Editor’s Note: Today, the company that hosts halifaxexaminer.ca is working on the server. This may cause some sluggishness in the site, and comments may not be posted in a timely manner. We apologize for the problems. Once completed, the work should improve performance of the site, and everything should be running smoothly by tomorrow.
1. Three Times More Likely
When my nephew is about 5 years old, he announces in the car, “Mama, I don’t want to be brown any more.” My sister is — as Stephen McNeil confronted with the evidence of police stops will proclaim himself to be — “startled.”
“But mama is brown,” she says to him. “And daddy is brown too.”
My sister doesn’t know what happened, if someone called him names, if he overheard something, or if he was finally just old enough to recognize the messages being sent to him everywhere, but he is adamant: he doesn’t want to be brown, and he doesn’t want his brother to be brown either.
When did you first realize you were considered a danger to society?
Black parents worry. When do you talk to your children about racism? How do you give them the information they need to survive in this world without crushing their spirits? Our parents told us, “do I look like your white friends’ mother?” when we wanted to have the same liberties and do the same things our white friends could. But those white friends parents don’t have to worry that if you all go to the mall, their child will be the one followed, the one profiled, the one accused of shoplifting. White kids can roll their eyes without being labelled defiant and suspended from school. White kids can run, and climb, and shout without their parents being labelled bad mothers. White kids can walk on the street.
When is your child going to notice? When do you have to let them know to keep them safe? My sister writes about “the talk:”
“Mama,” says my five-year-old, “I thought police were good.” I take a deep breath and ask myself — how do I respond to that? I struggle. “Well, some police are good, but not all of them, baby. Some of them—” I stop. How do I explain the difference in police as individuals and the institution of policing to a five-year-old? We’re just developing his sense of right and wrong and social responsibility. Do I really want him to mistrust or hate all police officers?
My eight-year-old chimes in. “I hate police. If I see them, I’m going to kick them in the crotch with my karate.” He names an older friend and says that that boy “says if he had a gun, he would shoot every cop he saw.” I open my mouth again. I am about to say that that kind of talk is what gets people shot. But wait, I think. This is healthy anger. Righteous anger. Out of this anger is born self-awareness, self-pride, and a desire for justice. Do I want to squelch it?
The little one has more to say. “Do we have a gun in the house?” he asks. “No,” I say. “No, we aren’t allowed to have guns and I don’t want any guns around.” That one’s easy. They know I hate guns. I don’t let them have toy guns at all. Tamir Rice was shot for having an Airsoft gun that looked real. Some toy guns look real too. I don’t want them to get in the habit of running around with anything that looks like a firearm.
“But!” big brother says. “But we need a gun to protect ourselves from the police! What if they try to shoot us?” I tell them, if you see a police officer, put your hands up. Bitterness rushes into my mouth as I think, no, wait, Michael Brown put his hands up. OK, so, wait, get on the ground. But no, hold up, Alton Sterling was on the ground. So maybe it’s better to run away. But wasn’t Nicholas Thomas running away?
So be a good person. Get an education. Then the police won’t…. no, Michael Brown was about to start college. Philando Castile was a valued employee at a school.
So…. oh, wait. We’re in Canada. All of this happened in the US. So we don’t have to worry. But just a second. One shooting was in Minneapolis. Minneapolis. A seven-hour drive away. We go there all the time. And one was in New York. We have family in New York. We want to go and see our family soon. We go to Chicago often. We drive through the US often. We were pulled over in Chicago and I told my husband, put your hands up, don’t move. My heart beat double time until that cop walked away and got back in his car. Now, I feel more lucky than I knew I was then. And what if they go to school in the US? And Andrew Loku was killed by Toronto police. And Jermaine Carby. And Kwasi Skene-Peters.
So what do I tell these boys, looking at me with their big brown eyes, so trusting, looking for answers? How do I send them out into a world where many will never see their gentle, loving souls but will see them as threats, as violent animals to be contained and put down? How do I teach them to be vigilant, but not judgmental? How do I tell them that there is nothing wrong with them, that they should be proud of who they are, that they come from a long line of gentlemen and scholars, that they are smart, that they can be anything they want to in this world? Lord. How do I ever let them go out there and drive a car?
My nephew had a picture book teaching him his letters. In the entry for J it says, “J is for Justice.” There is a picture of a police officer. My sister put a photo of my oldest nephew over it. “J is for [his name]” she wrote instead.
There is no statistic that can measure the effect of police stops. Percentages show the scope, the numbers. The numbers show what we have been saying all along. But police stops aren’t just about the encounter. What statistics can show the terror Black people experience when you see cop lights flashing in your mirror? The way hands tense up when you drive past police, the way everyone in the car gets quiet. “Police,” we say, warning each other. Get off the street if possible, turn down another. You don’t have to be stopped to feel the fear. What are the numbers for that?
We talk about what the police need to change, but not what reparations could ever be made to the Black community. What would happen if every Black person joined a class action suit? We already know it would never be allowed, if we all were compensated for the psychological distress, the lost time, the battered self-esteem, the negative effect on youth in school from encounters with the police, the use of policing to force people out of housing, the lost experiences and pleasure from deciding not to leave a neighbourhood or a house because of being stopped, the financial penalties, the terrorizing of communities. We can’t even get them to agree to suspend the practice.
Anthony Morgan points out that police stops are about the “borderlessness of anti-Blackness embedded in policing.” “It’s not about walking, driving, shopping, etc. while Black. It’s just being or breathing while Black invites police attention and suspicion.”
