EDITORIALS  Justice for Nicholas Gibbs

content warning: police brutality, anti-Black violence

On November 4, over a hundred people gathered in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce to stand in solidarity with Nicholas Gibbs’ family and demand justice and accountability for his murder. Gibbs, a 23-year-old Black father, was shot five times and killed by the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) on August 21. The vigil, organized by Rest to Resist, started with an opening prayer by Kahnawake elders, followed by a land acknowledgement by the Black Indigenous Harm Reduction Alliance. Gibbs’ family led the procession from Trenholme Park to the location where Gibbs was killed. Erma Gibbs, Nicholas Gibbs’ mother, spoke at the event of the failure of police as first responders and asserted: “the police didn’t have the right to kill my son.” On October 30, the Gibbs family announced that they would be suing the city for over one million dollars in moral and punitive damages. The lawsuit accuses the police of using excessive force and not taking into account Gibbs’ emotional distress. This decision follows the release of a cell phone video taken by a witness at the scene of the murder. The video shows the police making no effort to de-escalate the situation once they arrived. Instead, they yelled at Gibbs in French to “stop,” even though he did not speak French. The officers then proceeded to shoot him five times, the last one in his back.

The lawsuit also alleges that police officers at the scene illegally took witness statements and asked their supervisors to review and approve them before the arrival of the Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes (BEI; Bureau of Independent Investigations). The BEI is an independent body responsible for investigating police shootings. The lawsuit denounces the “unlawful and intentional wrongful acts” perpetrated by the police. Quebec laws state that officers should “withdraw themselves from the scene immediately after an incident and, independently of each other, write up their version of the events that led to the incident under investigation.” After this, the BEI should be notified “without delay.”

This follows multiple allegations over the past year of the SPVM violating the law regarding independent investigations, despite several warnings from the BEI. Officers regularly wrote reports in the same room, and interviewed witnesses after shootings, making it impossible to obtain objective reports or hold the SPVM accountable. As Jeremy Gibbs, Nicholas Gibbs’ nephew, expressed, “with a system like [this], no one will ever trust the police and no one will ever trust the system.”

During the vigil, Black Lives Matter activist Marlihan Lopez denounced how systemic racism, combined with lack of training, led to Gibbs’ death. She called on the city to “understand that police should never [be] first responders to issues of mental health crises.” Police officers are rarely trained for, or effective at, de-escalating confrontations, and are often more likely to cause harm than offer help to the individuals involved. Since 2000, 70 per cent of victims of police violence in Canada have had mental health issues, which, amongst other things, reveals the institutional failure of police officers to effectively use de-escalation techniques. As recently as 2013, Canadian police officers were trained to “shoot until the threat has stopped,” a tactic consistently proven to be dangerous and ineffective. During the vigil, Erma Gibbs reiterated the dangers of an armed police force, noting that they “may have a weapon of destruction [that] they don’t know how to use.”

Not everyone has the privilege of feeling safe in the presence of police. Throughout Canada, Black and Indigenous people are disproportionately killed by police officers, and the rate of police shootings has doubled over the last 20 years. In a white supremacist and ableist culture, marginalized communities are grossly overrepresented in cases of police violence, and are often in more danger once police arrive. We must remember that in many situations, calling the police is the wrong choice. Unarmed mediation, community protection, restorative justice, economic justice, direct democracy, and decriminalization are all propositions for a “cop-free world,” and enforcing these alternatives instead of calling the police could help prevent future tragedies.

Donate to the “Justice pour/for Nicholas Gibbs” GoFundMe to help the Gibbs family.