Constable James Forcillo, the police officer who shot and killed Sammy Yatim on a TTC streetcar on July 27th, 2013 is now asking that his sentence be served under house-arrest instead of facing jail time. Constable Forcillo was convicted of attempted murder on January 25th, 2016.
The fact that Forcillo was actually convicted, even of the lesser offence of attempted murder instead of second-degree murder, has surprised many. In the 23-year-old history of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), Forcillo is only the second cop in Toronto to be charged for murder. He is the first to ever be found guilty of even so much as a related charge.
This exceptional event in the history of police self-investigations can be explained as a result of the public backlash against the police. Sammy Yatim, who was 18-years old, had been acting erratically and aggressively on the streetcar, which resulted in police being called to the scene. At the time when he was shot, he was completely isolated on the streetcar and surrounded by police. There was enormous outrage following the release of a Youtube video showing Forcillo shooting Sammy Yatim nine times. Anybody who watches it can see that an execution is taking place as Sammy Yatim is lying on the floor while Constable Forcillo continues to fire.
Mass anger resulted in protests in Toronto that shut down major downtown streets, and there was a public mood demanding police accountability. At first, police management tried to avoid taking any action, and even kept Forcillo on staff, transferring him to another department for a full year after the murder occurred. But public pressure was too high to simply sweep the case under the rug.
Forcillo was therefore put on trial. However, as we can see with the failure to convict him of murder, and the attempt to serve out his term under house arrest, there is still an open question as to whether Forcillo will face the consequences of his actions and see jail time. Furthermore, with the G20 abuses and the killing of Andrew Loku in the news, many people are asking how the systemic problems of police impunity, brutality, and racial discrimination can be resolved.
License to kill?
A conviction for attempted murder seems quite strange considering that Sammy Yatim is dead. The court justified its verdict by drawing a line between Forcillo carrying out his duties as a state representative, and where his actions went beyond that line.
The first three fatal shots by Forcillo were found to be reasonable by the judges, as they concluded that Forcillo was simply fulfilling his role as a police officer. It was the next six shots that were unjustifiable to the court. Since the court found that it was the first three “justified” shots that killed Sammy Yatim, and not the last six “unjustified” shots, he was convicted of attempted murder instead of second-degree murder.
Initially Forcillo and his lawyers pleaded a reduced sentence on the basis of self defence. This had already been rejected during the trial when the video evidence of the shooting showed Yatim was practically immobile after the first shots.
Forcillo and his defence have now switched gears and are supporting their case for a reduced sentence with the claim that police officers cannot be charged as any other criminal, since they are representatives of the state. They claim that jail time is a "grossly disproportionate" sentence, and are now attempting to reduce the sentence to house arrest or less. We don’t know whether Forcillo will get off easy, as sentencing has not yet been finalized and is set for July 20th, 2016.
However, there is already significant cause for concern. Firstly, police management bent over backwards to protect Forcillo, who continued to be paid and kept on duty. Secondly, the court found a lighter conviction of “attempted murder” to be appropriate and decided that the first three (and deemed fatal) shots were justified. The results of the sentencing should therefore be followed closely, and the movement should be prepared to go back onto the streets if the courts let Forcillo off with house arrest.
With a spotlight on the question of how to hold the state and its armed representatives accountable, we can look back at historical cases to see the limits of seeking justice under the capitalist system.
The G20 Summit revealed the ugly side of democracy under capitalism. Anti-protest laws were introduced and we saw the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. While over a thousand protesters were beaten, arrested and detained, the Special Investigations Unit looked into a mere 6 incidents of police misconduct from the G20. The outcome: two police officers were charged, one of whom has been acquitted, while the other suffered the loss of 5 days pay before going back on the job.
Similarly to the killing of Sammy Yatim, the public outrage over mass arrests and kettling during the G20 forced the courts and police to create the perception of taking action. However, as the dust settled, we see that the punishments meted out are laughable. This is an insult to the over one-thousand protesters and bystanders who were jailed during the summit, and shows that repression of mass struggle is part and parcel of “democracy” under capitalism.
What is evident is that only on the basis of public outrage and mass mobilization will the police, courts and establishment politicians even consider initiating legal proceedings or inquiries into police violence, murder and political repression. Even when such proceedings are initiated, it is in order to quell public protest and to get people off the street. As soon as the bottom-up pressure is let off, history shows that every measure will be taken by ruling institutions to let the boys-in-blue off the hook. Usually the most that is attained is a slap on the wrist.
State Sanctioned Violence
The biggest question raised by the Forcillo trial is the nature of the relationship between working class communities and the police that stand above them. Forcillo’s leading lawyer, Peter Brauti, explained that “this is not about giving state actors special treatment. It is about ensuring when we ask men and women to arm themselves to protect the larger community, we will treat them justly and fairly when they make mistakes".
