Dear Prospective Atlantic Schooners Football Players,
Prompted by news that Halifax police have street checked Black males nine times more often than the general population and the finagling of white men determined to bring a Canadian Football League franchise to Nova Scotia, I’ve been thinking about the day I met legendary National Football League player Franco Harris.
Unfamiliar with Harris? A former running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Harris, in a sensational play later dubbed the “Immaculate Reception,” scooped up a deflected pass to score a winning touchdown in a 1972 playoff game against the Oakland Raiders. Harris would go on to win four Superbowl championships with the Steelers.
An advocate for racial justice throughout his career, Harris (now retired) has remained politically active. Indeed, my 2015 encounter with him turned on the axis of sports and politics. In short, I met Harris in the clubhouse of the Royal and Ancient (R&A) Golf Course in St. Andrews, Scotland. I’d just completed an interview with African American golfer Renee Powell, the first Black woman granted honourary membership at the oldest and most prestigious golf club in the world.
A staunch ally of the golfer, Harris had arrived at the R&A to join Powell for lunch. Mindful of Harris’ famous touchdown, I greeted him with a cheery “Immaculate Reception.” He lit up the staid clubhouse with a radiant smile.
A freelancer, I offered my article about Powell to a Halifax editor (white, female) with whom I’d worked regularly. She immediately dispatched a publication contract. A few days later, she phoned with news that a reporter (white, male) at her paper had questioned the veracity of my piece. Apparently disbelieving that I (Black, female) had set foot in the R&A clubhouse, the staffer had threatened to take his suspicions to “higher ups” if I didn’t “prove” that I’d interviewed Powell in Scotland and not “plagiarized” the piece. I later detailed the blatantly racist insult to my personal and professional integrity here.
This brings me — prospective Atlantic Schooners — to damning revelations in the recent Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission Report that underscore the clouds of suspicion that have demeaned, dehumanized, disrespected, humiliated and generally criminalized African Nova Scotians (especially Black men) for generations. Men of African descent who look … like many of you.
Moreover, you should know that Halifax officials paid serious coin to Scot Wortley, a white criminologist from elsewhere to “prove” that Halifax police have abused Blacks; abuse that Blacks have themselves been protesting for generations.
As for the report itself — prospective Atlantic Schooners — here’s a small sampling of what Wortley got told: “…I was hanging out with some White friends of mine and I yelled over to one of them across the street,” said a Black male in his thirties. “The police stopped and grabbed me while I was standing at a bank machine. They said I was drunk, and they arrested me. I was taken to booking. When they went to release me there was money missing. I came in with $385 and they gave me back only $78. I got mad and told them I wanted my cash back. They took me back to the cells. The incident escalated. The male officer punched me and said, ‘Don’t look at me you fucking nigger.’ The female officer said ‘Who you gunna call? Barack Obama?’ … I had no criminal charges going into this incident. But eleven charges were laid as a result of it. I had to hire a lawyer and spend thousands to get out of this situation and clear my record.”
And this, from a Black male (age 40-50): “I’m a professional with a very good income. … I drive a nice car. A Mercedes. One morning, during rush hour, a police car followed me …. I knew he was targeting me. … When he pulled me over, I asked why I was being stopped. I was told they were just doing a routine check. He asked me to exit the car, but I refused to get out of the car or answer his questions. A police supervisor was eventually called to the scene. The supervisor reinforced what the officer had stated. … I knew it was racial profiling. I was a Black man in an expensive car in a nice area. This experience was a public humiliation. People were driving by wondering what crime I had committed….”
“My son is Black,” noted a Black woman in her forties. “His girlfriend is White. They got pulled over by the police. Only the police did not ask for her ID. They just asked him. They asked him for ID even though he wasn’t the driver. Makes you wonder why? They asked him a lot of questions. They asked her if she was okay or if she needed help. They felt insulted and disrespected. If that’s not racial profiling, what is?”
And here’s feedback Wortley received from a white Nova Scotian: “I have watched several young Black male friends stopped and street checked by [the Halifax police]. I am a White male and walk the same streets and have never been street checked. As a White person who, other than the colour of my skin, is exactly the same as these men, it makes me feel powerless that they are consistently subjected to something I am not. When I watch it happen, it makes me feel awful about my community.”
Indeed. About the push — prospective Atlantic Schooners — to build a CFL stadium (now pint-size) in the Halifax Regional Municipality, a couple of football players shared their thoughts with me. A Black man who grew up in Vancouver, Spencer Watt said that he’s lucky to have been spared “major racial stuff.” However, the former wide receiver for the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tigers said that “word is out” about Halifax as a city with an atrocious racial history.
“Most players on CFL teams are people of colour,” Watt said. “And for players from the US, race is always a big topic. I’ve heard things about racial profiling, derogatory slurs and Black people having been transported in garbage trucks in Halifax.”
He continued: “If Halifax really wants a CFL team they need to address its racist reputation. If they don’t, chances are high that African-Americans won’t want to come to the city. Or if they do, they won’t stay. We’re talking about professional athletes. If there are issues that affect some of the team members, it will trickle down to everyone.”
Reared in Cape Breton, a young Black male who played wide receiver and defensive back at his high school is now on the starting roster at a local university. “I’ve been called the ’n word’ on and off the field my entire life,” said the thoughtful student-athlete who has been granted anonymity.
“If I’m in a cafeteria with my teammates, they start joking about how much I must like watermelon and fried chicken,” he continued. “The racism in Nova Scotia is well-known and it’s sad. I try to prove white people wrong with their stereotypes but it’s burdensome to always carry that weight.”
Still, the young man said he’d consider trying out for the Atlantic Schooners, if given a chance. “Athletes can be a positive influence in bridging racial divisions,” he said. “It all depends on the willingness of white people to acknowledge and change the horrible ways Blacks are treated here. But Halifax is a tough sell.”
On that note, neither CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie, Sport Nova Scotia executive Jamie Ferguson, nor Schooners honcho Anthony LeBlanc have responded to a query for comment about the Wortley report and its impact on their plans to launch a football team in a town where police run roughshod over Black men.
Hold on, prospective Atlantic Schooners. Someone else is sending you a message. It’s James Brown rocking “Soul Power & Get Involved.”
The author of Alice Walker: A Life, Evelyn C. White is a freelance writer in Halifax.
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Great piece that slipped past me until just now. A family friend of mine played college basketball in the States, and when I was visiting years ago mentioned he might consider coming to Halifax to play. He’s Black. I remember the moment he mentioned it viscerally, because i froze, and instead of just being honest, I said something like, “Halifax can be a weird place.” This article will make it easier for me to articulate that thought next time I have to.
Another great piece, Evelyn. Right on.
Evelyn, have you ever talked to any of the Hurricanes basketball players about their experiences living in Halifax? I’d be curious to hear what they say, too.