— A Brief History of Halifax Bars & Racism —

(With thanks to Michael McGuire aka Hermit of the Woods, for links.)

In Friday’s Morning File, Tim wrote about the Argyle’s cancelling of Trevor Silver’s party due to “safety concerns.” (Disclosure: I taught Trevor last year.)

Tim wrote:

Go to the link for Chiu’s full reporting on the perceptions at play: bar staff feeling “afraid” after a similar party last year, but there were no police calls to the bar for that party.

I don’t know anything of this situation beyond what Chiu has reported, but I can say this: while naked racism exists to a disturbing degree in our society, the corporate world is generally too sophisticated to use the bald and direct language of racism. Rather, racism is expressed in embedded beliefs and normalized behaviours.

Let’s change the race calculation and see how we would think: What would be the reaction if the Sigma Chi frat house wanted to host a party in a downtown bar? Would concerns for “safety” rise to the level of cancelling the event in the wake of the murder of Taylor Samson, when the frat was said to be “practically in the crossfire of a drug war”?

That’s not a hypothetical question: — I see that Pacifico hosted Sigma Chi’s “Purple Party” on November 27, about three months after Samson’s murder. There’s no word if bar staff were afraid.

The trap. Image from cbc.ca
The trap. Image from cbc.ca

— Safety First —

White fear is used to justify not only the banning of Black people from clubs, but has motivated and justified killings of Black people. In the Sean Bell shooting, even though Bell was unarmed, the police were acquitted because it was ruled that they had a “reasonable fear.” In other words, even if Black people aren’t actually doing anything, an unfounded white fear of Black people is in itself reasonable enough to justify killing us. Being scared of Black people is enough. In the Mike Brown killing, again, the armed white police officer described himself as afraid of the “demonic” Brown.

White fears for safety around Blacks are not only taken seriously, but are projected onto Black people as though we, and not unhinged white people, were the problem. These white fears stretch back into enslavement histories, when white masters feared uprisings of Black slaves. The same language of Black people as demonic, savage, and animalistic justified white oppression of Blacks — because Black people are frightening, they must be controlled. White fear is actually caused by white people’s own violence towards Black people. It is white people who terrorize and brutalize Black people. Fearing retribution for their actions, white people create the justification that any violence they commit against Black people is necessary because it is Black people who threaten whites. Because white people feel fear, Black people must be dangerous.

Image of Black bar patrons in Halifax from theatlantic.com
Image of Black bar patrons in Halifax from theatlantic.com

White people are able to use their “fear” of Black people to enforce the idea that white people, because uniquely human, are uniquely vulnerable. Rather than wondering why white people are so unable to deal with the world – perhaps bar staff who are too “afraid” to be around Black patrons should be fired for not being able to do a job that requires interacting with the public rather than banning the Black people — white fears are treated as though they are rational, reasonable, and should be soothed.

Robin DiAngelo describes this as “White Fragility”:

White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.


Tim’s question about whether white fraternity members were banned from Halifax clubs for “safety” concerns is, of course, rhetorical. For the same reason that, despite the dentistry scandal, the alleged murder committed by a Dalhousie medical student, followed by murder committed by a recently-graduated Dalhousie law student, Dalhousie community members were not expected to hold “Stop the Violence” marches. White violence is seen as an anomaly. When white people commit violence they are mentally ill, or “troubled,” or it’s tragic. Violence committed by white individuals reflects only on them, not on the broader community of white people. Nobody will ask what the white community is doing about these murders, or question how white mothers raise their children, or demand that white leaders get together to solve the problem in their community. “Moderate white people” will not be asked to condemn violence by “white extremists.” White people will not have to hold a “get to know white people day” at the library. Nobody will talk about “white on white” crime or tell white people that maybe before they address issues like sexual assault they should deal with white people murdering each other in their own communities first.

YouTube video

— Nothing New —

This article from New Works Magazine on music in Halifax in 1985 quotes a number of Black Halifax musicians, including Jeremiah Sparks and Corey Adams about not being able to play Halifax clubs.

The number of Black musicians looking for work is well out of proportion to the seven or eight occasionally playing in Halifax clubs. Black musicians occasionally perform at the Middle Deck and at the Odeon, but the Network, the Misty Moon, and the Palace, all of which at one time frequently hired Black musicians, now employ Blacks so seldom it looks like policy. The only bar in recent years to have hired Black musicians on a regular basis, The Tap, closed down last year.

