1. You must be a basketball player
In the first Saturday Morning File I wrote for the Halifax Examiner, I wrote about Black male bodies, violence, and basketball in my take on the fight between the Rainmen and the Windsor Express.
Now, almost a year later, I am writing Morning File after the death of former Rainman Tyler Richards.
As the media covered Richards’ shooting, the people and communities who knew him pushed back against the portrayal of Richards as a drug dealer who died violently. In opposition to this image, people urged those who knew Richards to flood Facebook and social media with clips of him playing basketball. As Lindell Smith wrote in The Coast,
“These victims have left children and families—some of these children I work with everyday—and the community mourns way after media stops reporting. It is very hard to understand that when this happens it’s not just “Young man killed.” When it happens to us it’s “Tyler Richards, father, community leader, all-Canadian basketball player, murdered, leaving many communities hurt and feeling hopeless.”
In his obituary, Richards is remembered through the sport:
“Tyler had such an amazing spirit and loved to share his love of basketball with so many of the up and coming young athletes in his community. He was a wonderful son, an amazing friend, a devoted brother, and a loving uncle. Tyler will be greatly missed by so many, but the memories of him live on in every dribble of a basketball, every layup, and every swish of the net.”
Basketball is supposed to be the antidote. Lamenting the shooting, older guys talked about the time they spent in programs at the Y and how it kept them off the streets. It’s basketball that families turn to, to keep youth out of trouble. In ball season, so many people play in the community that activities are planned around basketball. There’s a phrase I remember from first-year Anthropology, “pantribal sodalities,” non-family groups which extend across society and across communities. That’s what basketball is in the Black community, the place where communities have something in common and play each other at tournaments. Saturdays are basketball and Sunday is church. In communities where there seem to be fewer and fewer services and activities, the one thing that still always happens is basketball. Basketball is supposed to save us.
And when someone makes it in basketball, they carry the dreams of the community with them. It’s not that other successes aren’t valued, but basketball seems like our shit. When someone comes out of ball programs in the community and succeeds, it’s like the community succeeds. We don’t have a lot of Black teachers, but we still have Black coaches. Everyone who played on teams with or against the person is implicated in their success. Basketball takes the Black body, so threatening and despised in society, and changes the vision of what Black bodies, what Black bodies that come out of so-called ghettoes and hoods and projects are capable of. If we can make it in basketball, we can beat the odds anywhere.
But there’s this old saying. It goes, a white kid is taught they want to be president. And when they don’t become president, they still have developed all the skills they need to be successful in society. A Black kid is told they want to be Michael Jordan. And when they don’t become Michael Jordan, what skills do they have? Sports makes Black bodies useful, in a society where they are still otherwise disposable. More, they make Black bodies profitable. Usually profitable for someone else, for the account or reputation or esteem of white colleges, universities, white-owned leagues, usually white owners. In the NBA and NCAA, Black bodies on the floor play for mostly white people in the stands, because the people who look like the bodies on the floor can’t afford the tickets. Black bodies are valued as entertainment, but those bodies must be contained – contained through dress codes, contained through “discipline,” contained in the rhetoric of white sports writers who scold every sign of ungoverned Blackness. My sister calls the penalties for dancing after touchdowns in the NFL, “too much Blackness on the field.”
When I wrote about the season-ending fight for the Rainmen, I pointed out that fighting was not only tolerated, but celebrated in hockey. Don Cherry releases enormously successful videos of fights. The Mooseheads put up highlights of hard checks, in a sport where being down to fight is seen as being a “scrappy,” tough player. But hockey is still coded as good white boys. Black bodies, seen as always on the edge of being thugs, must be controlled for signs of violence and criminality. In the NBL, Black players on the floor – and mostly Black American players – are playing in small markets, meaning mostly white towns and small cities. If the bodies are exotic and admired, they are also different, and that difference must be managed, shown to be not frightening, not too Black, not dangerous.
