A Letter from Toronto by Andrea Meeson
It’s another Monday morning after another weekend, and another young man is dead at the hands of the Toronto Police Service (TPS).
Let’s start with his name, Sammy Yatim, give him the due respect before we tag him, like his peers, in our loaded language of ‘other’: brown; Syrian (Muslim); male, 18 (troubled teen); immigrant (illegal); armed with a knife; hoodied (hoodlum); baggy pants and ball capped and black (hip hopper); tattooed (gang affiliated); native (welfare and substance abuser); visible minority (other than white); poor (desperate); homeless (aimless); refugee (liar); behaving suspiciously (drug dealer. thief. terrorist); disturbing the peace (our peace); in public (our space). All the ‘other’ (perceived or assumed) makes you a clear and present ‘danger’ in the eyes of the agents empowered to enforce a code of justice in this city, and across this country, that on paper purports to uphold your human right to safety and security (and their responsibility to serve and protect it), but in practice, historically and in the name of other than you – just an ‘other’ black, brown, red or yellow suspect – makes you a target, and in the very worst case scenario, DEAD.
‘Suspect Sammy’, it appears, was just another walking dead man, among too many who have fallen, violently, unnecessarily and not, honestly, ‘by accident’ at the end of the service pistols of on-duty officers of the TPS. The roll call is long, the circumstances sordid and the outcomes obscenely and unjustly skewed in favour of the perpetrators – nearly all them white police officers who shoot, kill and commit what would be considered, in the ‘civilian’ context (indeed, any other context but that imposed by the law that affords the right to bear and fire arms to someone with a badge), murder in any old degree. Yet, reports show that ‘these’ perpetrators most often walk free, and still armed, over the corpses of ‘those’ young men (and women): of the nearly 3500 investigations into police brutality in Ontario alone, over the past 20 years, a mere 95 have resulted in criminal charges and of the 16 officers convicted, only three have seen the inside of a jail “as inmates”.
Unlike his American peer, Trayvon Martin, and many others on the Canadian roll call of shameful deaths, Sammy’s untimely and violent demise is captured live on amateur video – on the cellphone of a witness standing no more than 20 metres from the scene. Regardless of where one is standing or how one views the footage (raw, enhanced or repeated) it is impossible to see ‘other’ than the following:
a brightly lit public transit vehicle, stationary on a stretch of track and empty of passengers, who had taken their leave when Sammy allegedly pulled out a small ‘blade’ and ordered everyone out – the saqme passengers who later reported that he appeared not intent on attacking anyone physically; the rapid response to the 911 call of uniformed officers, who arrived on four wheels and two, and surrounded the front entrance to the streetcar, guns immediately drawn; the brief but loud and clear commands to ‘drop the knife’ that Sammy appears to be waving idly as he stands still and silent at the front of the streetcar; and then, without warning, without ANY warning, the first two shots from the pistol of one officer (in the company of at least another 6) … Sammy disappears from sight… a brief pause and then, a further volley of gunfire – seven rounds to make nine in total, from the same officer, aimed at the same, lesser armed ‘suspect Sammy’; louder shouts of ‘drop the knife’ from the near 10 officers now converging in pack formation at the door of the streetcar, seemingly so concerned that the felled ‘suspect’ continues to be a threat to their fully armed and flack-jacketed selves, that one officer mounts the stairs and sets upon Sammy with a taser (audible in the video)…for good measure, or perhaps to make him ‘be good’…and DEAD! A sudden realization from officers on scene that suspect Sammy might well be succumbing to injuries resulting from such a violent response, induces a flurry of activity to commence CPR. Amateur footage later captures Sammy being transported to an ambulance on a stretcher, one medic pumping his chest while others push him past a uniformed officer taking a witness statement – “what did you see?”
What HAVEN’T we all seen – cops out of control and nine rounds later, over and over and over again? The video goes viral in a matter of hours and there is no way we can but ‘see’ the horror (again), the flagrant abuse of power (again), the use of excessive force (again). And again we are angry, again we are outraged, again despairing and hurt. Calls for vigils, demonstrations, the head of the chief of police, the arrest of the officers responsible are instantaneous and incessant on the social media. A reporter from the Toronto Star is trawling Twitter and Facebook, looking for leads, a way to speak to the family, to anyone who knew Sammy as other than the subject of an early and brief report from her crime desk headlined, “Man dies in showdown with police”.
Ten cops armed and flackjacketed , one ‘suspect Sammy’, alone in an streetcar and brandishing a small ‘blade’ is imagined a ‘showdown’. And so the branding of other in the language of the dominant culture gets inked on the page and into the psyche and mindset of the mainstream majority again, and again and again. Like rounds fired from a service pistol, they do nothing but harm to those at whom they are aimed. And again we are outraged, again we are angry, again we are despairing and hurt. Because from the get go we know that justice will likely not be done to Sammy, cannot be done in the realm of violent and brazen power and privilege. The system is rotten and young men and women of ‘other’ colour and creed and culture are rotting six feet under as a result.
So we go into the streets. Or do we? I call a friend to join me at a demonstration planned for this afternoon. Like me, she is a mother to ‘just another brown suspect’, and all too familiar with the racial profiling, the carding, the stop and frisk and the ‘stand your ground’ policies that keep authority where it’s always been, and pulls the ground out from under the feet of young men and women who, like our sons, are ‘other than’. She’s not coming out.
“I’m done”, she tells me, “just done with trying to make white people understand my rage, my pain, the hurt in my heart. They don’t seem to take it very well.”
And we don’t, because we don’t have to: because we know it’ll blow over; the “thorough investigation” will be opened and closed or buried by independent and ‘objective’ senior officials, who will find no fault on the part of the individual perpetrator, or the firmly entrenched legal system that serves to protect perpetrators in positions of authority, or the sickly state of a nation that sits on the fence of justification or denial. We know that for the families of Sammy Yatim, Trayvon Martin, and the myriad ‘others’ killed at the hands of armed and dangerous authorities, the coming of justice is long, if it comes at all; because it is a struggle to be seen, heard or acknowledged for other than your failure when power is privilege and privilege is never a given because you and yours are ‘just brown, black, red and yellow suspects’; and because you live under the guise of freedom and equality in a nation built on class and race consciousness that is never going to let you forget that you are other than ‘us’.
The system is rotten and that’s just the way we like it.