George Floyd's death at the hands of police in Minneapolis last month catapulted his name and his story into a rallying cry against racial injustice and police brutality in a matter of weeks.
But as participants in an online forum last Friday made abundantly clear, Floyd is but one in a long list of such victims targeted by police because of their race.
“As I think about what it is that we’re called here today to discuss and talk about, it’s just heavy,” said Derrick Brooms, an associate professor of Sociology & Africana Studies at the University of Cincinnati, in remarks at the event which was organized by Dalhousie’s Office of the Vice-Provost, Equity & Inclusion/Human Rights and Equity Services, the Dalhousie Student Union (DSU) and the Black Faculty & Staff Caucus.
“It’s a heaviness that is very difficult to articulate sometimes and even with that difficulty trying to articulate it, it is a reality that we must endure.”
Dr. Brooms, joined by a collection of scholars and experts from Dal and the Halifax community as part of Speak Truth to Power: Forum on Anti-Black Racism, listed Floyd alongside other Black individuals who have been killed by police in recent weeks and months.
He raised the killing of Breonna Taylor, an emergency health worker shot eight times in mid-March by police who entered her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky. Her death is now under investigation by the FBI. And he noted Tony McDade, a transgender man killed by a police officer in late May in Tallahassee, Florida in a situation many are demanding an investigation into.
“Anti-Blackness is not individualized,” said Dr. Brooms. “What we see happen to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor is not an individual act of violence. It’s an act of violence perpetuated against Black folks in general. It is an act of violence perpetuated against Black lives in general.”
Burdens of proof
Demands for an extra “burden of proof,” such as an additional piece of identification during a stop by police, or receiving more severe punishments are other examples of the heavier burden Black individuals have to shoulder every day, said Dr. Brooms.
Referencing the “specificity of anti-Black racism,” he said we can talk about police tactics used in the deaths of Black individuals, but the larger concern is how it renders Black people’s “humanity as unimaginable, invisible and absent.”
He noted how Floyd’s tragic final words, “I can’t breathe,” can also be used to reflect the structural and behavioural underpinnings of anti-Black racism.
“We can’t breathe because we attend too many schools where windows don’t open, where air conditioning doesn’t work, where we don’t have enough books, where we have more police officers than counsellors.”
A Canadian problem, too
Other participants in the forum, which drew close to 400 viewers on Zoom, expanded on Dr. Broom’s recognizing of names and lives lost, expanding the list to include Canadians killed by police recently in situations of suspected racialized violence.
Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Andrew Loku, D'Andre Campbell, Jason Collins, Stewart Kevin Andrews were just a few names shared by Dr. OmiSoore Dryden, an associate professor and the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dal.
Dr. Dryden said one of the reasons anti-Black racism and police brutality exist in Canada is because of the “faulty belief that Canada is a haven of racial tolerance.”
She said Black people in Canada are routinely surveilled and made to feel fear, whether it’s in the grocery store, in schools, at airports and on playgrounds. She also noted that Black people are six times more likely to be street-checked by police than white people in Halifax and, in Toronto, 20 times more likely to be harmed and killed by police than white people.
“We do ourselves a disservice in refusing to acknowledge the continued harm the systems of policing continue to perpetuate against our very beings, against our lives,” she said, suggesting money currently directed towards training police be redirected to help fund social programs.
Canada’s racial discrimination problem was also a focus of remarks from Rev. Rhonda Y. Britton, senior pastor at New Horizons Baptist Church in Halifax. She said it is easy in Canada to look to the south and say we are not like that.
“Canada, too, is a victim of anti-Black racism in the heart of its people. Canada, too, is carrying out public lynching. This anti-Black racism can only be eradicated when it is acknowledged. Hear our voices, hear our hearts, let us do and be better together,” she said.
A larger mobilization
Tiffany Gordon, a PhD student in Philosophy at Dal, contextualized the current mobilization underway on the streets as part of the larger Black Lives Matter movement, providing a snapshot of how this movement has evolved since it emerged in 2013.
She noted that some police have even begun joining protestors in “taking the knee” — the symbolic physical gesture widely used as a sign of support.
Expanding on a point made by forum moderator Theresa Rajack-Talley, Dal’s vice-provost of equity and inclusion, in her introduction, Gordon noted parallels between the COVID-19 pandemic and a pandemic of anti-Black racism. She said the former has played into the broader public’s understanding of the latter.
“I believe that a lot of people are feeling their humanity right now and feeling how vulnerable they are to outside forces. And this is the way a lot of people in the Black community have felt for years,” she said.
Isaac Saney, university teaching fellow and director of the Transition Year Program at Dal, also drew connections between COVID-19 and anti-Black racism in his remarks, noting how African Americans have died at disproportionately high rates from COVID-19. He said the virus has illustrated dramatically the “integral connection of race and class, white supremacy and the political and social arrangement that exist.”
“This whole pandemic, and what has emerged with the rebellion, has demonstrated that the system is unable to meet the needs of humanity,” he said.
But Dr. Saney also conveyed some optimism that this “historic time” could be a “pivotal turning point.”
“At this point, there is at least a transformation, however temporary in people’s consciousness, that can perhaps lead to the deep structural transformations.”
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