Ok, so I have said several times in the past that this is a writing blog and that’s what it is going to stay, and that I know (or think I know) that those of you who read this don’t come here for my ideas on politics or morals or whatever else. However, last week something happened in my home city that I feel very strongly about, and after Orlando I also wrote here that I was going to try not to stay safely silent on such issues any longer, and so here we are. I’m going to write about an issue I think is an important one today, and if you absolutely don’t want to read it I both respect your choice and promise that I’ll be back to writing about the odd things my brain does next week.
The thing is that the police killed a man in Ottawa last week. That seems like an overly dramatic phrase but it is the unvarnished truth. They came to arrest him, most accounts agree that he tried to escape, and most accounts also agree that he was punched, pepper sprayed, and beaten with a baton. It’s not clear exactly when he died, although some reports – which I have not seen directly contradicted – say that he was dead 45 minutes before he got to hospital. The man’s name was Abdirahman Abdi. He did not have a weapon.
We are told, by various authorities, that we must all keep our thinking relevant to this matter on pause until the Special Investigations Unit is done investigating and releases its conclusions. However, as Desmond Cole pointed out in the Citizen yesterday, although we do need to wait for the wheels to turn on any legal consequences, it is ridiculous to say that we shouldn’t think anything yet, and cannot yet say that anything is wrong. Among other things, as we are frequently reminded by the verdicts from courts here and elsewhere, there is ever a significant difference between what is legal and what is right.
And it seems so very clear that what happened to Abdirahman Abdi was not right. Before we get to any other issues, one very basic, and it seems to me inescapable, conclusion is that if the police cannot take a single unarmed suspect into custody without killing him, then we have a serious problem. The night Abdirahman Abdi died, the chief of Ottawa’s police was on TV saying that his officers receive training in ‘de-escalation’ and resolving situations peacefully, as though that settled matters. However, that only leaves more disturbing problems, because if these officers received such training, and the training was good, then they should have been able to make their arrest without loss of life. But Abdirahman Abdi still died. Is it more disturbing to think that police are not being properly prepared, or that they are prepared, but choose to ignore what they are taught? Neither is acceptable. Even if the officers are legally exonerated, what happened was clearly not right, and we need to confront that and respond to it.
And of course there are more issues enmeshed with this one. Abdirahman Abdi is described in most reports as ‘mentally ill’ (I have not seen a specific diagnosis), and so we return to the question of how police, and our society in general, deal with and hopefully take care of people with mental difficulties. Not very well. Last week we also saw a verdict (now under appeal) in the trial of a Toronto police officer who shot another young man with a mental illness. We haven’t, it seems, learned much since then It is often said that police are not social workers, and that it is not in their remit to handle such people gently. However, as Nicole Ireland’s article for the CBC pointed out last week, this is a perspective we can’t afford to accept. Officers can’t be psychologists, but if they’re meant to interact and intervene with the public in a meaningful and useful way, then knowing that in some situations pointing a gun and shouting commands won’t be effective and may make things work is knowledge they need. We must insist on it. Everyone knows it is a super difficult job that most of us couldn’t do, but it’s not good enough to say ‘tough job, things gonna happen.’ Police are supposed to be our helpers and advocates and protectors, they are the ones sanctioned to use force in our society. We need to insist that they fill these roles carefully and with empathy and with respect and with consideration. Anything else must be unacceptable. Last week something went terribly, irretrievably wrong, and that must be unacceptable too.
