Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Was the Standoff on Yonge Street, an Exercise in Racial Profiling?

A two hour standoff on Yonge street ended today with two men in custody.  The pair were pulled over by police officers.  Apparently, the police were acting on the belief that the pair were in possession of a fire arm. One man immediately left the vehicle and was arrested, while the other refused to get out of the car.  This began a two hour stand off, in which a negotiator and a swat team were called out.  The man apparently asked repeatedly why he was being pulled over and was not given an answer. He eventually exited the vehicle and was promptly arrested and taken to 51 division. The vehicle was searched and for all of their efforts, the police were rewarded with a bag of chips.

I originally saw this story on CTV during the lunch hour, but none of the written accounts that I found online mentioned one very critical fact, the man that was pulled over was definitely of colour. According to The Star: 
Black people across Toronto are three times more likely to be stopped and documented by police than white people".Blacks are documented more than whites in almost every part of Toronto, with the highest disproportionate rate of "carding" for blacks in areas that are predominantly white, like pockets of North Toronto. 

A criminologist calls this the "out of place" factor – people being questioned because they do not fit in The Toronto Police have a history of racial profiling and I find it highly unlikely that this did not come into play when the officer decided to pull these men over.
I find it hard to believe that the association of a man of colour with a gun had nothing to do with the police history of pulling over people of colour.  The news seemed to suggest that the man wasted police resources and for that reason, he deserved to be arrested rather than examining why he was stopped in the first place.

Canadians have a tendency to believe that racial issues are something that happen in the U.S.  We certainly believe that our police force is not an agent of oppression, despite the testimony of First Nations people and Afro-Canadians.  As long as we are better than U.S., no real problem exists, and that is the crux of the issue, because better than, does not mean non existent.

I suspect that the man in question will face charges, but little to no fall out will occur for the Toronto Police.  Despite the history of that institution, it is constantly framed as heroic. As long as it is not assaulting Whiteness - the source of its power, it will forever be upheld as a bastion of justice. We call it the great White north for a reason people.  The complete erasure of race in this case follows a pattern of ignoring the role that it has to play in our interactions.  How many stories were the police have acted inappropriately have we not heard about, simply because the media and the police force don't care about people of colour?  How many abuses are supported by the system because it maintains White privilege?  The simple act of refusing to move was a political statement.  If the police are not going to be answerable to the public they supposedly serve, at the very least need to be answerable to the minorities they abuse.