A black immigrant in Toronto waves a household object in a “threatening” manner. Police are called. The man is described as disturbed, unruly, unstable, and most-importantly — dangerous. Concerned police plead with the man to drop the weapon but their cries are ignored. Finally, they are forced to shoot him. He dies. A familiar tragedy.
In 1979 the man was Albert Johnson, a Jamaican immigrant who was killed in his Manchester Ave. home on a Sunday morning holding a lawn edger. His death led to protests from the black community, a high-publicity trial and the acquittal of the two accused officers. The trial of the two officers would eventually result in the establishment of the SIU. In 2015 the man is Andrew Loku, an refugee from South Sudan, who was killed holding a hammer. His death was investigated by the SIU; the officers involved were cleared of any wrongdoing.
Separated by nearly forty years, both men died unnecessarily at the hands of Toronto police. What is particularly haunting about both incidents is not merely the horrors of police violence nor the similarities of their deaths, but rather the virtually identical responses to both deaths in the white Canadian media. In both Johnson’s and Loku’s cases white Canadian law enforcement, media, and judiciary frame the killings as unfortunate incidents & sad tragedies rather than as the racist behaviour of a racist society. The identical responses to both killings demonstrates very clearly how anti-black racism is at the heart of Canadian public discourse.
In the March 31st Toronto Star, The Head of the Toronto Police Association, Mike McCormack, insisted that the killing of Andrew Loku “is not about race.” McCormack reframes Loku’s death as not part of a long history of Toronto police officers killing black men but as “the tragedy of Andrew Loku” in which Loku’s black skin “had no bearing on the officer’s decision that night.” McCormack insists that “What we don’t need is people trying to distract from these real issues and making this tragedy about race.” The real issues, according to McCormack, are Loku’s mental health and the need to arm police officers with tasers. As Anthony Morgan has expertly argued, “McCormack’s bald-faced claims that race had nothing to do with Mr. Loku’s death are … not only ridiculous, but also baseless” Morgan uses the historical record to demonstrate that “The tragic truth is that this kind of policing has seemingly rendered it permissible for Toronto police to continually take Black life with impunity.”
There are a number of striking parallels between McCormack’s arguments and those made concerning the death of Albert Johnson. Paul Walter, the Metro Police Association President at the time of Johnson’s death, argued that Johnson was not killed as a result of racist police. Rather, Johnson “was sick” and the tragedy of his death is “that the system broke down for him long before the two officers broke down [Johnson’s] door.” For Walter it is Johnson’s sickness and the failings of the system, rather than racist police, that killed Johnson. His comments were reported, verbatim, by Christie Blatchford in her coverage of what she calls “the Johnson trial” (the very name of which demonstrates the shifting of blame from the white police to the black victim).
Throughout her reporting on the trial Blatchford depicts Johnson as a mentally disturbed & dangerous man who terrified and threatened rational and peaceful police officers. She regularly describes Johnson as “mentally ill” and as exhibiting “increasingly erratic behavior.” Blatchford accepts the police account of Johnson as “berserk” and acting “in a rage.” When police officers describe Johnson’s “eyes … bulging” and “his cheeks were puffed,” Blatchford transcribes their account. She does not balance their account with Johnson’s neighbour’s testimony that he was calm and peaceful but rather presents the police testimony (which changes, and is inconsistent throughout the trial) as fact.
Even Johnson’s family and Toronto’s black community more generally are not immune to Blatchford’s depiction of irrational blackness: “With her four young children clutching to her coat and her 27-year-old sister, Bevolyn Williams shrieking at her side, 30-year-old Lemona Johnson was ushered to the escalator by the hostile group.” Where Johnson’s family are depicted as wild, hostile, shrieking and uncontrollable, the nearby police are described as “Carefully watching. … A handful of off-duty Metro policemen … quietly watched the display.”