And even Michael Jordan got what Paul Mooney called the “nigger wake-up call.” Remember when Jordan was supposed to be given a management job with the Wizards? And so he returned to the floor with his bad knees to make the Wizards more profitable. And as his prowess declined, suddenly the same ruthless behaviour that was tolerated and celebrated as the mentality as a winner began to grate on people. And when he dragged himself off the floor, thinking he was going to retire to a front office, they told him sorry, no. Bye. Paul Mooney said, Michael Jordan remembered he’s Black today.
Because those same Black bodies that are profitable and admired, what happens to them beyond basketball? When you’re supposed to carry the dreams of your community, but it turns out that making it to the NBA isn’t going to happen. But this is the sport you love, the thing you excel at, the thing that makes you known and valued.
After the Rainmen fight, people focused on the behaviour of the athletes, whether they were thugs, whether they were embarrassments. But what came out was how the athletes couldn’t pay the fines they were assessed, how they were kicked out of their housing by the organization, how little money they had and how few labour rights. Part of the resentment people feel towards Black athletes is how rich they are, but when you play for the NBL, then you’re going out every night like some basketball god, but you’re coming home to a shared house or apartment with no savings. And how much pressure do you feel to sustain that image of the community star, the person represented in every swish of the net, the person who demonstrates that we are more than we are supposed to be?
What happens to those pressures off the court, when your playing life is short, and when you play at the pleasure of owners. And when even though you are playing in your hometown, ain’t nobody got time to help you or stick with you when you get into trouble. It’s a business. A few years ago, when it was revealed Allen Iverson was broke, maybe addicted, it turned out he struggled with mental illness. But when Black men have struggles and vulnerabilities, it’s seen as “bad behaviour.” We don’t need help, we need discipline. We need prison. We need to just stop being such thugs.
I wonder how hard it is to supposed to be “the man.” To supposed to be able to raise your family, and to supposed to be the person everyone looks up to. And how you keep that going, and how you keep that going when you can’t play anymore.
I don’t know the story with Tyler Richards, and I’m not here to judge it, or speculate on it. But I think about how much of the pain is also about basketball, about how much it carries our dreams, and how often, how much more often, it drags with our failures. How it represents our image of us at our best — look what these bodies, from these neighbourhoods, can do, but how when those bodies can’t fly any more, when they limp home, then what do they represent? Basketball is supposed to save us, this is our shit. But how do you sustain yourself and your family after?
This pain, this feeling of hurt and hopelessness, these laments for young Black bodies, they’re supposed to go away on the court. If we just hit the courts and not the streets, every thing will be ok. What our kids need is just more sports, if they just keep positive and occupied racism won’t touch them.
But basketball can’t be the antidote to centuries of poverty, of racism, to the loss of schools and services, to the lack of jobs, to the stigma of Black bodies, to the toll prison takes on our communities, to the kids outside the principal’s office, to the kids supporting their families as teens, to addiction, to untreated mental health problems, to racism, to being disposable, to the streets, to the game — it’s all still there. And part of the pain the community is feeling, as people post clips and remember how smooth, how smooth he was on the court, is the collective pain that we were supposed to be able to make it out.
2. On Stopping the Violence
This week, Nova Scotia RCMP “went viral” with a video “spoof” of Drake’s song Hotline Bling.
For Black people, this video probably couldn’t have dropped at a worse time. Following the shootings, and the fears around retaliation, the response is always more policing. People start calling for “boots on the streets.” Even Black people, who fear the violence in their own communities, and without seeing other options for protecting our families and homes, believe the solution is more police. So obviously at a time when people turn back to the police to restore order and contain Black bodies and reassure innocent people, it’s the perfect time for a video about how playful and fun police are!
This is what I said on Facebook at the time:
“Oh wow. A bunch of white cops jacking a hip hop song to joke about when you see that cop light bling.
Yeah, when you’re Black and you see that cop light in your rear view mirror it’s not a joke. You wonder if today is the day you’ll be shot, dragged out of your car and searched, humiliated in public, or wrongfully arrested. The very same hip hop that these cops are “playfully” using is the same music they use to profile Black people driving and pull cars over.
Ask Kirk Johnson how funny it is to see the cop light bling.
