On Sunday March 19th, Black Lives Matter (BLM) Toronto initiated a protest outside Toronto police headquarters. The protest subsequently turned into an occupation which lasted two weeks. The instigating event was the failure of the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) to prosecute the officers involved in the fatal shooting of 45-year old Andrew Loku, who is of South Sudanese origin. After eight months of deliberation, the SIU ruled that the officer in question did not exceed the range of “justifiable force”.
A few days after the peaceful sit-ins started, the police ambushed and attacked BLM protesters, forcefully attempting to shut down the camp. They destroyed the tents and splashed water to extinguish the burn barrel that was essential for the protesters to stay warm on freezing nights. When that didn’t work, police returned wearing intimidating hazmat suits and sprayed the camp with fire-retardant chemicals. This served only to spread the fires of protest.
The police provocation sparked a day of action on March 24th, with over 1,000 participating from the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and other trade unions to “Jews in Solidarity with Black Lives Matter” and other self-identified ethnic and religious groups. This impressive demonstration of solidarity illustrates the instinctual unity of working class and oppressed people to unite and to defend each other against all oppression.
The Killing of Andrew Loku: Justified Use of Force?
The killing of Andrew Loku by the police occurred on July 5th, 2015, when he was confronted by two police officers in the hallway of his apartment complex. The incident transpired just after midnight. That night, Loku, distressed by the noises in the apartment above, went upstairs holding a hammer, and was reported to have threatened to kill one of the women in the apartment. Sources have reported that frustration with the noise in the apartment had been occurring for months and that Loku, on occasions prior, had asked the family to keep the noise down.
Two officers confronted Loku in the hallway of the apartment after a 911 call was made, saying he was armed with a hammer and was threatening to kill the caller’s friend. Prior to the officers arriving a neighbor, Robin Hicks, had managed to calm Loku down and was in the process of taking him back to his apartment. Upon arrival the officers drew their guns and demanded Loku drop the weapon. According to the police, Loku failed to abide and continued to take steps forward. He was then shot dead, with a post-mortem confirming wounds to his left chest. The police and the SIU justified the shooting as necessary, in order to prevent an “imminent hammer attack”.
However, what must be stressed is that Andrew Loku, having fled a country embroiled in 16 years of civil and leaving behind his wife and five children, suffered from mental illness. The apartment unit that Mr. Loku was staying at had been leased by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) to provide affordable housing and services to individuals with a history of mental illnesses.
That Mr. Loku had mental health problems was not unknown to the police. Just three hours prior to the police killing, Andrew Loku had been picked up by the police. He had been caught riding a three- wheeled scooter down a busy Toronto highway at the time. The police then escorted him home and were therefore aware of his mental health.
The CMHA has been critical of the Toronto police and has demanded an inquest into the killing in a recent letter. It is important to note that this agency operated a video camera and has access to the footage of the killing. A letter released on April 8th, 2016 by the CMHA stated the following:
“CMHA Toronto and Across Boundaries understand that witness accounts and video recordings of the incident reveal an interaction different from the one described by the SIU. It is further understood that the police did not attempt to rely on non-lethal alternatives, and elected to shoot Mr. Loku in circumstances where such a use of force was arguably avoidable. An inquest would shine an impartial light on what really happened, expose any instances of negligence or misconduct, and help work towards preventing such an incident in the future”
The CMHA also claimed that the police officers viewed the videotape before being investigated by the SIU, which would be improper and could suggest altering of testimony as to hide responsibility and adapt their testimony. The police officers vehemently denied that they viewed the footage prior to the investigation. It is important to note that the police video has not yet been released. Without an inquest, it would likely never be released to the public.
Racism in Canada
The Black Lives Matter movement that started in response to the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, has since rapidly gained ground, addressing issues including racial profiling, police brutality and the racial inequality within the criminal justice system both in the United States and Canada. The murder of Loku and the protests that have ensued have placed a spotlight on the deep-seated racism within Canadian capitalist society. Canada is often touted as being more tolerant, progressive and “multicultural” than the United States, and while this may in some respects be true, many minorities living in Canada know a very different story. The official Canadian government mantra promoting “multiculturalism” is more often than not a front that whitewashes the reality of racism that lurks beneath.
According to Statistics Canada, Ontario has a higher proportion of reported hate-crimes than any other province, with 5.7 per 100,000 people in 2010. Blacks reported the most reported hate crimes with 271 incidents, making them seven times more likely to be a victim than the average. Furthermore, the black population is three to five times more likely to be stopped and questioned by the police than whites.
