations is used as a way to control those bodies. In Canada, Indigenous people make up 4 per cent of the general population. According to a 2014 report by the Office of the Correctional Investigator, they make up 22 per cent of the prison population. The report also states that “black inmates now account for 9.5 per cent of the total prison population (up from 6.3 per cent in 2003/04) while representing just 2.9 per cent of the general Canadian population.” Racial profiling also seems to be prominent within the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SVPM). As Thomas states, “I was speaking to a guy who at one point had a Range Rover, and he would get stopped daily by the cops. The psychological effects of having those interactions [also need to be considered]. Being profiled and harassed by police, especially when you feel that it’s because of your racial phenotype, is an extremely disturbing experience. People can even have symptoms of [post traumatic stress disorder] after having an experience like that. It’s very traumatizing.”

Provincial documents publicly released by the Quebec Human Rights Commission have acknowledged that police in Canada are trained to employ racial profiling. On this, Thomas comments, “[During] the war on drugs [in the States] you had certain training programs put in place for police to recognize people who seemed to be out of place – sometimes with implicit references to look for race, sometimes with explicit references, especially when stopping drivers of cars. That training model was efficiently adopted in Canada [in the 1990s], so there is evidence to say that police are literally trained to look for racialized bodies and to associate them with criminality in certain contexts. This kind of training to racially profile people, to associate blackness with a proclivity for violence […] that occurs well before most people enter a police academy. There’s a degree to which it’s already happening whether or not you have the documentation of all this training that was conducted.”

Canada’s shortfall of accountability

Comparing Canada to the U.S. can have concerning effects that stand in the way of eradicating anti-black racism. Thomas tells The Daily, “When it comes to talking about blackness in Canada, it’s always done in comparison to the States. This continual comparison to the U.S. is often deployed as a way to demonstrate Canada’s perceived moral superiority. [This] is a very dangerous road to go down because it has […] the tendency to erase very real experiences of oppression that have occurred and that continue to occur in Canada – speaking historically. Just because we didn’t have plantations does not mean that we didn’t have that same system of racial hierarchy, does not mean that we didn’t have very entrenched ideas of the lesser or the absent humanity of black and Indigenous bodies. We have to live with the repercussions of that and can’t pretend that the first relationship that settler colonials on this soil had with black bodies wasn’t that of enslavement. You can’t run away from that fact.”

“Walking across campus, I can’t not think that my black ancestors were the ones who were enslaved to build this place.”

It can be challenging to put forth a comprehensive analysis of the link between police brutality and race. In the case of Canada, Thomas also contributes this to the ideologies of multiculturalism and colour-blindness. “The multicultural mosaic is this utopic idea [that] Canada is a multicultural society: it’s pluralistic, it’s harmonious, et cetera. […] The other myth that we like to to brandish – especially one that black folks run into when talking with white liberal people – is that of “colour-blindness.” It’s the idea that, ‘I never see your colour.’ […] ‘I don’t see any difference.’”

Thomas also discusses the way in which Canada will flaunt its alleged multiculturalism when it is in Canada’s best interest to do so, but will leave the people who make up their mosaic hanging when they voice their concerns. “Canada wants to see you when it can show off its harmonious multicultural relationship; however, if you, as a person of colour, or a black person, have complaints, then ‘we don’t see colour, we’re colour-blind.’ So it’s kind of like a paradox, two contrasting ideals that are deployed depending on the needs of the Canadian body, institutions, or white liberalism in general.”

He explains that this paradox is what makes it difficult to constructively talk about connections between police brutality and racism. “If we’re committed to those ideals [of multiculturalism and colour-blindness] then there’s no way to talk about things such as the history of slavery in Canada [and] the huge overrepresentation of black folks in prison. […] All these bodies of evidence that come up in different forms in Canada are rendered kind of unspeakable by this Canadian commitment to the multicultural mosaic and to colour-blindness.”

Solidarity and equality at McGill

“The first step to solving any problem is acknowledging that the problem exists,” explains Enama. “Hence, I [would] like to see the McGill community acknowledging that there are many black lives and counting that have been lost to police brutality, or that will be lost to police brutality, as well as that those who died because of this brutality were loved and cherished by many.” Ndoro adds the importance of undoing stereotypes and biased attitudes toward black populations. “All I want from the world is more effort to reject traditional black stereotypes and increased understanding of the conditions and circumstances that influence black perspectives.”

“Just because we didn’t have plantations does not mean that we didn’t have that same system of racial hierarchy, does not mean that we didn’t have very entrenched ideas of the lesser or the absent humanity of black and Indigenous bodies.”

Changes in opposition of police brutality against black bodies can also take place on an institutional and individual level, as Thomas explains. “In terms of McGill, I think what is very necessary to happen is to get more diversity, especially among faculty. Like, a solid commitment to equity in hiring practices. And not only that, but a commitment to [relevant studies, because] programs such as African Studies are struggling to stay alive. There’s a professor in Montreal, Aziz Salmone Fall – and this is paraphrasing his words – [who] said that McGill has a historic obligation to black and Indigenous studies, especially given that James McGill was an owner of black and Indigenous slaves. The very premises on which we walk every day are built on relationships based on anti-black violence. […] Walking across campus, I can’t not think that my black ancestors were the ones who were enslaved to build this place. It’s important to get those sorts of knowledge out into the public. I would like to see the recognition of that, and the commitment to continuing those sorts of commitments to diversity and to equity.”

When talking about what individual allies can do, Thomas says that, “In a place like Canada, black people don’t have [the numbers that they do in the U.S.]. So it makes the question of allyship all the more important. I would encourage allies and people who wish to be allies to really take that extra step to educate each other and be open to education about the types of issues that are happening. It’s a scary thing to think about, but [also] to be prepared to be a dissenting voice when something oppressive happens, and regardless of whether black people are there or not. [It] can be a powerful thing when you have people who are not necessarily being targeted by certain things but are intervening nonetheless. Within that we see the possibility for a more powerful and more subversive type of organizing, because the state likes it when you keep to your own little enclaves, and you don’t see the interconnectedness of oppression.”

Be it in the U.S. or in Canada, there is an attitudinal change that needs to take place on an individual and institutional level. This needs to occur in order to bring an end to police brutality and related inustices – such as racial profiling and the overrepresentation of visible minorities in prison – in addition to the constant threat that police brutality poses to the lives of black people. Enama still feels that “the thing that scares me the most in this world is losing one of my siblings to police brutality.” Ndoro adds to this that “judging solely by how uneasy, I, as a black male, still feel when in the presence of police officers or other lawmen, I do not believe much has changed.” The very first step to creating spaces where all people feel and truly are safe is to recognize that anti-black police brutality is indeed a reality faced by many, in the U.S., Canada, and many other places. We need to stop pointing fingers at others in order to distract from a change that needs to occur on a transnational scale.