“There’s a lot of racism going on in Halifax as far as the club scene goes,” Corey Adams says.

“Last year, I made my living off playing. It kept me pretty good,” he says. Adams says he has work coming up at the Middle Deck but hasn’t played any clubs since opening for Martha Reeves at the rhythm and blues Odeon.

Adams says most bar owners haven’t been very receptive lately. “They tell me my music is too Black, but I can only play what I feel.”

“There’s a lot of racism going on in Halifax as far as the club scene goes.”

Some of the club owners argue that “Black music”, rhythm and blues or funk, won’t make money for the club. “Black music”, they say, doesn’t attract a White audience, and a Black audience doesn’t spend enough money to keep a club In business. No one in Halifax is counting on a mixed audience.

In the same article, because history repeats itself:

But even the experimenting Odeon is reluctant to party with local Black bands. One club manager, who refused to be identified, said he didn’t want to hire local Black musicians because of the following they might attract. It’s not that he doesn’t want Blacks in the club, he explained, it’s just that there is a certain element that in the past has caused violence and vandalism in clubs that have hired local Black musicians. He wouldn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, give an example.

Detective Sergeant Tom Spearns of the Halifax Police Department says he can’t recall any reports of violence or vandalism by patrons, Black or White, in any nightclub in Halifax.

Just as with Trevor Silver’s party (“Police tell CBC there were no calls to them about fights or disturbances at The Argyle that night”), white owners manufacture imaginary acts of violence that happened “in the past” to justify keeping Black people out in the present. There doesn’t need to be proof of these violent actions: that they exist in the white imagination is enough. Just like stories of refugee children attacking white children with chains (again, with no police report), white people’s uncorroborated delusions become “fact.”

Of course, Black people’s accounts of racism are never accepted as fact and proof is always demanded, but when white people vaguely point to “incidents in the past” this is treated as reality and they are able to make policies against Black people based on these made-up events and their imaginary fears of these non-existent happenings. Naturally, when Black people speak about racism, we are informed that it happened in the past and we should get over it.

never forget

— Not a Riot —

While white people (#notallwhites) are creating alternate realities based on things that didn’t actually happen, any actual racism that happened to Black people, or any histories of Black people in resisting that racism are conveniently forgotten.

Following the beating of Rodney King by police in March, 1991 — and the “riots” sparked by the acquittals of the police officers a year later — Black communities in the early 90s experienced a new wave of political consciousness. Failed by the promises of the Civil Rights movement and integration, which actually resulted in Black communities being gentrified, policed, gutted by mass incarceration and the “war on drugs,” and facing increasingly privatized schooling and attacks on the social safety net, post-Reagan Black communities ignited new struggles against racism.

YouTube video

In 1989, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” was released, becoming the soundtrack for a new Black generation, who, influenced by Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X, began “terrifying” whites by rocking Africa medallions, X shirts, and reviving interest in Black Power movements.

YouTube video

White people were, of course, scared.

In Canada (tm: It’s not like America here), despite our national sport of denial of anti-Black racism/existence of Black people at all, Black communities were resisting racism and rising up. In Halifax, the Cole Harbour “Riots” in 1989 and 1991, reminded amnesiac white Canadians that racism existed.

Of course, using the word “riot” implies that violent Black people were simply out-of-control, attacking innocent white people and damaging property. Calling these events “uprisings” would accurately portray their role in political resistance and organization by Black communities against oppression, so of course they are “riots.” And of course, any Black fight, or even party, can be determined to be a “riot,” and since Black people riot so easily, the solution is more policing, and keeping white people safe by segregating and controlling Black people.

Writing about the Yonge Street Uprising in Toronto in 1992, Ajamu Nangwaya recounts:

In Toronto of the late 1980s and early 1990s there were a number of cases of police killing and wounding of Afrikans and it created a powder keg-like situation in many neighbourhoods against the appearance of an open season on this racialized group. The Yonge Street Uprising erupted over Toronto cop Robert Rice killing of the 22-year-old Afrikan youth Raymond Lawrence in a west end neighbourhood.

