Exuberant Irrationality Driving Afrikan-Canadians’ Support for Deputy Police Chiefs

As a member of the Afrikan-Canadian community in the city of Toronto, I am quite puzzled by the exuberant display of irrationality and misplaced expectations over the possibility of the appointment of either Deputy Chief Peter Sloly or Deputy Chief Mark Saunders as the next police chief of the Toronto Police Service (TPS). These two cops are both Afrikan-Canadians.

Peter Sloly’s candidacy for the top position on the policing food chain recently received a ringing and enthusiastic endorsement from the Share newspaper, the weekly publication with the highest circulation in Toronto’s Afrikan-Canadian community.

Share’s publisher and senior editor Arnold Auguste makes the claim that the next police chief must be “someone who understands the needs and demands of modern-day policing in a city as diverse as Toronto and someone who has lived that reality,” and, as such, he unapologetically, and “…with all due respect to the other candidates, …can’t see anyone else fitting that description than Deputy Chief Peter Sloly.”

The African Canadian Legal Clinic (ACLC), an organization that owes its existence to the May 1992 Yonge Street Uprising against anti-Afrikan police violence in Toronto, has also offered its unbridled support to both Deputy Chiefs Sloly and Saunders as worthy candidates to replace Police Chief Bill Blair.

According to the ACLC:

It is not because Deputy Chiefs Saunders and Sloly are African Canadians that the African Canadian Legal Clinic supports their respective candidacies, but because the lived leadership experience they have as African Canadian men in this city, coupled with their extraordinarily distinguished years of hallmark service in policing simply make them the best candidates for the job.

The appeal to personal experience of racism as an indicator of the future anti-racism performance of an Afrikan or racialized person in a position of power is a discredited but often repeated one. The late poet and educator Maya Angelou made the same erroneous claim in her 1991 support for the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court.

On social media platforms and other community spaces, it is Afrikan-Canadian middle-income groups and individuals or the petty bourgeois elements who are loudly clamouring or serving as cheerleaders for the respective candidacies of Sloly and Saunders. Sloly seems to be their favourite candidate. As always, the voices and interests of the working-class members the Afrikan community have been axed from the conversation.

It is quite likely that these middle-class actors see the elevation of Sloly or Saunders into the chair of the police chief as a positive indicator of their prospects for integration into the Canadian Dream or as a role model for young Afrikan-Canadians.

These social climbing characters are infatuated with celebrating the “first Black” this and the “first Black” that, as if they are the appropriate measurement of a substantive change in the economic, social and political condition of working-class Afrikan-Canadians.

However, if we survey the heavily racialized, working-class neighbourhoods of Jane and Finch, Malvern, Lawrence Heights, Kingston-Galloway, and Jamestown, Afrikan youth and their other racialized counterparts will not be worrying over the professional fate of Sloly or Saunders as police chief aspirants.

They would be more interested in the deputy chiefs’ respective records of fighting racial profiling and its unjust channeling of Afrikans into the prison industrial complex.

Deputy Chief Sloly once held a senior management position at 31 Division that patrols the Jane and Finch community. Afrikan-Canadians still had complaints about undue acts of police violence during his tenure as an Inspector at 31 Division.

I have heard stories from members of the community about the excessive aggressiveness of African Canadian cops when they are dealing with their civilian counterparts in the presence of their white colleagues.

They might be Black but they tend to bleed blue when it comes to demonstrating anti-Afrikan police violence or defending the “blue wall of silence.” In the United States, it is clear that Afrikan-American cops have no problem taking Afrikan lives as evidenced by the following state of affairs, “While black officers are involved in just 10 percent of police shootings, 78 percent of those they kill are black.”

Racial profiling by way of carding enjoys widespread opposition and disapproval within the community. Many African Canadian groups and individuals are calling for an end to this practice of stopping, questioning and documenting information from civilians in non-criminal encounters.

A number of special investigations carried by the Toronto Star, research projects executed by academic researchers, and tireless advocacy work by community activist researchers and public educators have highlighted the fact that Afrikan-Canadians are disproportionately impacted by police violence as well as the recently suspended police carding regime.

