It's Time For Random Street Checks To Stop

Mark Saunders is the first black Police Chief of Canada’s largest city, Toronto. To say that this is an achievement is an understatement. To say that there was a collective pride felt by the black community throughout Toronto is also an understatement.

As a mother to a little boy who idolizes the police, it was a proud moment to be able to show him a picture of the new police chief, who happens to have brown skin just like him.

<em>Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders  </em>
Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders

My son is young. He loves police, he waves, he has on more than one occasion, to our amazement, gone up to random police officers and asked to shake their hands. We encourage it. We laugh. We take pictures. But there’s a lingering unease. He is young. He is cute. He is small, but he is black. He won’t always be what he is right now. Soon, he will be like any other black youth navigating the city streets on his own and subject to the unconstitutional, blatantly racist and dehumanizing practice of ‘carding’, the random stopping of individuals by police, which overwhelmingly targets black people.

Black youth navigating the city streets are subject to the unconstitutional, blatantly racist and dehumanizing practice of ‘carding.’

In a city that for some time has been plagued by an undercurrent of tension, due to ‘carding’ there was a level of hope, that a black Police Chief could change this practice. But instead, along with the Toronto Police Services Board, he has reinforced the status quo at every turn.

This is a man who dodged meeting after meeting with the Black Lives Matter Toronto and then told a national news outlet that he has chief, didn’t think he had anything to offer in discussing how police interacted with people of colour.

Last week, when faced with the opportunity to do the right thing, the Toronto Police Services Board decided to continue on with the practice albeit in a revised form and to allow police to keep data from these unconstitutional checks.

Think about the stress and anxiety of knowing that every time you set foot outside your door, you could be targeted by police, because you’re black.

For black youth across the city of Toronto, this means that they can continue to be targeted and stopped for no reason other than being black. Desmond Cole’s story is perhaps the most well-known example of this. He had been stopped by police more than 50 times. Think about that. Think about the stress and anxiety of knowing that every time you set foot outside your door, you could be targeted by police, because you’re black… and therefore suspicious, a potential threat, and a crime waiting to happen. Think about the fact that you could be doing nothing more than walking through the park to meet your girlfriend, and you could be stopped by police, asked to show identification, the equivalent of the Gestapo’s call of “show me your papers” in Nazi Germany. Not only is your information collected, but it is archived and kept. You may be sent on your way, but every detail, every interaction has been recorded.

Think about the fact that as a black youth, your parents may have had “the talk” with you and informed you on what to do if you get stopped by police, be submissive, be compliant, but you are young, you may show how upset you are at being stopped for no reason, and this emotion will be captured as aggression. Should you ever be in the unfortunate position of having to deal with police again… a single term “known to police” will sum up your experience, define your story, and send nods of ‘but of course’ echoing throughout communities across the city.

This is the legacy of the Toronto Police Services Board and the cities first black Police Chief.

It’s unfair to expect a black trailblazer in any field to make drastic waves, or deep systemic changes. It is understandable that he is walking a tight rope and to maintain order in the rank and file, the only colour he sees is blue. But in many ways, as a black leader you have to transcend that. You have to be willing to fight a system you know is biased. Particularly at a time like this, when there is an international conversation being held around systemic racism and the role it plays in the everyday lives of black and brown people. It is incumbent on black and brown leaders to speak out, to walk in the light, engage in a conversation and bring about change for the better.

This isn’t happening in Toronto and carding lives on. In an open letter to the City of Toronto and Province of Ontario, 53 Black intellectuals, writers and organizers joined forces to voice their concerns over carding.

I am grateful for this. I am grateful that they are acting on my behalf, and on behalf of all the black and brown boys and girls, who love police, but who may one day become their target.