A demonstration was called by the Black Action Defense Committee, the leading activist police accountability group in Toronto at the time, to demonstrate against this latest case of police violence. It attracted over one thousand participants. This protest action was also expressing solidarity with the Los Angeles (Rodney King) Rebellion that emerged from the acquittal of the cops for their brutal attack on Afrikan American civilian Rodney King.

Many Afrikans in Toronto and across Canada had been watching the unfolding of the uprising in Los Angeles and shared the pain of the Afrikan American community from the blatant injustice of the jury’s decision. The rage and solidarity of the Afrikans in Toronto for the insurrection in Los Angeles came from their lived experiences of undue police surveillance, beatings and the use of deadly force.

The Yonge Street Uprising was an unexpected act of resistance to the municipal political authority and the police top brass. They had rubbished the idea that Afrikans in Toronto would engage in a rebellion like their fictive kin in Los Angeles. This youth led insurrection totally surprised the political, economic and cultural elites because of their tendency to imbibe on the notion of Canadian exceptionalism when it comes to white supremacy, class oppression and policing.

Nangwaya concludes:

People tend to be tolerant of the structural violence of poverty, homelessness and inadequate housing, lack of access to healthcare, limited access to education, unsafe workplace, the pollution of land, air and water, and unemployment and underemployment that can contribute to the premature death or a compromised quality of life for oppressed. When people are not able to meet their basic needs in a world with the available resources, they are experiencing structural violence.

However, when the oppressed take matters into their own hands and bring the physical fight to the oppressor, they are usually vilified and further criminalized for using violence. The Yonge Street Uprising has made it clear that the oppressed might have to resort to violence in order to occupy the stage of history as the principal actors in the drama of emancipation. The abolitionist, writer and statesman Frederick Douglass asserts that resistance to oppression is a basic condition of life:

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

Before the Yonge Street Uprising, however, there was another “riot” in Halifax in July of 1991. Stephen Kimber’s profile of Doug Sparks in The Coast captures the “unrest” of the time:

In 1989, the first of a series of brawls between blacks and whites took place at Cole Harbour High School. In 1991, an incident in a downtown bar sparked a confrontation between riot police and 150 young blacks. In 1992, the Metropolitan Authority announced the short list of communities it was considering for the site of a new city dump—all were near predominantly black communities. In 1994, a white university student named Darren Watts was attacked and savagely beaten by a gang of blacks outside a local fraternity house. Over the next two years, eight young black men were convicted and sentenced to prison for their roles in the assault. For many blacks, including Doug Sparks, the harsh sentences turned out to be almost as shocking as the crime.

The 1991 “riot,” analyzed by Don Clairmont in this 1992 paper (beginning on page 80), began with a fight on July 17 outside a downtown bar. The Black participants in the fight were banned from the bar, while the white combatants were not.

…Later that night (i.e., about 1 a.m. Friday morning) a crowd of at least fifty Black males led by the group involved in the previous evening’s disturbance erupted from the Derby at its usual closing time and set out at a running pace for the Downtown bar several blocks away. On their way down there were a few random assaults of Whites (‘it was like being hit by a moving train’ said one victim). They were met at the bar by the extra-duty police who, following the planned strategy, stayed outside dealing with the crowd while the bar staff stayed inside behind the ‘barricaded’ closed doors. The Black leader contacted by the bar management was also at the scene. After much yelling, milling around and a few abortive attempts to get inside (actually the door was partially opened and a few fists flew), but without major incident there, the Black group moved off in the direction of the Uptown area which had been the staging point for the ‘rumble’.

Police had established perimeter points in the Downtown bar area to contain any further movement Downtown but the mob basically circled the corner and headed back to the Uptown. As the participants proceeded on there was again some random assaulting of ‘Whites’ by Blacks in the rear and on the fringes; apparently there was also some fragmentation of the mob occurring. The entire Downtown phase of the rampage (sometimes called the Argyle Street phase after the street on which the targeted bar was located) lasted about twenty minutes from 1:20 to 1:40 a.m. There was neither significant property damage nor any looting but at least fifteen persons (a dozen men and three women) were assaulted, mostly pummelled by a flurry of fists and feet but in at least one instance hit in the head with a baseball bat. Seven persons were hospitalized with concussions, loss of consciousness or assorted bruises but none of the injuries proved to be serious and long-term.

