Of the motley crew of mostly black and multi-culti late 20’s to 40-something-year-old men who comprise my immediate social group, many of whom are now officially Old School, in all areas of life (I’ll take the Gap Band over The Gap any day) all have had some negative encounter or experience with the police.
It's stuff we talk about in the Barbershops where I work as a facilitator on weekends, as part of the Barbershop Project, to discuss positive parenting in the African-Canadian community. Butting heads with police, has sadly almost become part of some strange, twisted Rites of Passage to African-Canadian male adulthood. Just last year, one of the black community’s greatest thinkers, Harvard Professor Henry “Skip” Gates had a nasty run-in with local Boston area police, and then Obama stepped in, over beers, at the White House, to ease tensions.
Which brings me to Toronto Deputy Police Chief Peter Sloly. Pardon my ignorance, but I know little to nothing about what it takes to become a member of the police of today. But what I do know is that the police force needs more Peter Sloly’s - and I ain’t much into human cloning, at all (though I might consider it just this one time).
I participated in a much-needed TDSB (Toronto District School Board) Young Men of Color Conference last week, populated by a large assembly of black men doing right by their community, one that, er, interestingly got little mainstream media coverage, and Sloly explained how he came here from Jamaica, like most immigrants for “a better life”, how when he began policing in Jane-Finch he had to unlearn negative, outdated characterizations of the neighborhood that was fed to him, and how his black heroes like Nelson Mandela fuel his work to this day.
I’d never met the guy prior to this presentation, but the Power Point-aided story he told about himself, concerning the two-way dialogue that police officers and community members need to be having, hit home. Peter Sloly reminded me of what the Canadian Dream can be. He played sports at a high level, like I once did, and got injured, and took a different career path. And then decided to, as he said, serve the community for the public good.
Like, who can’t relate to that? His view of modern day policing is something that needs to be heard by more black youth, who fairly or not feel victimized for WWB (Walking While Black), DWB (Driving While Black), SWB (Shopping While Black). Myself included, if you continue reading.
As you dig a little deeper into this police business, you’ll begin to see that there’s another guy, Keith Forde, who is a really high-ranking Deputy Chief, the first non-Caucasian figure to be appointed, who happens to look like many of the city residents. Around the block from where I live, there’s this African Canadian constable (Jimmy, I believe his name is) who greets me every time I see him, like he is totally there to serve and protect me. And you. And you over there in the back. You couldn’t meet a nicer guy.
Those reading this might think I’ve gotten older and soft, and have lost my literary and journalistic ability to speak out against injustices committed by everybody, including bill collectors, Raptors management, out-of-touch bureaucrats or the more subtle forms of racism that continue to permeate Canadian society (check it, to celebrate Halloween last October, some students at the University of Toronto dressed up as the Jamaican Bobsled Team in blackface). What year is it, again? 2010? Or 2010 A.D.?
Uh-huh, muted is not me. Human rights are human rights.
And when I myself got stopped by a knuckleheaded constabulary member years ago – apparently knuckleheads come in all professions — for “walking while black”, I reported on this for Now Magazine, and then sent out a communiqué to my well placed “supporters”, some of whom are in the legal community.
That’s just my personal view on what citizens need to do. It’s why I blog here. The pen, ahem, keystroke is always mightier than the sword! And machetes too. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Don’t let me get all MLK and Malcolm on you.
So, despite harbouring awful childhood memories of me and my mostly black friends being suspiciously and mistakenly carted off to some stranger’s house by a police officer - it was an elderly Italian woman who’s kid had his orange bike stolen, supposedly the identical color as me and my friends bike - all I knew was that my hard-working mother bought this Canadian Tire special orange Super Cycle for me, and no amount of terrible policing was going to get that bike removed from the grips of my pubescent hands.
The relationship between police and our youth is tenuous, at best, and I only know this because I see the run-ins. Often. And I work on the ground.
To repair this community-police relationship it’s going to take more than playing pick-up basketball games every so often in neighborhoods heavily populated by racialized groups. Let’s maximize this opportunity of having a few high-ranking community-based officers like Keith Forde and Peter Sloly who are both proudly black and proud police to bridge the gaps, and build bridges where we can, across communities.
The tide might be turning.