If one thing has become clear in the aftermath of George Floyd’s agonizing death when a police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes, it’s that when it comes to calls for police reform, there is a vast gulf between marginalized Black communities and the privileged white majority.
As conciliatory white politicians do their best to appease calls for change with promises of more dialogue and consultation, the message from racialized minorities couldn’t be more stark: we’re not interested in your smooth-talking sales pitch. We want change. We want it now.
This week, three members of Waterloo Region’s Black community speak bluntly and without apology on policing, progress and the problematic status quo.
Ciann Wilson is a Wilfrid Laurier University prof whose research focuses on the health and well-being of Black, Indigenous and racialized communities.
Greg Campbell is a University of Waterloo communications instructor and concerned father of two.
Fitsum Areguy is a community activist, youth advocate and member of the African, Caribbean and Black Network of Waterloo Region.
The one thing they have in common: their lived experience is diametrically at odds with those who view police as benevolent gatekeepers of the public good.
Police are here to serve and protect, right? What’s the issue?
Areguy: Serve and protect who? That’s the real question. Police are surveilling and patrolling our most vulnerable populations, and there are many white collar crimes that go unchecked.
Campbell: To serve and protect, but we don’t expect people of colour who are already in handcuffs and unarmed to die. White people aren’t killed in that fashion.
Wilson: They’ve been selective about who exactly they serve and protect, and who they criminalize from the cradle to the grave — that is, Black, Indigenous and racialized people.
Defunding, dismantling, restructuring — when it comes to police reform, what are we talking about?
Areguy: Working toward a future where the police aren’t necessary. Obviously, that doesn’t happen right away, but defunding opens up the potential for us to respond to crises with care instead of brutality.
There are calls to transfer $29.3 million from the roughly $200 million regional police budget into social service programs that help impoverished and racialized communities. I can already hear the hue and cry: “But we need more money for policing, not less!”
Campbell: Just reroute some of the money, man. I’m not talking about empty police stations and no one answering 911.
I’m talking about taking some of the region’s police budget and giving it to social workers and community centre programs.
So what would a revamped police force look like?
Campbell: It would have representation from the community it serves. Are there enough LGBTQ2S people? Are there enough Indigenous people? Are there enough Black people? And just to be clear, I’m not talking about one or two.
Areguy: I look to the success of the safety officer program in Kwanlin Dun, an urban First Nation in Whitehorse. Created by the community and funded by the government, four safety officers trained in everything from conflict resolution, intergenerational trauma and mental-health issues to critical incident stress management and bylaw interpretation have found enormous success. We could scale and modify a model like this.
It’s 3 a.m. and you hear banging in your living room. The police force has been defunded. Now what?
Areguy: Let’s imagine, in this scenario, that a public safety model has already been implemented. You would have trusted community members who are trained, have resources and are democratically chosen and held accountable. The response time would be quicker, and honestly, I’d rather have someone who has a relationship with the community respond than an armed stranger, potentially increasing the risk to poor, Black, racialized people, as well as those with mental health challenges.
Here’s the conundrum: How do you turn a lion into a vegan?
Wilson: You can’t.
Areguy: You can’t.
Campbell: First, I wouldn’t waste my energy. Second, the lion in this situation really is white supremacy and the plant-based diet is Black Bodies. The police need to change the negative associations it has about Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour. That operating system needs a software upgrade.
Waterloo Region Police Chief Bryan Larkin says he’s “committed to dialogue.” He wants to “move forward as a community.” He sees the current protests as a “tremendous opportunity” for positive change. And yet, I sense skepticism from the Black community.
Wilson: Black people in this country can smell bullsh-t and a good P.R. game from a mile away. We’ve become experts on the ways of passive-aggressive white culture and it’s constant gaslighting.
We know that when a white man shouts sweet nothings from a microphone in the media, but doesn’t actually pick up his phone or send an email to initiate the very discussion he says he is committed to with leaders in our communities – our bullsh-t meter sounds off.
You’re not pulling any punches.
Wilson: This isn’t our first time at this dance with white folks who want to seem publicly like they’re “open,” thereby effectively twisting the narrative to make Black folks seem like the uncooperative villains we are always made out to be in the white imagination.
Areguy: We had one of the largest, if not the biggest Black Lives Matter protests in Canada. There’s an immense pressure from the community for things to change, so calls for “reform” from the police are more about self-preservation.
Let’s not mince words. I’m Bryan Larkin. What do you want to tell me, straight up?
Campbell: Four words: “Hold corrupt cops accountable.”
I know your officers put their safety on the line every day for our communities. I appreciate that. I have young sons and I like knowing they can call 911 for help, especially when I can’t help them.
You must also know that, along with that gratitude, comes the foreboding fear that my son’s rights will be violated by bad cops due to the colour of his skin.
Areguy: You recently said the Waterloo Regional Police Service “can only police the community with the consent of the community.” You’ve been policing and surveilling us without our consent for DECADES. Now, we’re holding you and officers accountable, and you reply with what essentially comes off as a soft threat? Stop the nonsense.
What role has the media played in holding police accountable?