Back in the Uptown the crowd’s numbers reportedly swelled to well over one hundred as youngsters and the curious gathered around the core group of young Black males between 16 and 30 years of age. On the main street, Gottingen Street, a stand-off developed between the crowd and the police that was to last for well over an hour till approximately 3 a.m. Demonstrators, a few in ski masks, taunted police, threw rocks, stones, bottles and other objects such as a baseball bat, and occasionally charged up to and ‘practiced karate kicks against’ police who were in riot gear.

Sylvia Hamilton’s film Speak It! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia (video available at the link) captures the issues that animated these protests, dismissed by some as just young drunken Black men rampaging downtown, with nothing to to with discriminatory bar policies or police relations. Clairmont’s article references a history of marches in Halifax against the police and other protests stretching back into the 60s and 70s (that have likewise been erased from consciousness.) Hardly surprising when the details of what happened at parties last year is apparently fuzzy and open to fabrication.

YouTube video

I once heard someone complain that while other communities have risen up against police violence, the only youth protests in Halifax were over getting into bars. But policing and bar exclusion policies are actually intimately linked. Policing controls the social space, protecting the property and safety of whites. In the words of Ajamu Nangwaya:

The cops are the front-line personnel of the occupation army-like presence that is the police department in Afrikan working-class or racialized communities across Canada and the United States. The writer James Baldwin accurately captures the operational dynamic that makes incidents of police violence the tripwire for urban rebellion in an article in Esquire in 1960:

“…the only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive. None of commissioner Kennedy’s policemen, even with the best will in the world, have any way of understanding the lives led by the people they swagger about in two’s and three’s controlling. Their very presence is an insult, and it would be, even if they spent their entire day feeding gumdrops to children. They represent the force of the white world, and that world’s real intentions are, simply, for that world’s criminal profit and ease, to keep the black man (and woman) corralled up here, in… [their] place. The badge, the gun in the holster, and the swinging club make vivid what will happen should… [their] rebellion become overt.”

Just as policing pens Black people into surveilled neighbourhoods, coded as violent, and segregated from “white society” – and profiling Black people when they emerge into white spaces like downtown – bar policies that overtly and subtly exclude Black people are part of the same control of Black people and maintenance of whiteness. As George Rigakos analyzes in his book, Nightclub: Bouncers, Risk, and the Spectacle of Consumption, (written in 2008 and based on interviews with Halifax nightclub staff):

Dress codes are an indicator of exclusivity, of a particular set of aesthetics, of constituting ambience; they are also a mechanism by which to attract and dissuade potential patrons through their self-identification with various representational stagings. Couched within a notion of the representation of self through consumption and the concomitant effects of such representation on risk and security, these ordering schemes are far more ubiquitous to the nightclub as aesthetic production and spectacle than may be realized…They also empower the door staff: they are the first instance in the disciplining of patrons, reaching out and gripping them by their collared and cologned shirts well before they leave home. Dress codes, guest lists, and cover charges are constitutive of space, manifestos of gender, class, and race cleavages…A posted dress code could surely be the frontispiece of the night’s violent confessional.

Like police, bars enforce white supremacy through criminalizing Black people, controlling access to space, and “disciplining” patrons. By one means or another, Black people will be put and kept in our place.

— Dress Codes —

In a Coast article in 2009, “Halifax’s Hidden Racism,” Lezlie Lowe wrote:

Consider the fiancee of a friend of mine, a 32-year-old human resources manager who is black and who has more than once been denied entry to a prominent downtown bar. Something about his clothing for a night on the town just doesn’t seem to make the cut.

When Halifax hosted the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in 2007, Black poets were turned away from bars because they were wearing “shirts past your knuckles.” The experience poets across Canada had of racism in Halifax that year – normal experiences for people living in Halifax – were so shocking that the next year in Calgary, many Black poets performed poems about not being able to get a cab in Halifax and being denied entry to the club.

On the night of semi-finals, a Friday, it was pouring rain, and none of the Black poets could get a cab. Poets ended up walking to the venue and performing soaking wet. After the show, as Black people yet again tried to flag down cabs from downtown, young white women would come up and offer to stand in the street to get cabs for us. On the night of finals, a Saturday, we walked around downtown, and saw fight after fight, all between white patrons. I remember  watching one white man just punch another white man in the face randomly, and he rolled down the hill. One poet said in disbelief, “Yo, I’m from the hood in Toronto, and I’ve never seen so much violence in my life!” Eventually, as we stood by the club watching a bouncer flip his shirt inside out and run over to jump on white boys, the police showed up, and came straight towards not the group of brawling whites, but to us, the Black people standing off to the side.

