Anti-Black Racism and the Power of One
By Ewart Walters
The world suddenly woke to the deadly systemic anti-Black racism virus that has bedevilled Black people in America for more than a hundred years. And all it took was a young girl Darnella Frazer – and her smartphone camera.
Darnella, 17, was going to the store run with her cousin when she saw George Floyd on the ground. She immediately pulled out her phone and started to record. She saw Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck and heard Floyd yell that he could not breathe. Frazier said Chauvin and the accompanying officers did not show any concern.
It was the TV cameras of the mid-sixties that brought to Canadian and American living rooms the dogs, water cannon, beatings, and arrests of Black people in the South, particularly at the hands of George Wallace and Bull Connors, that eventually forced the Civil Rights Act.
Today’s instrument of communication is something else! It is the ubiquitous smartphone camera – instrument of unedited access to the world-wide web – in the hands of just about every teenager, at least on this continent.
The video Darnella shot was chilling.
The casual calculated cold-blooded police killing of George Floyd, by Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, on May 25, has generated an entire month (and counting) of worldwide revulsion and protest. More than 150 cities in the United States, and several cities in Canada and around the world have staged demonstrations protesting America’s racism.
A casual killing. Did you see Derek Chauvin’s hand nonchalantly resting in his pocket while he was throttling the life-breath out of George Floyd with his knee? Nothing special. Just another day. Just business as usual. This outrage has sent hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets.
In Canada, where police unions have been known to take their cue from their American brethren, the numbers might be smaller but the culture that confronts us is not just police, it is endemic. It is almost everywhere.
When Ottawa’s Vincent Gardner was shot by a white policeman in a home at 22 Gould Street on September 26, 1991, the cover-up began immediately, and it was not confined to the police. It seemed to include the pathologist and the SIU.
Dr. Noel McAuliffe, the Toronto pathologist who carried out the autopsy, said Gardner died from liver cancer. An unlikely tale which the Ottawa newspapers printed blithely, never once thinking it would make the subject of a good investigative report.
If the Toronto doctor had stopped there, it would have been bad enough, but he went further. He added the following words, “the gunshot wound was not a factor.” For five years, aided and abetted by a complacent mainstream press, Nepean and Ottawa police and their lawyers, took cover under the “liver cancer” cause-of-death theory advanced by Dr. McAuliffe.
In the end, it was a local Black doctor, Dr. Waltin-James, who secured the medical reports which persuaded coroner’s jury five years later that it could not rely on the cancer-cause-of-death autopsy report.
The real condition of Mr. Vincent Gardner in his last days was not reflected in the autopsy report that was issued by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), a failing organisation if there ever was one. In light of the medical history which the local doctor uncovered, no doctor examining Mr. Gardner would have any difficulty seeing clear, and compelling evidence showing that cancer was not the cause of death. Indeed, the autopsy report specifically pointed to the bullet as the cause of death.
What is more, Canada’s leading liver cancer specialist, Dr. Levy, testified at the coroner’s inquest that yes, Mr. Gardner did have liver cancer. But it would not have killed him for at least 12 months.
The answer, dear people, is a prevailing culture that sees Black people as “less than.” A culture of racism that finds its home not only among the police but throughout the judicial and other systems. In a school board system that cossets a trustee despite several infractions. In a civic environment that tolerates a security guard punching a citizen in the mouth. And on it goes.
And so when we talk about the need for as culture change, we do not restrict it to the police. Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly in eight months has made inroads into the anti-Black racism inside his Ottawa Police Service. But, as he knows only too well, there is much more to be done.
So, yes. Systemic.
And I hear your question. What can you do?
First, adopt “Quiet no more.” You must make your voice heard. Employ the power of one. Step up to the plate as a citizen of this city and make your demands known. Contact your City Councillor, your MPP, and your MP. Lobby your Police Service Board. Write letters to newspapers. Join organisations and support protest demonstrators.
Secondly, arm yourself with knowledge. About the Police Services Act. About the SIU. About the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. About the program of reforming the Ottawa Police that the community, the police Chief and the Police Services Board have embarked on.
Three of the six principles of the Police Services Act speak directly to culture, race and color. They prescribe
1. The need for co-operation between the providers of police services and the communities they serve.
2. The need for sensitivity to the pluralistic, multiracial and multicultural character of Ontario society.
3. The need to ensure that police forces are representative of the communities they serve.
Prompted by the community, the Ottawa Police Services Board has shown that it is aware of these requirements and is trying to fulfil them. Prompted by the community, the Board worked hard to set up a program and to employ a police chief who can design and lead that program. It is our duty as the Black community and as individuals in the community, to ensure that this program does not get sidelined or abandoned.
Last word. Adopt the power of one. It works. As we are seeing, it has growing power.
Ewart Walters, CD, MJ, is an author, former diplomat and retired editor whose entry to journalism was at Public Opinion in 1962.