Blatchford repeatedly depicts Johnson as an uncontrollable, erratic black man, stating, “it’s true that just about everyone who came into contact with the 6-foot 200-pound Johnson in the last months of his life says … that he was mentally ill and needed help.” Never one to let the facts get in the way of a good opinion, Blatchford neglects to mention the testimony of Dr. Rodney Mahabir who interviewed Johnson one month before his death and concluded that Johnson suffered from no major mental illness.
Johnson met with Gail Guttentag, of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, to ask for help about the constant police harassment. Guttentag wrote that Johnson’s “biggest fear … was that police would shoot him down. He repeated that he thought the police are trying to kill him, and have been making a concerted effort to continually and increasingly harass him. He feared that this would culminate in his own death.” Ten days later, police killed Johnson in his own home.
Blatchford completely ignores the possibility that Johnson’s claims of harassment and his fear for his own life were legitimate. Rather, Blatchford interprets Guttentag’s report as a demonstration that Johnson was growing “more disturbed with each visit” to the OHRC. It is not racism, but the madness, irrationality & rage of this individual black man that led to the “tragedy” of his death.
Blatchford repeats this trope of black madness in her summation of the Albert Johnson trial. She writes that the jurors “weren’t asked to return a verdict on Albert Johnson, sometimes known as ‘the Black Dragon,’ but if they had they might have found him guilty of unhappiness and desperation, and ruled his death almost unavoidable.” The focus of Blatchford’s reporting is entirely on Johnson: his mental state, his citizenship, his skin colour, his size, and his demeanour. As Dudley Laws said at the time of the officers’ acquittal, “Albert Johnson only was on trial in court. The police were never on trial. It is a disgrace.”
For Blatchford, Johnson’s death was “almost unavoidable.” For McCormack, Loku’s death is a “tragedy.” In both cases the solemn words of white, liberal concern are offered as an empty gesture of concern for the black community. Indeed, it is only within the twisted logic of Canadian white supremacy that in both cases police officers can be described as “Concerned for [the] safety and well-being” of the very citizen that they have killed.
In those forty years between Johnson and Loku’s deaths Canada has transformed from an explicitly European-Christian to a multicultural society. We have a First Nations Minister of Justice, Toronto has a black Chief of Police, and Trudeaumania 2.0 has Canadian liberals happily espousing that we’ve got our country back. Yet little has changed in terms of Canadian perspectives on anti-black racism. Canadians remain willfully ignorant about the racist past and present of their nation.
When Stephen Lewis was asked in 1992 by then-Premiere Bob Rae to write a report on ‘race relations in Ontario’ he insisted that what was needed was not a report on ‘race relations’ but rather a frank discussion and quick action on anti-black racism. White Canada was surprised and outraged by his findings:
White Canada’s continual surprise and dismissal of the idea that white supremacy and anti-black racism are at the core of Canadian political and cultural practices demonstrates how unwilling we are to address this problem. The language by which we dismiss claims of anti-black racism in our public forums suggests that many white Canadians simply don’t believe, or cannot bring themselves to face, the anti-black racism that is a central component of Canadian identity. Indeed, multiculturalism’s symbolic celebrations of food, culture and diversity have, in many respects, served as a distraction from the ongoing racism that is everyday life for many Canadians. Our belief in Canadian multiculturalism has exacerbated, rather than repaired, the damages of Canadian white supremacy.
The virtually identical responses to these killings demonstrate that in Canada black lives simply do not matter. The ease with which Johnson and Loku are depicted not as victims but as violent, irrational, uncontrollable citizens demonstrates the manner in which black people in Canada remain ultimately killable. When black people are killed by the police, white Canada has a ready script of liberalism, multiculturalism, and Canadian fairness that serves to silence any discussion of race and racism. This script makes it possible for white Canadians to cling to the truism that in Canada, it never is about race. For black people, however, that script is a terrifying one of white supremacy and black death, both of which are at the heart of what it means to be Canadian.