Yet, in spite of the racist impact of carding on the Afrikan-Canadian community, Deputy Chief Sloly is opposed to ending it. He asserts in a Toronto Life interview, “I’m trying to reform it. The Police Act requires us to interact with the public. Carding provides data on who’s being stopped and by which officers.”

Saunders is also a strong defender of carding and claims that it is not indiscriminately targeting Afrikan-Canadians and others, “It’s intelligence-led. So you’re not ever going to have a unit commander say we need you to identify every single type of person. It is going to be based upon what criminal activities are happening in that neighbourhood.”

Carding should be confined to the “Museum of Outdated Social Contraptions” by Sloly, Saunders and other members of the TPS’s senior leadership. They ought to give emphasis to measures that would terminate the jobs of cops who engage in racial profiling and other acts of police violence.

However, people should not expect substantive change in the institutionally oppressive behaviour of the cops, irrespective of their race, in their policing of Afrikan-Canadian working-class communities. According to Professor Brad Smith of Wayne State University, “Regardless of who is carrying out the police function, police will always be seen as representatives of the larger establishment. As such, tensions between police and citizens may be a function of the police role.”

Many of us within the Afrikan community in Toronto need a more sophisticated analysis and understanding of race, power and co-optation in an institutionally racist society.

To what extent are we realistically expecting an Afrikan police chief to be more committed to fighting institutional racism than a white one? Deputy Chiefs Peter Sloly and Mark Saunders have not made it this far up the organizational ladder because of their demonstrated tendency to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Furthermore, merely having an Afrikan person at the helm will not end police brutality or mend the community’s relations with the force. The Afrikan-American Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke absolves the police for their killing of members from his racial group. According to Clarke, “The number one cause of this is father-absent homes” and not the anti-Afrikan racism and violent actions from the cops.

Detroit is a city with 82 percent of the population being Afrikan-Americans and it has a police chief, James Craig, who is from this racial group. Working-class Afrikan-Americans had experienced such a high level of police violence that the federal government had to impose two consent decrees on the Detroit Police Department, which started in 2003 in order to temper its brutal and dehumanizing behaviour. The consent decrees lasted for a total of 11 years.

In spite of this Justice Department’s intervention, Ron Scott of the Detroit Police Accountability Coalition had this to say about the continued presence of police violence, “The coalition continues to receive daily calls about officers in Detroit and the surrounding municipalities that we are investigating and addressing using the means available to us: the legal system, the media and our advocacy efforts.”

Black police chiefs have not been a panacea for the members of Afrikan working-class communities in Detroit. But the cheerleaders for an Afrikan-Canadian police chief in Toronto might just be appealing to the mythic Canadian exceptionalism and engaging in the suspension of disbelief in order to sustain their dream-like hope.

For a sobering dose of reality about race, class and policing, we may look at the behaviour of the police in other major American cities that have or had Afrikan-American police chiefs or examine police violence in global South countries such as Nigeria, South Africa, Brazil, Haiti, Kenya and Jamaica.

We ought to have learned something from our unreserved political excitement and support for Barack Obama and his “change we can believe in” bill of goods! Symbolic racial political representation is a shopworn tactic that is used by the wickedly wise to manipulate and distract racialized people from demanding real change.

It is only the organized power and resistance of the people that will serve as the antidote to police violence and the general manifestation of structural violence that define the lives of the oppressed.

The revolutionary psychiatrist and anti-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon warned us about the political weaknesses or challenges of the petty bourgeois elements with respect to the struggle for social emancipation:

It so happens that the unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness, and, let it be said, their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle will give rise to tragic mishaps.

We ought to heed Fanon’s sage advice and prophetic words during this phase of the struggle against police/state violence. This course of action would checkmate the exuberant irrationality on display over the possibility of selecting a police chief who is an Afrikan-Canadian man.

Ajamu Nangwaya, Ph.D., is an organizer, writer, and lecturer at the University of the West Indies. Read other articles by Ajamu.