The rhetoric about police “protecting the larger community” is completely at odds with the growing perception and sentiment among working class communities. A multitude of cases of police brutality have revealed the ugly reality of distrust, fear and violence that characterizes the relationship between the working class, poor, racial minorities and disabled people and the police.
It has been found that black people are at least three times more likely to be targeted by the police than whites. Other visible minorities have also been found to be disproportionately stopped. Carding, and racial profiling as a whole, is a way in which state control manifests itself as an oppressive force in people’s daily lives. In Toronto, hundreds of thousands of people who have done nothing wrong are carded by police.
This plays out yet again with rampant police confrontations and brutality against indigenous people. Incarceration rates of indigenous people have surged by 112% over the past decade. Over a third of women and a quarter of men sentenced to provincial or territorial custody in Canada are indigenous.
For years, “being tough on crime” has been the policy for managing the criminal justice system across the nation. Over the past decade, the Canadian government, under Stephen Harper’s rule, has passed over 30 crime laws, intended to inflate punishment for many crimes, to limit opportunities for parole, and to widen the range of crimes for which offenders can be incarcerated. Trudeau has done nothing to change this. The current justice system further divides the working class, isolates persecuted members of society, and oppresses already marginalized groups. Instead of connecting crime to its roots in poverty, the state has set up a prison system with imprisonment at an all-time high. This is in contradiction to actual crime rates being at their lowest over the past 45 years.
Forcillo’s actions are not an isolated case. They are simply the product of the oppressive state policies that are normal and routine under capitalism.
Shifting Public Mood
There has been significant attention on the police killings of Sammy Yatim and Andrew Loku. There was previously widespread anger that Constable Forcillo would not be held to account. If he is given the light sentence of house arrest, it could be enraging to a fed up public and would lead to further disillusionment with the accountability of the police.
A Forum Research poll conducted early in 2016 asked Torontonians their opinion on charging police with murder, a question originally asked in 2013. The approval rate for charging police officers has risen to 60% from 51%, with the majority of those in favor of charging police officers being individuals from lower income households. There is a clear radicalization reflected in this poll and we can see the beginnings of a movement being built around this mood particularly among the youth. The president of Forum Research, Lorne Bozinoff remarked on the results of the poll, saying, “What we see is a crystallization of public opinion on the appropriateness of holding police officers to the same standards as other citizens, and also on the fairness of Constable Forcillo’s trial”.
The Black Lives Matter movement is an expression of this critical mood, attracting youth that are seeking radical change and an end to police discrimination. The multitude of police killings in the USA and in Canada, such as the killing of Andrew Loku in Toronto, show us that, in order to combat police brutality, we must base ourselves upon the mobilization of the youth, oppressed, and workers. The question remains, can the state be reformed to ensure accountability to the majority?
Reform or Revolution?
Mass mobilization shows the power of the working class, youth and oppressed groups. This is the only way to win justice against police racism and police violence. Only public pressure forced the SIU to charge Forcillo and the courts to convict him of attempted murder. However, even if he receives a jail sentence, we can see that police violence and deteriorating living conditions will continue to be the norm under capitalism
This shows that a more fundamental change must occur. Until security is directly and democratically controlled by the working class and poor, who make up the vast majority in society, there will always be abuses and injustice. However, under capitalism, the minority ruling class needs an unaccountable police force to protect its private property, to repress strikes and mass movements of the workers and poor, and to maintain order in a society defined by inequality and exploitation.
Lenin explained why state accountability to the majority is impossible under capitalist society, or any class society for that matter:
“It is impossible because civilized society is split into antagonistic, and, moreover, irreconcilably antagonistic classes, whose “self-acting” arming would lead to an armed struggle between them. A state arises, a special power is created, special bodies of armed men, and every revolution, by destroying the state apparatus, shows us the naked class struggle, clearly shows us how the ruling class strives to restore the special bodies of armed men which serve it, and how the oppressed class strives to create a new organization of this kind, capable of serving the exploited instead of the exploiters.”
An unaccountable force through “special bodies of armed men” is required by the capitalist class to protect their private property. It is also neccessary to defend their economic and political dominanace in society. The fight against police brutality, justice for Sammy Yatim, Andrew Loku and others is therefore part of a larger struggle that goes beyond the abuses and mistakes made by a few police officers. To ensure real change, we need to fight capitalism which is the root of oppression and exploitation.
Killer cop Forcillo must be held accountable for his actions and jailed!
Abolish the capitalist police! Security must be organized democratically by workers and marginalized communities from the bottom up!
Justice for Sammy Yatim and Andrew Loku!