The dress code of “no shirts past your knuckles” is part of the not-so-subtly coded racism that screens Black people from clubs. While inside the bar, the DJs play music dominated by Black artists, at the door, policies are officially and unofficially enacted to keep the people who look like the music that attracts patrons out.

Image of not racist from montyentertainment.com
Image of not racist from montyentertainment.com

This “style code” from Taboo, for example, urges patrons to “dress to impress” and notes that “Management reserves the right to deny admittance.” On the list:

No runners, sneakers or flip flops
No jersey style clothing
No athletic style clothing
No tank tops or sleeveless shirts (Men)
No oversized clothing
Headwear: no baseball style hats, bandanas, beanies
No overly revealing clothing
No excessive jewellery.

The focus on athletic clothing, jerseys, bandanas, and oversized clothing are all coded ways of saying “no hip hop style  clothes.”  Other codes will explicitly ban “do rags” or other clearly black trends. This thread about dress codes at “Pacifico” shows that people clearly “get it” and associate jerseys, for example, with “gang clothing.” One sarcastic comment:

Wear some air force ones with your Ecko jeans tucked into your socks, a lakers jersey that goes to your knees with a white tee that has sleeves to your wrist and a Yankees hat with the stickers on it still and you’ll be fine.

That thread, besides racism towards Muslims, features white people talking about how “fucked up” they get when they go out, but of course it’s Black clothing that’s targeted (“Don’t dress like your home is on blocks….or you just got signed by Shady records.”)

As much as white people will deny that these codes are racist dog-whistling (anyone can wear a jersey!) it’s obvious from casual discussions like this thread that the message of these dress codes is implicitly understood as “a Black thing.”

George Rigakos anaylzes an almost identical dress code. He writes:

Some of the items on the above list were included to prevent specific sub-cultural elements (read: black hip-hop crowds) from entering. Some were added so that there would not appear to be a double-standard. For example, disallowing “hats/headwear” more generally rather than baseball caps specifically can be read as the nightclub’s attempt to avoid targeting a particular group…One doorman told me [the dress code] allowed them to dismiss “a lot of people from coming in the bar that we feel might be problems. We have a pretty extensive dress code, and we’re allowed to use that at our own discretion.” I asked if the dress code prevented people who might be trouble from coming in. “Yeah, for the most part,” he responded. “It prevents a lot of people that, you know, that you wouldn’t want in the bar. And if there’s something that we could pick out on them, that we you know, besides saying that ‘we don’t want you in the bar…’

A little further down, he relays this exchange:

So the dress code wasn’t totally about preventing violence in the bars? I asked. “Well, I think there are certain images, of course,” he replied.

Michael McGuire remembers Classified being “turned away” from the Attic for “dressing too black,” a memory corroborated by DJ IV.

Cue ironic video use:

YouTube video

Dress codes are another manifestation of white people’s desire to enjoy Black things without the pesky presence of Black people. Blasting hip hop and R&B in the club while banning Black patrons. White fun depends upon consuming the products of Black culture, but white “safety” means appropriating those pleasures for themselves while clearing Black people out. Black stuff is nicer once you get rid of the Black people.

— Rewind —

Then there was the Christmas “brawl” at the Dome in 2007:

Some of those arrested accuse police of a harsh response.

Lyra Burke, 19, said the officers acted aggressively toward a friend who was talking on a cellphone across the street from the bar, locally known as the Liquor Dome.

“I don’t know what they were doing. I think they were just on a power trip— in the fighting zone— they wanted everyone to be fighting,” she said.

Burke said a female friend of hers was choked when she tried to stop the police. Burke and her friends were arrested and spent the night in jail.

At least three other women who were arrested alleged that officers were targeting black people.

Then there was the time undercover Halifax Regional Police officers assaulted the pastor’s son in Digby in 2008:

Mr. Drummond and Mr. Fells, 19, said the altercation began late one night last month in Digby, N.S. According to the young men, they were walking along the sidewalk when, without provocation, a man standing beside a van directed the epithet “nigger” at them.

The confrontation escalated into a running fracas between the young black men and a number of strangers who turned out to be part of a group of off-duty police, including officers from Halifax Regional, in town for a charity event.