That’s leaving aside the massive sense of white entitlement in making these videos based on the idea that Black things are better without pesky Black people in them. HAHAHA we’re white and we get to make your culture a joke! And then arrest you for being Black, just further showing you your lack of value in actual society while we appropriate the parts of your entertainment that amuse us.”
Chris Rock has that famous bit about “Black people vs. Niggers.” It’s actually a piece he’s now disavowed, but you still hear it quoted everywhere. And that thinking is very common. There’s good Black people, and there’s bad Black people. There’s criminals and there’s victims.
In reality, and in the justice system, of course, it’s almost always more complex. People who commit crimes are also victims. People who are victimized can also be perpetrators in other contexts. Because we have a justice system that sharply divides offender from victim and “bad” people from everyone else, this binary thinking affects the way we talk about things like shootings or violent deaths. Because we’re told that if you have a record it makes you a bad person, we want to memorialize people without talking about those things. We don’t live in a society that can really say, he had a record, but he had value, and he was loved, and he wasn’t loved less because he was convicted or because he served time. So because we stigmatize people who have been charged or convicted, we feel these are things that have to be hidden if we want our loved one to be seen as a good person. And because we can’t say that, the idea that shooters are wholly bad and a scourge on the community and monstrous and different persists.
Once we believe that victims are wholly good and perpetrators are wholly bad, it’s easier to believe that increasing policing only affects the “bad” people. Obviously, since we are not like them, any laws that are passed to profile “suspects,” or to revoke bail and make conditions harder, or to give harsher sentences and less chance at parole will only affect the “bad” guys. But calling for more policing doesn’t help Black communities. The effect of gang policing on neighbourhoods in Toronto has been that young Black men are stopped repeatedly leaving their homes. People report being stopped hundreds of times. Every Black body becomes suspect. It makes it harder for Black bodies to move through society, and it increases the perception that Black people are in fact more criminal. This stigma about Black bodies in turn makes it harder to get jobs – the same mentality that says Black bodies on the street are automatically suspect is the one that sends Black workers home for having Black hair. When Black bodies are “othered” in society, then it’s easy to blame our conditions caused by racism and deliberate policy to exclude us on our supposed criminality, dysfunctionality, the way we’re raised, or hip hop.
Stop and frisk programs, or carding, or increasing police presence in Black communities – as if there aren’t already police stations on the corner in every hood – doesn’t make us safer. It makes it more dangerous to have a Black body in society, and it effects everyone, not just the “bad” people.
The most recent report by Howard Sapers showed that yet again, the population of Black inmates has increased. Every year since 2005, Sapers has seen the number of Black people in prison go up.
Black Canadians now represent the fastest growing group in federal prisons, and are vastly overrepresented behind bars.
While African-Canadians make up three per cent of the general population, they account for 10 per cent of the federal prison population. The recent report also indicates that while in prison, Black inmates are overrepresented in segregation, and that they are subject to nearly 15 per cent of all use-of-force incidents. In a case study released in 2014 on the Black inmate experience, the office of the correctional investigator points out that “despite being rated as a population having a lower risk to re-offend and lower need overall, Black inmates are more likely to be placed in maximum security institutions.”
Unless you believe that Black people are just genetically more disposed to crime than other people, it should be obvious that the problem isn’t bad people, but bad systems. As lawyer Anthony Morgan points out:
“It’s disheartening, but not surprising given the heightened level of over policing that happens with respect to Black and racialized societies,” says Anthony Morgan, a Toronto-based lawyer and African-Canadian rights advocate. One culprit Morgan points to is the controversial Toronto Police custom of carding individuals—stopping and questioning them without cause, and recording the incident—which disproportionately targets Black people. In fact, while eight per cent of Torontonians are Black, they’re targeted in 27 per cent of all carding incidents, according to 2013 records.
