Forcing Toronto to Confront Its Racism

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Forcing Toronto to Confront Its Racism

A free screening The Skin We're In, followed by a Q&A, is tonight hosted by the Regent Park Film Festival.

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Desmond Cole. Photo via CBC Firsthand The Skin We’re In.

The colour of Desmond Cole’s skin has raised suspicion by police, brought doubt to his critics, and fuelled his mission to confront the burdening realities of being in the skin he’s in. It’s what prompted Cole to become an activist, pursue a career as a  journalist, and even run for City Council in 2006. While his election campaign was unsuccessful, his journalism career has not been.

In the recent CBC documentary The Skin We’re In, Cole describes his life as being measured before Ferguson and after Ferguson: a historical turning point that changed the fight for racial justice in North America and pushed Black Lives Matter as a rallying cry into the mainstream. It also changed Desmond Cole forever. The documentary is a portrait of a man exhausted from the long, and still ongoing, battle fighting racial injustice, and the struggles of a journalist who transformed his platform to become one of Canada’s leading advocates against white supremacy and systemic racism in police culture.

If we wish to tackle racial inequality, Cole’s candour about who we are as a culture, and our history, is imperative to that change. “We’re not honest. We’re intentionally dishonest with ourselves and with other people about these issues all the time. We’re a culture of liars. That’s the least popular thing you could say, and I’m never going to be loved for saying that,” says Cole.

Tonight, the Regent Park Film Festival is celebrating National Canadian Film Day 150 by offering a free screening of The Skin We’re In. The film, directed for the CBC by Toronto-based filmmaker Charles Officer, documents Cole’s journey, and struggle, in trying to force Toronto to confront its own racism.

“My way of fighting back is by continuing to go public with the work that I do. That’s much more damaging to the police than going to the complaint system.” he says. Cole says the police accountability process in Canada is flawed and inadequate, and that these issues need public recognition in order to incite change within police culture.   

The film is based on Cole’s award-winning Toronto Life article “The Skin I’m In,” which details his encounters with police, having been stopped and racially profiled by police more than 50 times.

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Desmond Cole accepts the award for Best New Magazine Writer to a standing ovation at the 2016 National Magazine Awards in Toronto (Photo by Steven Goetz / National Magazine Awards Foundation)

Why did Cole’s personal story resonate so profoundly with people while years of investigative reporting on carding and police racial profiling by the Toronto Star did not? Perhaps because for the first time, a Black journalist was backing up what sources have probably been saying for years, but the media was far too white (and still is) to understand the urgency.

“[Black people] talk about this stuff all the time, but people don’t believe us. Or they don’t want to believe us, is maybe more accurate,” he says.

Cole sees racist policing everywhere. It’s systemic and pervasive in every city. One of the moments that stood out in the documentary was a scene when Cole records a video of an interaction between several Toronto police officers aggressively confronting a Black man on the street who had initially phoned the police for help. The moment took a much-debated narrative about racially motivated policing and transformed it into reality.

“I saw a Black man being held up by at least 10 police officers. He had his hands up in the air, he looked so scared it turns out that this guy had called the police for help. They started patting down his pants, his crotch area. And I said to the guy, you have the right to tell the police not to search you in this way,” he describes in the film.

Seeing police confront a Black man is all too familiar to Cole. His first instinct is to capture the scene with his cellphone and ask the man if he’s okay. In the video, police immediately become hostile towards Cole. One officer tells Cole to mind his own business and then swats at Cole’s cellphone in an attempt to stop him from recording.

Anthony Morgan is a Toronto lawyer and community advocate, who has seen many cases where police have been caught on tape violating an individual’s rights during a police interaction, despite the individual knowing their rights. “Many may see this as an extreme example, but for folks like myself and our work at Falconers, and connecting with other lawyers who represent civilians in extreme examples of police brutality or police misconduct, it’s actually very consistent, troublingly consistent, with what we hear even when there are no videos.”

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Screencap from The Skin We’re In.

Cole has given many interviews over the years, facing off with critics of his work, such as the Toronto Sun’s Joe Warmington, who both defends and dismisses the same police practices Cole describes, including carding, unconstitutional searches and arrests, and the use of force being disproportionality used against people of colour.

During a tense TV interview between Warmington and Cole, Warmington insinuates Cole’s activism around carding has created fear among police. Warmington blames Cole for suppressing police powers and strongly implies Cole’s rhetoric is at least partly responsible for a surge in gun violence.

It’s probably safe to assume that most of Cole’s harshest critics have likely never experienced racial profiling personally, yet they assume the role as experts, opposing and rejecting the lived realities of what it means to be Black in the eyes of the police.