Areguy: The media is obsessed with the police, and it’s bizarre to me. Think about when the police shot and killed (emotionally distressed) Beau Baker in 2015. Mental health crisis response workers should have been there. Instead, the police arrived and shot Baker dead. Larkin then used this as an example of why the police needed MORE resources to equip more officers with tasers so situations like this don’t end in a shooting.
Areguy: The media didn’t question this backwards ass logic. People need to recognize this for what it is: a failure to safely de-escalate situations is not a result of a lack of resources or training or diversity, but a wild misspending of resources by a punitive system. Media: quit the bootlicking. Do a better job of holding police accountable.
George Floyd wasn’t the first Black person to die in police custody. Why the call for dramatic reforms now?
Wilson: Under COVID lockdown, people are for the first time getting a glimpse of what the Black and Indigenous experience is and has been in North America.
They’ve been hyper surveilled, even by their neighbours. They cannot go anywhere. They – just like everyone – are viewed as highly suspicious possible vectors of a biological culprit we can’t see, even when their faces are behind a mask.
Because I dress like a slob, don’t shave and used to look like Charles Manson, I have occasionally been stopped by police, usually while out on my nightly walk. Once they realize I’m coherent and not breaking any laws, they politely say goodbye and I continue on my way. Nerve-racking? Yes, but I suspect my experience would be far different if I was Black.
Campbell: I believed in the law and equality in a literal manner, back in the day.
That changed when I was 19 and living, working, and going to college in Brampton. I bought an Acura Vigor, which was a nice car at that time. The police stopped me, told me my car and I fit the description of someone who committed a crime. I told them I haven’t done anything wrong and I’m on my way home from school. They put me in the back of a cruiser while they searched my car. I called my mom and she started to flip out. I wasn’t handcuffed. An officer even spoke to her. The point here, for me, is that type of behaviour isn’t lawful. Me or my car shouldn’t be searched based on a hunch. I didn’t break any laws. I worked full time while being a student to be able to have that car. The message I got was that car was too nice for a young Black person to have from legit means.
You were singled out.
Campbell: The cops didn’t stop when they heard I was coming home from school. They followed through on their suspicion. It wouldn’t have mattered how coherent or intelligent I was.
I’m parroting a common refrain: “Most cops are great! This is about one or two bad apples!”
Wilson: Those are a whole lot of bad apples in one bag. Common sense tells us that fungus and rot on an apple spreads quickly in a confined space, often from the inside out — even if an apple seems bright and shiny on the outside. We should dump the entire bag.
Campbell: This is about white people calling out other white people that are bad apples. But let’s be real: they aren’t snitching on each other.
Wilson: Entire communities do not just imagine this relationship with the police.
Body cameras are being hailed as the latest insurance policy for more accountable, nonracist policing. But critics consider them one more diversionary tactic to suck up funding and prevent actual reform. Why the cynicism?
Campbell: Body cameras can be just another way to get us to stop talking about police brutality.
Wilson: Body cameras were unable to save the lives of our siblings who died while in the presence of police: Chantel Moore, 26-year-old Indigenous woman from New Brunswick; Regis Korchinski-Paquet, 29-year-old Afro-Indigenous woman from Toronto; Jason Collins, 36-year-old Indigenous man from Manitoba; Eishia Hudson . . .
The list is endless.
And these are just the deaths I can recall in 2020 alone.
When police chair Karen Redman pledged support for appointing a person of colour to the Waterloo Regional Police Services Board, there was palpable outrage from the Black community.
Areguy: We’ve been here a thousand times. One token Black person on the board is not going to help us. The entire process needs to be overhauled.
Wilson: This is only important for the police board because they’ve been called-out by the community, so they now feel they have to act and make a public motion to “include” a lone Black voice in a white, old guard institution that has never really made space for Black, Indigenous or people of colour voices before.
Kitchener’s Community Outreach and school resource officer programs were designed to pair police with racialized youth as mentors and friends, but has instead sparked controversy. How can officers coaching sports with racialized youth, taking them skating and camping, be a bad thing?
Wilson: Why would normalizing regular encounters with the police in a program where young people are taught to respect and be complicit to white authority figures — not from their communities — be a good thing? In what world, in whose life, and for whose children would this be acceptable?
Campbell: Law enforcement in Kitchener-Waterloo is predominantly white. Therefore the whole “white saviour” approach to helping people of colour has been done — and not that well. Trust has been eroded.
Politicians say they get positive feedback from participants.
Areguy: With the Community Outreach Progam (COP), of course you’re going to hear youth loved it. They come from poor families who don’t often get opportunities to send their children to camp. People often learn about police surveillance and mistreatment of youth well after the fact, because youth don’t feel safe talking or don’t realize it’s happening. It shook me to think I worked as a youth worker with the City of Kitchener for almost a decade and never fully realized. My supervisors, a rotation of white people, regularly praised the program which has engaged hundreds, maybe thousands, of youth for years. How many youth did police document through this program? What did they do with the information? The criminal justice system is a brutal, punitive pipeline to prison that’s jump-started by programs like this.