To help stymie the problem, Morgan suggests redistributing some of what he calls the “exorbitant amounts of resources we put into policing [Black and racialized] communities.” The Toronto Police budget for 2016 is $1 billion, but Morgan says some of that money could be better spent on services that foster stronger communities, like investing in more accessible transit, affordable childcare and housing, and education and job training opportunities for young people. All of these initiatives would benefit low-income communities, which are disproportionately Black or racialized. “If you look at it in the full scope of those things, it’s not surprising we have so many African-Canadians in jail,” says Morgan. “It’s an inevitable outcome when you have social neglect as systematic as it relates to the Black community.”
Heavy policing, profiling, lack of access to bail, and harsher sentencing doesn’t just affect the people who we think deserve it. It affects every Black body on the street, and every Black body in court, including the innocent ones. Including sons, brothers, cousins, fathers, husbands. When we call, for example, to “get the guns off the street,” that often translates into harsh weapons laws, such as mandatory minimum sentences for possession of firearms. These sentences don’t just keep shooters in prison for life, they mean that if your son is home on break from university and he picks his childhood friends up and someone stashes a gun, if he’s pulled over and caught with it and no-one takes the fall, he’s looking at a mandatory federal sentence. It means that if you’re a first-time offender and maybe you end up in an apartment where someone has guns, you end up doing serious time.
The African Canadian Legal Clinic challenged the mandatory minimum sentences for firearms possession in the Ontario courts, arguing that these sentences are a violation of Charter rights. They won. They have also intervened in mandatory sentences for drug possession. These sentences, along with so-called gang laws, disproportionately target Black people and result in our increased imprisonment, higher classifications, lack of access to parole, and other injustices. And then that same presumed guilt by virtue of being Black prevents families from even visiting their loved ones in prison. Passing laws that allegedly target gang members are used in sweeping ways to slap extra charges on Black people, falsely label people as gang members for being from particular communities or happening to know other people charged with crimes, and convince the public – who sit on juries – that Black bodies are uniquely violent and dangerous.
One way Black people protect themselves from racism is by believing that if we only conduct ourselves the right way, it will keep us safe. If we don’t wear baggy pants, we won’t get stopped. We believe the messages sent to us by white society and white media, that we shouldn’t have hesitated when the police told us to put our hands up, and that’s why we got shot. If we weren’t dressed like thugs, maybe we wouldn’t be treated like thugs. If we stopped having babies, maybe we wouldn’t be so poor. If we only raised our kids better – beat them more, or stopped beating them, or had a father in the home even if that father is not in the home because he’s in prison on an unjust sentence – then we wouldn’t be getting into trouble. If we only stopped saying nigger, or stopped acting like niggers, then maybe people would be able to treat us fairly. It’s a survival mechanism, to believe that racism is something we can control with our behaviour, if we just manage to be respectable.
But police don’t profile us because we’re bad. We are not denied bail because we are worse than other people. We fill up the prisons because we are Black. When we see that cop light bling, it doesn’t care if we are driving with a degree, it matters that we are driving while Black. There is no “good” Black person that isn’t affected by racism. We can never be good enough.
And so, even though it may seem like the solution, calling for more police, more laws, more prison, doesn’t help us. It will not keep us safe. All it will do is take more people out of their homes and communities, cause more children to grow up without a parent, create more poverty, cause more pain and suffering. Getting guns off the streets translates in a system of disproportionate imprisonment to getting Black people off the streets, and we must resist that. I said on Facebook:
Stopping the violence means we need to demand full employment for Black youth. We need to march to demand an end to school closures in Black communities and we need to demand a target to increase Black teachers who live in the community and are responsive to children. We need early intervention strategies for Black learners who struggle and funding for support programs. We need to march for an end to evictions from housing and for stabilizing rent and for affordable and safe housing. We need to march for a return of the funding, programs and services cut from our community. Let’s march for funding for education and training and employment programs, and a return of employment services to our community. We need free and culturally responsive mental health care in our communities. Putting “boots on the street” doesn’t end violence. Putting people in prison doesn’t end violence. Longer sentences do not end violence. Minimum sentences for firearms possession does not end violence. Violence ends when we end the poverty, racism, and lack of opportunity suffered in our communities.
So Shakespeare died 400 years ago and shit. George Elliott Clarke told me I should post this poem, so here it is:
If Shakespeare and Marlowe were like Tupac and Biggie.