None of this is new to Cole. He has been covering this beat for years, writing about Toronto Police, carding, and discrimination in the justice system since his time as a staff reporter for Torontoist. Mark Pugash, director of corporate communications for Toronto Police Services, was asked if Cole’s reporting and activism has had any influence on police practices. “As an organization, we don’t comment on the work that individual people do, we never have and I suspect we never will… If we have issues with someone we might write a letter to the editor, or we might contribute an op-ed piece, but we don’t discuss what we believe is of value, or otherwise, of the work people do.”

The confrontation with the police captured on Cole’s cellphone has also drawn criticism. Some have argued that Cole lost his composure as a journalist and rationalized the officer’s hostility and use of force. Cole says it wasn’t only people on social media that disagreed with his methods. Some of the criticism he received came from members within his industry: the mainstream media.

“I’m just a troublemaker to a lot of people, including people in my own field. I had so many people in my own industry, and even people who are criminal defence lawyers tell me, ‘I agree with you Desmond, what they did was wrong, but you didn’t go about it the right way.’ There was no concern [for me, like] ‘are you ok? That must have been a traumatic thing for you to experience,’” Cole said.

“A police officer walking up to me and trying to grab my camera, that’s a crime. People are unable to see police brutality against Black people specifically as being a crime… They are actually reinforcing this idea, that you can’t assault a Black person, all Black people deserve to be handled, however they are handled by the police.” 

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Screencap from Waseem Khan’s cellphone footage. Via baaz.com.

Cole hasn’t been the only one in recent months to capture police brutality against a Black man on the streets of Toronto. Cellphone footage taken in January 2017 by Waseem Khan showed a Black man being kicked and tasered by police on the sidewalk while handcuffed. While filming, an officer on scene threatened to seize Khan’s phone for evidence, while another officer told him to move away lest he get AIDS from saliva. At that point, Khan stopped recording after he admitted he felt intimidated by police.

Khan’s video sparked outrage across the city. It not only prompted a response from local AIDS organizations and leaders from the LGBTQ community—who were startled by the uneducated comment made by a police officer who supposedly receives training in these matters—but also from concerned citizens who were appalled by the police infringing on Khan’s right to record the police. Many expressed outrage at the level of violence perpetrated by police towards a Black man while he was handcuffed and on the ground.

Cole says these videos often serve a dual purpose. While they offer evidence of police brutality and cause some to feel outraged, many others are comforted by it. “They have no emotional response, except perhaps in many cases emotional relief. These kinds of videos are really helpful for our culture because they provide a sense of relief that the police continue to do this to us, which is what people want them to do to Black people.”

After the backlash, the Toronto Police took to Twitter to apologize for the AIDS comments made by their officer. Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders, president of the Toronto Police Union Mike McCormack, and police spokesperson Pugash spoke to reporters about the incident, acknowledging the comments made by the police and their conduct during that interaction, including denying a citizen the right to film. After that, the story mostly faded from the media’s attention.

The same can’t be said for Cole.

“I think there is a cynical and self defeating strain, even in my own profession, that says that sometimes you just get what’s coming to you,“ Cole says. He says as far as the criticism he receives, the majority comes from people who want to silence his work. “What I’m saying bothers them… [and] they wish I hadn’t said it.”

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Desmond Cole speaking out against carding at a Black Lives Matters rally in front of Toronto Police Headquarters. Torontoist file photo.

Morgan says it’s common for people who choose to become advocates to experience isolation or face a lack of support within their social and professional communities. He says there are various risks for people in Cole’s position, as journalists and activists who expose issues of anti-Black racism.

“There’s career risk, there’s professional risk, there is also a community risk that can come. Because even if outside of your work space, the community that you come from is worried about increased attention from the police, they might not want to embrace you because they worry about how their entire community will be stigmatized by your advocacy,” says Morgan.

Despite some of the risks involved, Morgan says, in order to retain humanity and democracy among Black communities, people need to speak out against anti-Black racism.

“There shouldn’t be just a Desmond Cole; there should be many Desmond Coles. Black Lives Matter should be an entire national consciousness, not a movement of extremely brave trans, queer, cis, young people of colour.”

Cole’s interaction with police featured an aggressive police officer who attempted to stop Cole from recording. But, the media didn’t pounce on that story. Cole ended up writing about his own experience in the Toronto Star, where he is a regular columnist—and, it’s worth noting, still one of only a small handful of columnists of colour at any of the four major Canadian dailies.

“What I did wrong was I called out police brutality—that’s what I did wrong. If police are doing good, I’m happy to assist and help them. But when I see them abusing their authority, putting their hands all over a person and searching through his personal property on the street, well, I know that that’s wrong.”


Wednesday, April 19, Cineplex Yonge-Dundas (10 Dundas Street East), 6 p.m., FREE.

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