Black Lives Matter and the Optics of Justice
A little over a week ago, Black Lives Matter Toronto staged a demonstration at City Hall to protest a decision by the Special Investigations Unit not to criminally charge the officer who shot and killed Andrew Loku last summer. Many see the death of Andrew Loku, a forty-five -yearold survivor of war and father of five with a history of mental illness, as part of an undeniable pattern of police violence against black men and women in Toronto, and across North America.
On Sunday, protestors moved their demonstration a few blocks north to the Police Headquarters on College Street – and on Monday evening, police officers attacked the peaceful sit-in. While CTV and the Toronto Star reported “clashes” between protestors and police, that passive language intentionally obfuscates the surprising and unprovoked attacks. Videos posted to the BLM Toronto Twitter account and under the #BLMOTOtentcity tag show police using force against unarmed and non-violent protestors. (I mean, that’s “clashing” if you want to get pedantic about it, but I can think a few ways to more accurately describe that situation.)
According to Twitter user syrus marcus ware, the police were “laughing and joking after attacking our people. One is overheard saying, ‘this is why I love my job.’”
There are so many things that can be said and need to be said about this latest instance of police violence being used inappropriately against non-white individuals, but the thought that I keep cycling back to is this:
In law school, we’re taught time and again that in the judicial system, justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done. The power of the judicial system rests largely in the public perception of its integrity and fairness.
It would have been so easy for the police officers in HQ to do nothing that night. Protests and public activism aren’t uncommon in Toronto–you’d think that it would have been no skin off TPS’s nose to let BLM make their voices heard in the wake of the ruling. Stand to the side and make sure nothing got out of hand. It would have been so easy not to assault the (peaceful!) protestors in the middle of the night. It surely could not have been that difficult to approach this situation compassionately–or at the very least, diplomatically.
Did they not check with their PR people before doing this?
Putting aside any thoughts of actual empathy and engagement, the fact that nobody thought this was bad optics is pretty telling. One can’t know what individual officers were thinking or what orders they were acting under, but it seems as though they didn’t think that people would care.
Nobody thought to say out loud, “Whoa, guys, it’s 2016–we have to at least pretend to care about Black Lives Matter! This might look bad!”
On the contrary: “This is why I love my job.”
This is why I love my job.
As though protestors deserve violence for exercising their Charter rights.
Who do we think our police officers are protecting? Who do they think they’re protecting? It seems pretty clear who they aren’t interested in protecting.
We all deserve to feel as though our police are protecting us. That is their job, and it is difficult one, but it can be respected if and only if it is done with integrity and fairness.
Instead, the police officers there that night doubled down–and unfortunately for them, BLM has doubled down now, too. Perhaps they didn’t expect it. They probably should have, though.
Black Lives Matter has already changed the North American narrative. They’ve forced us to confront what for so long was easy to ignore, forced us to look head-on at what most of us were happy looking away from. Black Lives Matter said you don’t get to do that any more, and people, it seems, are listening.
On Saturday, huge crowds gathered en masse in front of College Street HQ to support BLM, and it doesn’t look like the demonstrations are going to die out any time soon.
In an ironic twist, Desmond Cole observers that the unprovoked attacks happened on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
I can’t track down any video to verify syrus marcus ware’s claim about the police officer’s statement, but while looking, I watched a lot of videos of protestors being shoved and pushed aside, or even to the ground, as police officers doused their firewood and belongings with fire retardant.
TPS was quick to respond the next day by saying that they respected individuals’ rights to peaceful protest.
It didn’t work, and I don’t know why anyone thought it would. It’s 2016. If justice can’t be seen to be done, then maybe it isn’t being done.