This is the story
Of a little nigga named Shakespeare
Born in a town
In the middle of nowhere
No one would have thought
That such beautiful language
Could come out of the ghetto
And a yard filled with garbage
But no one knows who
The Gods choose to favour
And so poets come
In all colours and flavours
The gift of these Gods
Can be strange and capricious
But when Shakespeare spoke
Man, his words were delicious!
He knew the whole dictionary
He had beats in his bonnet
His mind was visionary
And he thought in sonnets
His friends hit the mic
But they was just amateurs
Our boy spit his rhymes
In iambic pentameters
Some couldn’t hear
And some got offended
And some covered their ears
When his words descended
They thought the only poems
Were locked up in the libraries
And written by dead men
In towers of ivory
And some thought his rhymes
Must have happened by accident
Because he wore baggy clothes
And he spoke with an accent
But some opened their hearts
And they listened to Shakespeare
And they heard true words
Like they came from the Creator
He went away to the city
With some pens and some paper
The only other thing in his backpack
Was a spare pair of underwear
Man, the city was huge!
And the scene was dope
There was this ill little club
By the name of The Globe
But the gift of the Gods
Can be strange and suspicious
It don’t always end well
When a brother gets ambitious
And a whole crew of criminals
Would try to steal him silent
They was lying in wait
To get their hands on his talent
There was pimps and drug dealers
And leeches and agents
Waiting to pounce
When he came down off the stage
Cuz he shone like a lamp!
And his talent was huge
Some thought it was only good
If it could be used
The big game in town
Was this brother named Marlowe
With a diamond grill
And a big sun afro
Two poets in town?
People thought it impossible
At least one of those poets
Would end up in hospital
And some thought that poets
Should never grow old
And turn into ashes
What was once made of gold
And the gift of the Gods
Can be strange and malicious
They can punish a poet
Who goes against their wishes
Man it was tough.
It never was easy.
In a world like that
I don’t know how he succeeded
And who would have thought
That such beautiful language
Could come out of a world
So filled up with anger?
The human heart
Was aching and broke
But you felt it expand
When Shakespeare spoke
He knew the whole world
And he spoke true things
And everyone who listened
Was turned into kings
Well, I think he died broke
People stole his vision
One of my boys told me
He saw him in prison
And the poetry Gods
Can be strange and suspicious
But the ones that they love
Always get their forgiveness
I don’t know if y’all remember
He used to be illin
You should have heard him
I think his first name was William
He was born nowhere special,
When he died he was dead
But the rhymes spun like planets
All night in his head.
Oops! Shortly after that reply, I realized you are a woman! And a powerful one, at that! Really like your insightful articles. Thank you
Thanks El Jones for this article which I read three times to really absorb. “Basketball takes the Black body, so threatening and despised in society, and changes the vision of what Black bodies – what Black bodies that come out of so-called ghettos and hoods and projects are capable of.” Powerful punch to the almighty sports world which would non-exist in basketball without Black players, but I – a humble white person do not despise Black bodies. The threat is actually my race and I’m stuck with it. A very great story though, Mr. Jones! I shared it for those with 5 minutes to read because it’s so true
Once again, thank you El. The Mountie video was just one of those things I glance at and ignore on social media. Once I read your comments I realized that it is actually a nasty piece of work and says a lot about the police/race issue and, on another level, it says a lot about the culture within the RCMP.
Please keep speaking out. Your voice is important.
Really interesting El. I think about the times as a young white punk I was followed and stopped by the cops, all the time sales people in stores followed or ignored me and how it would all change if I was dressed up for work. Suddenly I can shed all the perception of me as a threat by simply changing my clothes. I don’t imagine black Nova Scotians have the same privilege and that is a pretty sad thing.
I read your piece this morning and thought you might be interested in a Stats Can doc I found this week.
It shows that, when corrected for socio-economic factors, crime rates are not higher in aboriginal, immigrant or visible minority neighbourhoods. So the higher incarceration rate of blacks must be the result of socio-economic factors, discussed in the first part of your piece, or of unequal treatment in the justice system.