It's time to consider our own sins

It’s an extremely dark time in North America. For six days now, American police have been escalating violence against protests that erupted after Minneapolis police murdered an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, by choking him to death in the street.

Police forces in major American cities have beaten journalists and maimed them with point-blank rubber bullet fire. Unarmed protesters have been shot to death. Children have been maced. Police have been recorded in multiple instances attacking crowds of protesters by driving into them. Armed white supremacist vigilante groups roam the streets with the tacit approval of law enforcement.

I haven’t seen such an intense display of racist state brutality since the Rodney King riots in 1992--and even that violence was relatively contained to Los Angeles. Now, pitched battles are taking place across the entire United States.

Yesterday evening the American president had thousands of peaceful protestors in Lafayette Square tear-gassed in order to clear the area so he could do a photo op outside a church and rant about crushing the demonstrators. They literally gassed the clergy of the church itself.

President Trump has decided to use the chaos as an opportunity to throw red meat to his own base, and rather than blaming the horrific police brutality which precipitated the protests is blaming ‘antifa,’ the political movement which seeks to disrupt fascist organizing. He declared yesterday that he will declare antifa (which is not, by any sensible definition, an organization, and is absolutely not the driving force behind the protests) a terrorist organization--tantamount to declaring that anyone with politics left of centre an enemy of the state. He admonished state governors seeking conciliatory solutions as “weak” and is demanding even harsher crackdowns. One US senator has called for the military to treat protesters with “no quarter,” i.e., to kill them all. As I write this, horror stories from the night continue to trickle in.

Canada and Alberta are much less removed from this evil than we might like to think. It’s time to consider our own sins.

Thousands recently rallied in Toronto after a family alleged last week that police murdered a Black woman, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, by pushing her off her balcony. It’s far from the only outrage. There is no great shortage of complaints about racist police brutality in Canada.

Nor does the Canadian public seem far behind in terms of cruel, racist and authoritarian sentiment. Just a few months ago, prominent Canadian pundits and politicians were urging violent crackdowns against the Wet’suet’en and their allies who were protesting pipelines. You’ve probably seen it already in the column space of the Calgary Herald, or the National Post, or the Edmonton Journal, or at least on some jackass Calgary millionaire’s Twitter feed. We couldn’t glance at a conservative-leaning comment section for more than a second without seeing someone rant about how they’d like to run protesters down with their big manly truck.

And pandering to and inflaming those sentiments: our own government. Jason Kenney, who last fall was praising Vladimir Putin for his brutal treatment of environmentalist protesters, brought in the UCP government’s first legislation of the year specifically cracking down on protesters. Kenney’s Bill 1 gets two birds stoned at once, criminalizing protest both from environmentalists and from unions, and is sure to be popular with the sociopathic “just run ‘em over” conservative base. 

Canada and Alberta specifically have long histories of intense anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. That racism of course rears its head in the law enforcement and carceral systems too. Nearly 30% of people in prison in Canada are Indigenous, despite less than 5% of the country’s population being Indigenous. Just last week the BC Supreme Court found that an RCMP officer “falsely arrested, falsely imprisoned, assaulted and battered” a Wet’suet’en elder with a walker. When Progress Alberta researched carding--a police practice in which officers illegally demand identification from people who are not detained or suspected of any crime--we found that Black and Indigenous people were targeted for this harassment at a staggeringly higher rate than any other group in our communities. 

(I will note, with great frustration and anger, that it is not merely the conservatives who have failed us all on the issue of racist policing: despite an intense public campaign for over two years, and despite many inspirational statements about their commitment to anti-racist action, Alberta’s former NDP government refused to take any action to stop carding. At the federal level, Justin Trudeau set the tone by appointing Bill Blair as his Minister of Public Safety; Blair was the architect of brutal police actions at the G20 protests in 2010, and drew intense criticism from Black Lives Matter while he was police chief of Toronto.)

The sick irony behind all this misery and chaos is that the solutions to these problems are not really very complex. America and Canada both have been built upon foundations of terrible racial and economic injustice. Where there is no justice, there is no peace. But rather than choose to solve these underlying problems--rather than housing the homeless, healing the sick, employing the unemployed and returning what was stolen--we have chosen to suppress dissent by policing the people who were victimized. We have, as a nation, made a deliberate choice to pay police to deal with problems that should be addressed by social workers, nurses, and civil society.

Sixteen times as much city funding in Calgary goes to the police service than goes to social programs. In just Alberta’s six largest cities alone over $800 million has been budgeted for policing this year. Imagine how rapidly we could eradicate poverty in our cities with $800 million a year!

They say that when all you’ve got is a hammer everything looks like a nail. Now imagine that all you’ve got are rubber bullets, tear gas, tasers and takedown training, but you’ve been sent out to calm someone who’s having a mental health crisis and needs a nurse. What do we expect is going to happen?

We have several research pieces and interviews on the way regarding policing in Alberta, so keep your eyes on our social media or the Progress Report blog for stories as they break. If you have any ideas, please reach out. 

If you would like to support the American demonstrators, I recommend contributing to a bail fund. These funds are used to secure the release of protesters who have been detained by the police. You very well might save someone’s life.


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