And of course there is yet one more issue at least, because Abdirahman Abdi was black. Now, the head of Ottawa’s police union was on the radio last week saying that it is ‘inappropriate’ to suggest that race may have played a part in how this incident played out to its ghastly conclusion, but this is a ludicrous thing to say. To say that, in light of all that has happened to visible minorities at the hands of police in recent days and weeks and months, is either wilful blindness or simply one of the most unrealistic things I have ever heard. To expect anyone, especially members of minority communities, not to wonder if race played a part in how the police reacted to Abdirahman Abdi, in their decision to use force on him, and in how he was treated afterwards, is simply divorced from common sense. Again, last week we saw all charges dropped in the case of Freddie Gray, a black man who died in the custody of Baltimore police, with a severed spine that (apparently) no-one is responsible for. Time and time again we see these cases, we get the same assurances, and – it seems – nothing changes. The questions the police find ‘inappropriate’ are asked because they have, as yet, received no satisfactory answer. They will continue to be asked until one is forthcoming, and especially until the dying stops. Possibly Abdirahman Abdi’s race had nothing to do with what happened to him, but of course people will ask the question, and given our recent bloody history, we are likely to doubt that it didn’t without compelling evidence to the contrary. To do otherwise would be, to say the least, inappropriate. We are told today that the SIU may not consider whether race was a factor in what happened to Abdirahman Abdi. That seems crazy to me, because the rest of the community will and is considering just that. We have to. We need to.
It is often far too easy for us (or at least me) to sit here in Canada and watch what happens in the United States and think ‘well that’s there, not here’, and to think that we don’t have such problems here. I shouldn’t think that, given what people from visible minorities say about their experience with police here in Canada, and Abdirahman Abdi’s death is a stark reminder that the problems of use of force by police, and how police react to and against visible minorities are our problems too, and of our own racial divisions, that we like to pretend don’t exist or aren’t meaningful. There was already plenty of evidence of this from the many cases of how people from First Nations communities have been abused by officers who were supposed to protect them from harm. We can’t pretend that these problems are safely south of the border or overseas, they are here at home and Canadians must confront them and grapple with them. It may take away some of our comfortable illusions, but people are suffering so it doesn’t matter, and in the end we will be better for it.
That’s one of the main reasons that I don’t like the ‘wait and see’ response from authorities here. However the legal issues around Abdirahman Abdi’s death are eventually determined, it was terrible and sad and wrong and we should have a sense of urgency in our response to it. That happened on a community level, but it would be good to see it from our political and civic leaders as well. Jim Watson, our mayor who I am generally a fan of, has not displayed his usual vigorous response this time. When someone parked in a bus lane and caused a traffic jam he immediately ordered a parking crackdown; when it was revealed on Twitter that OC Transpo directed its bus drivers to stop in bike lanes for timing stops, he publicly shamed them and ordered the practice to cease. When someone got in his face about flying the Pride flag at city hall, he flatly told them he didn’t want their vote. It would be great if that Jim Watson had shown up demanding action and answers, but instead he issued a rather bland statement of condolence and said nothing else. Again, there’s a difference between waiting for the legal process to run (which we must do) and simply doing nothing (which I think we must not do). It’s okay, and I think important, to point out the things that the death of Abdirahman Abdi shows us are not right in our city and our country and our society, and to point the way towards change. That’s leadership, or would be.
There are so many issues attached to this one awful moment. It’s like some kind of prism that casts a terrible light no matter how you turn it. It has revealed, or freshly illuminated, a great many problems. I don’t pretend to know what the solutions to all these problems are; I wish that I did. I do know that at a minimum wrongs and abuses in our society need to be pointed out and we need to insist that they are not okay and that change happens. What happened to Abdirahman Abdi was not okay. Whatever the issues were that lead to his death, there has to be change to prevent it happening again, in Ottawa or elsewhere. We can’t just call it a tragedy and end up saying that things are fine as they are: they aren’t or an unarmed man would not have died on a sidewalk.
We need especially to listen to the people from communities who find themselves mistreated by authorities. We mustn’t try to silence them or to reassure ourselves by pretending that what they are saying cannot be true or that it doesn’t matter. Our fellow human beings are telling us that they don’t feel safe, that they feel under attack in the place that is supposed to be their home and that they don’t feel able to trust the people who they are told to look to for protection. We need to hear them and believe them and do what we can to make it better. I believe them, and I know there has to be change on their behalf, and for Abdirahman Abdi.
I’m not sure if writing this was helpful in any tangible way, but I feel better for having written it. Thanks for reading.