Police stop numbers aren’t some mistake, remedied by training, education, removing a few bad apples. As if Black communities could ever be policed fairly, in a system that denies Black people access to adequate resources, education, housing, services. The pretence is that now that we have the numbers, we only have to make a few recommendations, maybe pay for a couple of diversity workshops, hold some community meetings, hand out some hot dogs at a BBQ. I don’t see a “community” police office where the rich people live, though.
Is this evidence of racism? ask news commentators, as though their ability to ask as though that is a question is not evidence of racism. That white people can be surprised by this, as though they’ve never been on a street, in a store, on a bus, is its own evidence. The premier professes himself to be “startled.” He’s not going to do anything though. He talks about the Restorative Inquiry, about “hearing from minorities.” What else does he need to hear? How much more pain are Black people expected to testify to before he feels he should maybe “tell people how to do their jobs?” Does he have a number in mind?
Black pain is also a form of exploited Black labour. Black people have always been viewed as entertainers. There’s a spectacle to the way white people expect Black people to talk about racism. “Have you ever been pulled over?” they ask, demanding a performance of Black trauma. It’s a way of denying systemic racism, as though Black people’s experiences must always be subjective. It focuses on the individual experience, on feeling, rather than on systems of oppression.
Only white people are allowed to be objective, with numbers, and facts, and judgments. Only white people can validate whether racism really exists. Black people are expected to perform our pain for the white gaze, to become abject. This performance is still about white goodness, about white people projecting their ability to empathize with Black people, as though simply enacting listening is enough. Isn’t it sad what happens to those people. Such a shame.
Black children are eight per cent of the school population in Halifax, and 22.5 per cent of the suspensions. Black people are two per cent of the population in Nova Scotia, 16 per cent of incarcerated youth, and 14 per cent of the adult jail population. What is surprising about Black people being stopped three times more by police? We could say that the police in fact are “doing their jobs,” when stopping Black people is continuous with every other institution in the province that ensures Black oppression.
Motherfuckers never loved us, Drake says. What isn’t surprising is the ability of white society to treat racism like an anomaly, and to enact wonder each new time racism is revealed, to act like anti-Blackness isn’t embedded in society, like this isn’t the purpose all along. Weird how those racist institutions keep being racist. Huh.
The police stops are exactly continuous with everything else, with reporting that obsessively fixates on Black shootings and Black pathology and “unique” Black violence and then is amazed that 94 per cent of the stops during that same time are Black people. With a culture that considers talking about and identifying race and racism to be more racist than doing racist things, and then wonders why police might hold racist bias. With a society that tells Black people everywhere, from Sobeys to school hallways, that we are not welcome and that we are out of place, and then feigns surprise that the police stop Black people. When we’re not calling these practices street checks, we’re calling them security. Discipline. Order. Safety of the institution. Controlling disruptive elements. Unruly hair. Tough coaching. Pull your pants up.
And so we live in a province where Black five-year-olds know what the premier says he doesn’t single them out, yet those Black five-year-olds are more likely to grow up to have their qualifications doubted. They will grow up to hear “what are you doing here?” and “Can I help you?” and “show me your ID.” And when they talk about racism, people will say, “well, what are you doing about it?” — a question we don’t expect of our actual elected leaders. We have never had the luxury of not knowing, of not seeing. We’ve always had to have white society’s number.
2. The Many Faces of McNeil
A short list of things that “startle” Stephen McNeil.
1. Evidence that shows Black people having experiences Black people have been talking about for 500 years.
2. Mayonnaise not only condiment.
3. How much Jughead loves burgers.
4. That one time he accidentally heard hip hop and there was a siren sound in it.
5. Pat Boone not original singer of Tutti Frutti.
6. When the kids unmask the ghost to reveal a person wearing a costume in Scooby Doo episodes. Gets him every time.
7. Weiner dogs wearing sweaters.
8. The gun firing at noon on Citadel Hill when you’re busy eating your tuna sandwich.
9. The definition of systemic racism.
3. Deer Shelburne.
Let’s pick up this story about a white man running down two Black guys in the middle of the road:
“The court accepted a lot of Mr. Williams’s evidence because at the end of the day, it made the most sense,” Jacquard said.
White people are very believable. Let’s look at some of this evidence, shall we?
On Halloween night 2014, young people gathered at a Shelburne house party. A fight broke out between Bill Williams’s son and two other men, Cade Benham and Steven Davis — all in their early 20s. The son was left with a broken jaw…
…”His evidence at trial indicated that he was looking to find the boys,” Williams’s lawyer, Raymond Jacquard, told CBC News.
“He knew the cops were coming and was out looking to see where they were to relay that to the RCMP.”
“Basically everything happened within a matter of a split second. They came out from the side of the highway and ran into his vehicle.”
Re-enactment in the white imagination:
Black people are just too hard to see in the dark:
“Mr. Williams took the stand and gave evidence that it was an accident, that he didn’t intentionally hit the two men,” said Jacquard.
“There was no lighting in that section of the highway. It was very dark that night, it was foggy and misty and started to rain shortly after the accident.”
AT THE LAST MINUTE HE SAW THEIR GLEAMING WHITE TEETH BUT IT WAS TOO LATE.
Re-enactment in the white imagination:
“The judge believed Williams’s testimony…”
“Jacquard, who is white, didn’t think race was a factor in the case.”
“[Black community member Tom Jacklyn] said the men were compared to deer running on the highway in court, but he finds it implausible that they ran in front of Williams’s car, causing the accident and visible damage to the car.”
They “startled” him, as it were.
“Crown prosecutor Josie McKinney said the Crown won’t appeal the decision of the judge, who was described as Acadian and Métis when appointed to the provincial bench.”