Mr. Drummond said that one of the men tried to punch him and missed. He swung back and knocked the man out with one punch, he said, provoking an on-duty RCMP officer to jolt him several times with a taser. The young men also allege that the on-duty officers ignored the actions of the off-duty officers, even as the latter continued to threaten Mr. Drummond and Mr. Fells.

Parts of the incident were caught on surveillance video, the contents of which have not been made public. They have been viewed, though, by Rev. Michael Fells, father of Nathaniel and a leader in the black community.

“You don’t need to be black or white to see that something outrageous happened here,” he said yesterday. “They were intoxicated, used racial slurs and physically assaulted our youth. We want to send a very clear message that those who enforce the law are not above the law.”

The time in 2010 when the Halifax Alehouse called the police on a Black customer because “when in doubt, keep them out.”

halifax racist

The Roundtable on Violence in 2006, convened by then-mayor Peter Kelly in response to reports of swarmings by Black youth, and the deadly bar fight that killed an American sailor yet again situated Black violence as the “problem” and the threat to safety. Despite the fact that most violent acts in Halifax are committed by the white majority, violence is only a crisis when it’s Black perpetrators. Repeated sexual assaults in the South End do not require a roundtable, meetings with police and the justice minister, calls from churches, or new policy. That is business as usual. Violence by Black youth on the other hand, especially when it has the temerity to spill into white areas or affect tourists, must be immediately met with more policy, more laws, more control, more assurances to white people.

From the transcript of the Violent Task Force, we see how white violence is minimized – a joy, even! – but Black violence is “different.”

Nunn: There was a swarming on the Halifax Common. There was a person killed on the sidewalk downtown. There has been incident after incident of violent activity in Halifax…. Let’s start downtown, Chris. Can you give us an indication of how bad the situation is, if indeed it’s that bad?

Murphy: We had a situation in which there were a variety of problems. The first one that got a lot of attention was a lot of public disorder, late night drunkenness, assaults—some of them quite violent, some of them fairly benign. There was a sense that this was a situation growing out of control and that we needed—as a community, as a city—to do something about both the causes and to enhance public safety downtown.

Nunn: Halifax got a bit of a reputation as a tough town.

Murphy: It’s always been a bit of a tough town, being a port city. But I think in the last three or four years, these very public incidents, including knifings in the streets and murders, began to create a reputation for Halifax that we were increasingly uncomfortable with.

Nunn : How did you let the situation get out of control?

Zima: The downtown core itself has over 200 licenced liquor establishments and, as it has been described in the Clairmont report, it really has created the perfect storm for violence in the downtown area: You have cheap drinks, very large cabarets bars open until four o’clock in the morning populated by an abundance of young people that are highly intoxicated.

Syperek: I don’t think the bars are the problem. I think it’s kids hanging out on the Common swarming people, drugs. I don’t think there’s a drinking problem at all…

While white crime can be solved by changes like more transportation downtown or maybe limiting the size of bars, Black crime is consistently addressed as pathological, “different,” and the real problem. Despite the question being raised of Black victims of crime, the discussion immediately turns to Black perpetrators. The white participants are literally unable to conceive of Black people as victims, as so a question about Black victimhood immediately becomes a discussion of the various causes of Black criminality. While white histories of violence are unremarkable – oh, we’re just a port city – and white drunkenness isn’t part of their culture, Black crime is tied to broader Black dysfunction:

Fairfax: I think it has to start with some sort of an education, especially for the young black parents. A lot of them are young, black single mothers, and they’re not educated. It would be really nice to see them get some sort of an education, so that they’re able to provide for their children, and their children are able to have a positive role model to look up to. That’s not prevalent in the black community.

MacIsaac: One thing that we’ve identified is a real disconnect of cultural identity. In response to that, black youth learning about their culture from BET or learning about their culture from entertainment—CDs they listen to, magazines…There are so many positive role models in our communities that young people never get to see because they are so enamoured with gang violence, they’re so enamoured with making easy money. There is a lack of role models, mentoring, positive engagement with people they can identify with and connect with. More youth drop-in centres, more places like the rap battles where people are culturally expressing themselves—I think those are great. We need more of those.

