Villain: Unsubstantiated "Safety Concerns"
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Villain: Unsubstantiated “Safety Concerns”

Nominated for: using race as an indicator of crime.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains: the very best and very worst people, places, things, and ideas that have had an influence on the city over the past 12 months. From December 10 to 19, we’ll unveil the nominees, grouped by category. Vote for your favourites from each batch, every single day! On December 19 and 20 the winners from each category go head-to-head in the final round of voting, and on December 21, we will reveal your choices for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.

Every day in our city, we are made aware of potential threats to public safety. Most of the time, these threats are spelled out so we can respond accordingly: pedestrian fatalities are spiking, so walk and drive with caution; an assault has taken place, so keep your eyes out for a suspect. But every now and again, we hear about an apparent danger for which no further details are available. It is as if those warning us would rather appeal to our imaginations than to a specific, identifiable hazard. Unsubstantiated safety concerns had a big year in 2012, and they were most likely to pop up wherever a group of black Torontonians were planning to get together.

At this year’s NXNE music festival, a major hip-hop show featuring artists from home and abroad was abruptly cancelled only hours before it was set to begin. Management at the Rivoli, the proposed venue, cited ambiguous “security concerns” as the reason for dumping the show, and added that the city’s Guns and Gangs task force had paid them a visit earlier in the day. Performers and fans were shocked, especially since they heard nothing more about the potential peril that had spooked organizers.

Similar circumstances wiped away an entire weekend of events at Irie Fest, a celebration of Caribbean and African music and dance. In this case, event promoter Phil Vassell took pains to describe the event’s “incident-free record over the last nine years” even as he announced the cancellation. Vassell said “the recent increase in violence in Toronto,” the mass shootings at Danzig and the Eaton Centre, had factored into his decision. He didn’t mention the overwhelming, prejudiced media scrutiny that he and other black event organizers faced in the wake of those shootings, but the pressure was likely too much for him to bear.

Without a doubt, the strangest instance of an unsubstantiated black threat occurred during the now infamous “gravy bus” incident, in which police inexplicably called in an emergency TTC shelter bus to ferry football players from Don Bosco, the team Mayor Rob Ford coaches, from a game. The players weren’t said to have done anything violent or dangerous—in fact, a TDSB official who attended the game called their behaviour “exemplary.” And although 23 Division Superintendent Ron Taverner agreed, he repeatedly claimed that, out of an “abundance of caution,” it was necessary for police to call the shelter bus, which essentially served as a paddywagon for the mostly black students. Police did not bother to question or follow up with the only person reported to have actually acted out aggressively that afternoon, a coach of the Father Henry Carr team. We still don’t know his name.

This last example is instructive. It doesn’t seem to matter what a group of black people are doing or not doing—their mere presence seems to represent a latent safety concern in the eyes of our police and media. The most likely explanation for taking a TTC bus off the street to pick up Don Bosco’s players is that their coach, the mayor, wanted to pay them a kindness and take them out of the pouring rain after a game. Instead, again all evidence, the public was sold the familiar story that a group of black men were ready to blow, and that a police response was the only reasonable course of action. It didn’t help that Mayor Ford repeatedly congratulated himself for being on the scene to “control” his players as only he can.

If 2012 was any indication, we’ve got a long way to go before black Torontonians can assemble in their city without arousing undeserved paranoia and scrutiny.

See the other nominees in the Dividers category:

Sue-Ann Levy

Using her position to deride instead of reason.
  Michael Bryant

An astonishingly tone-deaf response to a tragic death.
  Frances Nunziata

Treating her colleagues like wayward schoolchildren.

James Pasternak and QuAIA Alarmism

Undermining Pride Toronto, and Toronto’s commitment to diversity.
  Yunel Escobar

Homophobic slurs and frustrating non-apologies.
  Doug Holyday

Trying to turn an already divided house even more against itself.

Cast Your Ballot