A study conducted by Howard Sapers in 2014 discovered that despite a downward trend in crime rates within the previous decade, there was a 75 per cent increase in incarceration rates of black Canadians in federal prisons. Although representing only 2.5 per cent of the Canadian population, blacks represent just over 9.8 per cent of those serving time. There has been a 37 per cent jump in the number of aboriginals incarcerated equating to 22.8 per cent of the prison population, despite only comprising 4 per cent of the overall Canadian population. Over the same period of time the number of white offenders was found to have declined by 3 per cent.
The criminal justice system is more often than not a “default response” to mental health needs, and that only increases the possibility for minorities with mental health issues to encounter the police and justice system. According to the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey conducted for Statistics Canada, of the five million Canadians who reported coming into contact with the police during that year, one in five were found to have met the criteria for a mental or substance abuse disorder. A total of one in three Canadians with mental illnesses reported interaction with the police.
Institutionalized racism is evident in a myriad of ways. A 2011 study conducted by the Wellesley Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that black workers earned 75.6 cents for every dollar a white worker made, resulting in an annual earning gap of $9,101. Furthermore, the unemployment rate for the black population is 73 per cent higher than that of the white population. Racial oppression faced by the black population in Canada therefore takes on a multitude of forms including harassment and racist social attitudes, police profiling and police violence, discriminatory sentencing, and crucially, includes fundamental economic problems of employment and wages.
Despite all this evidence to the contrary, there remains a tendency by establishment figures to flagrantly deny that a race problem exists in Canada. This was evidenced by Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack’s scornful demand that Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne apologize for her “acknowledgement” of the systematic racism prevalent in society and policing.
Premier Wynne finally came to acknowledge the Black Lives Matter movement, but only after protesters camped for 14 days outside Toronto police headquarters in the ice and rain, and after a vigil was held in front of her house. Even this peaceful vigil was manipulated by the media in a racist manner. The symbolic gesture was peaceful and respectful, but Wynne claimed that it “unnerved” her neighbour and her spouse who called the police to investigate. Clearly the presence of young black people in an upscale neighbourhood is seen as threatening in itself.
Afterwards, and with mounting public support for the protesters, Wynne extended an invitation to the leaders of the protests to a closed-door meeting on how best to address the problems of racism in the police force prior to public discussion on the matter. The leaders of BLM have tentatively accepted the offer though skepticism in Wynne and the government is palpable, and rightly so.
While Wynne has given lip service to the systematic racism that exists, in an attempt to appease the movement, she has been a chief proponent in not only upholding but also strengthening the systemic racism that exists in capitalist society. She has carried out a policy of slashing employment and pushing down wages in the public sector, initiated privatizations, undermining the right of unionized workers to strike and closed youth centres.
These anti-working class policies disproportionately harm racialized minorities, women and youth. Wynne is anything but an ally in the struggle against racism. She may be willing to make symbolic gestures that are not costly from a capitalist standpoint, such as meeting with the BLM leaders, but when it matters the Liberals are always on the side of the establishment.
When it comes to government policies, Wynne stands for driving down wages and undermining social services that are devastating to black and racialized workers, to the benefit of her corporate friends on Bay Street. It should be noted that these same corporate executives have also been extremely generous in financing the Ontario Liberal Party for their services to the rich, as the recent scandals involving dozens of $7,500-a-plate Liberal fundraisers have demonstrated.
Fight Racism, Fight Capitalism!
The Black Lives Matter leadership has firmly stated their plans to return to the streets unless their demands are met. This is a correct approach, especially as the ruling class and state institutions have significant experience using meetings, inquiries and consultations to disorient and demobilize social movements, while they try to co-opt the leadership of these movements.
The demands of the BLM coalition have focused on an end to carding, the release of the name of the officer involved in the shooting of Andrew Loku, and the “overhaul” of the SIU and its decision to not charge the officer who killed Loku. As a result of the protests, the BLM coalition has managed to force a coroner's inquest into the death of Loku.
However, the purpose of the inquest is not to hold the police officer to account, but “to come up with recommendations that can prevent similar deaths from happening later.” While the police have declined to provide names, the officers involved will be compelled to testify. The proceedings are scheduled to begin near the end of the year.
Perhaps the most important effect of the BLM movement has been its impact on public consciousness, putting the issue of racism and police violence front-and-centre. A poll of 858 Torontonians found that 55 per cent support the movement and its push for increased police accountability and its rally against systemic anti-black racism, with three in ten “very strongly” supporting the movement.
This proves that support for the movement isn’t just a vocal minority but has a foundation of substantial support among the broader population in Toronto. At least as important has been the impact of the BLM movement in bringing people together into collective struggle.