Every time white violence, such as drinking downtown is raised, the discussion compulsively lurches to focus on Black people. At one point iZrEAL Jones comments:

I feel safer in the Square than I do in downtown Halifax, especially if there’s a hockey game going on or if it’s St. Patrick’s Day and you’ve got all these drunks running around the streets—I’d much rather be in the Square, because it’s safer, because this is a racist town. People are scared to go into the black neighbourhoods, but for me, it’s the safest place to go. I’m scared to go into the south end after dark. It’s a race thing.

Rather than addressing violence in the South End, the response immediately shifts back to Black youth on the Commons and how those crimes are “particularly violent.” Jones’ comments are helpfully and repeatedly whitesplained away by Sociologist Chris Murphy, who lectures him on the “simplicity” of his understanding of racism.

The real pathology on display in this discussion is not Black criminality, but rather the obsessive need of the white participants to shift any focus from white people and to project all the issues onto Black people. The discussion is literally unable to cope with the spectre of white violence, and so the discussion ends with white people comfortably agreeing that the real issues that need to be addressed are in the Black community.

Brenda Zima, watch commander with the HRP, concludes the discussion by a linguistic act of white denial, “This is not a Community Services issue. This is not a black community issue. This is not a policing issue. We all have to work together.” The very force of that denial (“not a black community issue”) is to draw attention to the fact that it is, in fact, in the minds of white people, a black issue. She doesn’t mean “this is not a black community issue” as in, it’s not actually Black people committing the majority of violent acts and let’s talk about white people instead, and how did this end up only being about Black people anyway? No, she means “not a black community issue” in the sense that now it’s a problem for white people to solve and to save Black people from ourselves.

Despite the discussion beginning with drinking downtown, that is safely removed from the conversation, the white participants all twist the conversation to be about all the ways Black people are “different,” and then pat themselves on the back for their progressiveness in acknowledging that since the issue is Black people (not white people or racism) it’s up to benevolent white people to help Black people. Of course, the fact that it is bar owners asserting that the problem is not drinking is not challenged. White people in this conversation literally construct the problem as Black people, then present themselves as having the knowledge and generosity to help Black people solve the problems white people just assigned to them. Yet again, what is on display is not dysfunctional Black behaviour, but dysfunctional white imaginations. They are literally unable to “see” white violence, white crime, or white problems.

You might think this is an image of a seal, but it's actually an image of a Black person being a problem, Image from cbc.ca
You might think this is an image of a seal, but it’s actually an image of a Black person being a problem, Image from cbc.ca

— Conclusion —

From the CBC article on Trevor Silver’s party:

“There’s [also] white people killing white people,” said Silver, whose mother is Caucasian. [Italics are mine.]

What? So while white people can freely imagine “disturbances” for which there is no evidence, while making all kinds of judgments and conclusions about Black people and then cancel Black people’s events and affect their livelihoods based on this fiction, if a Black person wants to point out the obvious fact that white people also kill white people, it has to be validated by him having a white mother? Like pointing out that white people kill white people would be racist if his mother were Black? Oh, thank God he’s mixed-race and so has special knowledge of the white world denied to Black people who are “different” and couldn’t possibly know about the actions of white people, even though we live in a society saturated by whiteness.

Pointing out his mother is white is like an acknowledgement that reverse racism is an actual thing. Because everyone can comment on Black people and have expertise on us and constantly run media stories on shootings and Black communities, but if a Black person wants to talk about white violence, then having a white mother is necessary to prove it’s not racist and that he doesn’t “hate white people.” As if Black people pointing out the actual fact of white violence is the same thing as the volumes of racist material written about us.

Thank God Trevor Silver’s mom is white. We wouldn’t want to be racist.

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. There is no doubt whatsoever that the cancelling of Mr. Silver’s party was an expression of racism. Denials and lame justifications to the contrary are not only wrong but intelligence insulting to an extreme degree.
    I am a white person, raised in this broader community and trained by my peers and dominant culture to be afraid of Black people. That was wrong.
    This paranoia is what keeps racism alive and well and persisting in this province. We need to get this out of the shadows and expose the cowardice of establishments like the Argyle. We cannot and must not allow an incident like this to be passed off with excuses like those from the establishment’s management. It was racist. No argument supports it otherwise and those who try to say it isn’t are part of the problem of the sickening kind of insidious racism I was raised with and have been trying to get above for my entire adult life.