It’s lovely to see people showing up for this, to see people fired up about this. At the same time, I suspect I may be one of the quieter speakers this evening. I’m a parent of a very energetic two year old, and therefore very, very tired, so when I was invited to speak, I almost didn’t say yes. I wondered to myself what I could say that hasn’t been said before by people far more knowledgeable and articulate about police defunding, disarmament, and divestment. I’ve spent two decades of my life focusing as a scholar and an artist on race, racism, and anti-racism, but for a lot of the period of this last uprising, of these last few weeks, I’ve found myself struggling to find ways of processing all that’s been going on, reaching for a spare moment, trying to push through the haze of sleep deprivation, a yelling child, not to mention the weight of the pandemic and all that entails. As I suspect is the case with a lot of newish parents, I find myself easily drawn into a state of hyper-alertness, noticing so many different ways that my kid could get hurt, imagining what if the sharp edges at the base of the couch … what if that neighbour backing out of her driveway too fast … what if those stairs without railings …
I wonder about the ways that my child’s life is going to unfold. I imagine that she will more readily be identified as Black than I am. I wonder what if she’s walking home, her Blackness a threat called in by the neighbours—would she end up like Elijah McClain, killed last August by police in Aurora, Colorado? Will she lose an eye to the fists of an off-duty police officer, as Dafonte Miller did in Whitby? What if she acts the wrong way at school? Would she be assaulted by police, as was recently the case in Mississauga, where Peel Regional Police handcuffed a forty-pound, six-year-old girl at the wrists and ankles and kept her on her stomach for 28 minutes? What if the case were somehow to gain attention, would we be forced to defend her character as if she were on trial, as is routinely the case with our loved ones assaulted or killed by police? Would we be beckoned to release photos that show her smiling, to find some way of casting her as innocent and non-threatening, as respectable, as palatable?
No, let’s dispense with these stories we are compelled to seek and circulate as if palatability to the general public represented the border between innocence and expendability. What if she were not palatable? What if she did not smile in recent photos? What if she was not a straight-A student, not a valedictorian, not an accomplished musician, not a volunteer at the food bank, not visibly exceptional except to those to whom she was most visible? What if she used drugs? What if she had a record? What if she was, in that insidious phrase used to dampen outrage, known to police? What if she suffered a mental health crisis and were a danger to herself or others? Would she end up like Regis Korchinski-Paquet, late May of this year, like Chantel Moore a week later, like Ejaz Choudry two weeks later? I worry about the racist bullying my daughter will face in schools, I worry about whether she’ll have the mental health supports that she’ll need, that we all collectively need—but I also worry about the danger she’ll face as a result of the clear track record of violence associated with cops in schools, smiling behind titles like “School Resource Officer,” guarding school-to-prison pipelines just like their colleagues guard those that rip oil and gas as violence and death through land and life. And I also worry about the danger she’ll face as a result of the clear track record of violence and death associated with police dispatched to mental health crises as “wellness checks,” that word “wellness” resounding with deadly force even as it is used in workplaces to suggest yoga and lunchtime walks instead of decent pay and safe working conditions. As has and will and must been said again and again, the money used to fund these assaults by police in the name of education and wellness could be used to fund the building of schools and mental health supports into parts of our community that might provide meaningful support rather than serving as sites of violence, a tiny, tiny sliver of what it might look like to travel towards abolition.
But let’s stop for a moment and remind ourselves what police violence looks like. Yes, it looks like assaults with batons, tasers, pepper spray. Yes, it looks like shootings, chokeholds, killings. But is it police brutality we oppose—or police violence? Where we find ourselves questioning police who cross a line towards extremity, we might ask instead what lines they guard in the first place—what bottom lines, what company lines, what party lines, what color lines, what lines of geography, what borders, what land as property. Ask about police brutality, yes, but let’s never settle for that larger polite violence, that banal violence, that violence of the normal, that violence of the routine—the line of cops guarding the banks and boutiques, the wealthy neighbourhoods, the officers on desk duty pushing deportation papers forward, the armed officer, weapon safely holstered, civil, professional, and friendly, calmly ticketing homelessness.
But from a certain angle, we can see them trembling. We see the attempts at pacification, the attempts to blunt the fangs of this moment, this movement, this momentum. They stand beside the protests in full uniform holding signs saying “We’re listening.” They kneel on day shift, to balance out the batons they bring at night. They read White Fragility and promise to check their privilege and reduce microaggressions, promise trainings and cultural sensitivity, as if the goal of the movements highlighting police violence and racial oppression were simply to make individual officers nicer and less discriminating, to make such violence more polite and racially balanced. They circulate videos showing cops shooting hoops with Black youth as if our anger was simply the result of misunderstanding, of not having met the right individual cops in the right circumstances. They try to dazzle us with sudden utterances of vague phrases like “systemic racism,” a phrase they fill with convenient meanings that cut off the possibility of the kind of change that would threaten their foundations structured in racial violence.
But it’s heartening to be here among you, learning among you. On this day that normally works for so many of as a forceful attempt to sweep out of sight the genocide, the theft of land, and the racial violence through which the internal and external borders of Canada have been continually produced and reproduced, it is uplifting to be gathering to share stories about what a radically different world would look like, stories rooted in decades-long Black, Indigenous, and other feminist traditions. We know that there are stories among these that point to things that could be done immediately, we see the victories in Denver, Minneapolis, Portland, and, just down the road, in Hamilton, where school boards have finally ended their relationships with police after years of community organizing. Guelph could do the same, if the Upper Grand District School Board task force currently studying the matter makes the right decision. Councils in Los Angeles and elsewhere are cutting police funding, while Minneapolis continues to pursue the option of dismantling the police force and replacing it with tangible community safety initiatives. Again, Guelph could do the same.
But even as they are sometimes immediately achievable, these stories of defunding, disarmament, divestment, abolition can also be unnerving, unsettling in so many senses of these words. They force us to ask difficult questions about our histories, about our relationships to each other and to the land, about our ideas of justice, our investment in retribution, about what meaningful lives and community and genuine safety might look like. And these are hard questions to confront when we are tired, if even we are finding ourselves forced to ask them because we are tired. To the organizers and to everyone who has shown up with learning in their hearts, I thank you, then, as a tired parent, as Black, as a member of your community, and I hope that we see many more opportunities like these to pursue together the difficult work of unfolding worlds that seem unimaginable by most accounts.