While the establishment of an inquest into the killing of Loku is a very limited and partial victory, it shows that direct action has far more impact than any “consultation” with police institutions or with the provincial government. The limited nature of an inquest was shown after the police killing of Alwy Al-Nadhir in 2010, which did not result in substantive changes as demonstrated by the recent killing and clear evidence of ongoing racial profiling by the police. It is important that the movement not have any illusions in this concession.
The Special Investigations Unit (SIU) that the BLM is demanding be overhauled was itself set-up as a concession to struggles in Toronto against racism in the 1980s, particularly in response to police killings in the black community. This “civilian” oversight body ended up being staffed largely by retired police officers and has a record of letting police off the hook for their actions resulting in injury and death. Unfortunately the movement in the 1980s began to ebb after this “concession” was made. The SIU should be abolished, as its only purpose is to whitewash the police services in a veneer of “accountability”. Similarly, the police forces are not a neutral body, but only do the bidding of Bay Street. Working class and marginalized communities need security bodies that originate from the people themselves and are directly accountable via trade unions and community organizations.
It must be said that even with an inquest, or even if a genuinely civilian oversight body were established, racism within the police would continue to pervade, as would the disproportionate numbers of people of colour and impoverished caught in the criminal justice system. Racism is systemic and pervades all aspects of the lives of blacks and other people of colour. Without genuine equal opportunities for all people, regardless of racial or ethnic background, in every aspect of social life, such outcomes are inevitable. Where the inspiring Black Lives Matter movement in Toronto currently falls short is in its failure to connect the police murders of black people to the broader issues that plague the black working class and keep it in a marginalized position.
To even begin substantive measures of solving racism and issues of police brutality under capitalism is to question the logic of the entire system. Racism and state oppression is as much a pillar to capitalism as profit. The state exists not as a mediating body between the classes but to serve and protect the interest of those who rule. The emergence of capitalism in North America has been contingent on the particular oppression of blacks in the United States, and the indigenous communities both in the United States and Canada. Systemic racism promoted and organized by the capitalist state was vital to the needs of capitalist accumulation and the maximization of profits.
As Malcolm X once famously stated, “you can’t have capitalism without racism”. Racism was used to justify the enslavement of African-Americans to lay the foundations for the early development of capitalism, which relied on the plantation economy. In the modern era, racism is used to provide the ruling class with a source of cheap labour and as a tool to divide and conquer, a manner through which the ruling class maintains its rule. The history of Jim Crow laws in the southern United States and segregationist policies throughout North America after the abolition of slavery are a testament to this.
While legal segregation was defeated by the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s, in practice racial oppression continues, and the interaction of racial and class oppression creates conditions of life reminiscent of segregation. Racism is not an abstract notion devoid of reality, but emerges from the very material conditions of a system that propels itself forward on the exploitation of the many by the few. If BLM or other anti-racist movements do not have a perspective for addressing the root cause of these problems, they will inevitably fizzle out at a certain stage.
The labour movement has historically been a route through which the black working class has struggled for a semblance of equality; but it has by no means been immune from the perils of racism that is rooted in our society. It is not a question of whether the anti-racism movement or the labour movement should be prioritized to address the problems of racialized minorities, but the recognition that without both forces working in tandem and unity we condemn ourselves into a blind alley. To fight racism we must fight capitalism. And only through the unity of the working class and the acknowledgement of the specific burdens unique to oppressed minorities can this be achieved.
What is then required is to address the root cause of systematic racism and inequality, while uniting all layers of the working class into the struggle. Important demands that can advance the struggle against racism and also unite the working class include:
Killer cops must be held accountable and should go to jail. End all racist police practices, including carding, street checks and brutal police interactions.
Security must arise organically at the community level from the bottom up, instead of a violent outside police body oppressing people from the top down. For direct democratic control of security bodies by the workers and oppressed through trade unions and marginalized community organizations.
A living minimum wage of at least two-thirds the average wage and the establishment of union- administered hiring halls to end racial and other discrimination in hiring and firing.
Massive investment to rebuild the slums and reservations to provide quality housing, education, health care and recreational services for all. Employment to be provided to local communities, especially the youth, with union wages and benefits.
Expropriation of the corporate promoters and beneficiaries of racism as a means to finance this program of public works and social services, to address the material roots of racism and to improve the living standards of all working class people.
These demands would advance the interests of all workers, and would especially address the problems that fall hardest on society’s most marginalized and oppressed. They would enthuse black workers and disenfranchised youth to become mobilized in the BLM movement, and would also inspire the broader working class. Only in fighting to overthrow capitalism can we begin the process of truly eradicating the poison of racism.