SUDBURY, ON -- There is a power and intensity that flows from collectively naming violence and harm in new ways, as a prelude to challenging them. It was this sort of intensity that pervaded a critical discussion on policing that took place among twenty local activists in Sudbury this past Wednesday.
There is nothing new in general about this sort of naming and challenging when it comes to policing -- the #BlackLivesMatter organizing that has been sweeping the continent (including some places in Canada) in response to high profile instances of police violence towards Black people is just the newest effort to confront an old, old problem; and those who pay attention to the experiences of homeless people on an ongoing basis have expressed a lack of surprise at the recent findings by Laurentian University researchers about police mistreatment of homeless people in Sudbury. But it is not a conversation that has happened in collective ways in this city.
The forum was not intended as an open debate about policing but rather was a closed event meant to give people with a range of experiences and existing critical understandings of the issue a chance to come together, to talk, and to reduce the isolation that most have felt in Sudbury to this point. Eight attendees made prepared presentations, and all participated in the discussion. The speakers brought forward a mix of lived experience as well as more research-based knowledge about the history and social organization of policing.
A case that has been prominent in the local news in the last fortnight has been the arrest of three anti-poverty activists, now labelled the "S-CAP 3," during their efforts to advocate for a man who had been denied access to emergency shelter space on a bitterly cold northern night despite having no warm place to go. Crystal Kimewon -- an Anishnabe woman, a student, and a mother -- was one of those arrested, and also one of the speakers at the forum.
She talked about how her arrest -- described in more detail elsewhere -- capped off a number of recent experiences to give her a much more critical understanding of the police. In part this is because, when they were arrested, the anti-poverty activists were "standing up for another human being so they didn't freeze," in the face of "policies and guidelines and rules that were preventing that from happening." That is, they were doing a very simple, very human, very compassionate thing. Yet, she said, what they were doing has been framed by the Salvation Army and by the police as somehow "wrong." To her, the actions of the police are very much about "reinforcing" the message "Don't speak up!"
Referring to the time she spent in a cell after the arrest, she said, "Policing is modern-day colonialistic measures ... fuck, yeah, you feel that back there" in the cells.
However, though the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty (S-CAP) was centrally involved in organizing the conversation about policing, participation went far beyond a single organization or a single kind of encounter with the police. People spoke of the ways in which encounters with police ranging from unpleasant to dangerous had been a regular experience for them and for those close to them, and that such targeting was, variously, because of being Black, being Indigenous, being a sex worker, or simply refusing to be subservient when faced with an arbitrary demand from an officer.
Moreover, they spoke of the way in which current models of policing have extended into the community in ways that shape how community itself functions and thereby make it more difficult to speak out. Many community-based and ostensibly grassroots organizations in Sudbury have partnerships with the police, or even depend on funding that used to be obtained in other ways but in recent years has shifted to being funnelled from various levels of government and into communities via police forces, which according to speakers at the forum shapes what those organizations can and can't do. This kind of engagement with the police by some poverty-related organizations, women's groups, queer and trans organizations, and other groups in Sudbury mean, among other things, that these groups cannot respond vocally and vigorously to the kinds of everyday violence produced by policing in the lives of many Black people, Indienous people, sex workers, gender non-conforming people, people living in visible poverty, and many others.
An important example of this was presented by Laurel O'Gorman, a feminist researcher, student, and lecturer at Laurentian University. In 2014, O'Gorman was invited to be a speaker at the Sudbury manifestation of Take Back The Night, an annual action that takes place in cities across Canada and around the world in opposition to violence against women. According to O'Gorman's account of what happened, she learned via the email list for those putting the event together that not only were the police involved in the organizing of Take Back The Night in Sudbury, but that officers had indicated that the march should shift its route and its stated goals to match certain institutional priorities of the police. When none of the other folks on the email list objected to this, O'Gorman drew on her experience as an activist and in teaching courses about gendered violence to suggest that this might not be appropriate, and that perhaps the police should not be involved in this organizing at all, given -- as many feminists working on issues of violence against women have observed since at least the 1970s -- that "so many victims of sexual assault are revictimized by police services" in how sexual assault gets dealt with.
After a murky process in which O'Gorman was removed from the list of speakers, a group of feminist activists in the community objected (and reiterated O'Gorman's original concerns about police involvement in the organizing), and O'Gorman was reinstated as a speaker, the event took place, though with continued police participation. In fact, the rally included a speaker from the police who had in the past, O'Gorman said, "arrested women in the audience." When these women tried to indicate their objections to someone who had been violent towards them speaking at an event meant to oppose violence against women, the response from organizers and many other attendees was hostile. "It was really uncomforable for a feminist space," O'Gorman said. "If we're taking back the night ... who [are we taking it back] from and what for?"
Another key theme reiterated by a number of the speakers was that the problems they are objecting to when it comes to policing are not about the behaviour or character of individual officers, or minor policy difficulties that can be easily resolved, but rather are fundamental to what policing is as a system and an instituion. A number pointed towards history to explain this understanding, and argued that the fundamental role of policing in supporting an unjust status quo has not really shifted from those origins even if the details of how that happens have changed somewhat over time.
Laura Hall is a Mohawk woman, a lecturer at Laurentian, and a researcher. She pointed to the ways in which the police have always been central to processes of colonization in what is now "Canada." She said that from its early years up to the present, police have been "in the front lines of resource extraction and appropriation" and the force they have brought to bear has been essential to the "marginalization of our governance systems ... and our traditional economies. It's a system of forced underdevelopment" of Indigenous peoples in which police serve as the muscle. Today, police are central to the "criminalization of our people, continuously."
OmiSoore Dryden teaches Women's Studies at Laurentian, and she spoke about police violence against Black, queer, and trans people. She, too, said that if you look at the history of the police, they emerged in their modern form to "enforce a particular form of nation state" as well as "a capitalist, colonial, genocidal, and slave economy." Along with the roots of policing as a way of suppressing Indigenous resistance to land theft, the police also emerged in North America from slave overseers. That is, she said, they came out of "a system that did not in any way, shape, or form have us in mind as who should be served and protected," and in that context, "Black, queer, and trans bodies are already seen as not fully human" and therefore are subject to violence in the name of serving and protecting those who are seen as fully human.
Dryden noted that though these facts are the case across the continent, there are also specificities to her experience in Sudbury. She herself experiences "daily harassment" and at times "assault" in Sudbury in a way that she did not when she lived in Toronto. Partly this is connected, she said, to the suffocating reality that "there is no language of Blackness in Sudbury. ... There is actually no conversation in Sudbury about whether Black Lives Matter." As well, there is very little space to be critical of policing in public discourse in the city, even in supposedly progressive contexts. "It means something that when policing is criticized in Sudbury, it is met with intimidation."
And Gary Kinsman, a retired professor of sociology from Laurentian, echoed much of what Dryden and Hall said about the origins of the police, and added that modern institutions of policing in European societies also emerged very clearly during the emergence of capitalism, operating primarily "against workers and against the poor" and as part of "the closing of the commons."
He also addressed "community policing," which consists of a range of strategies of seemingly co-operative engagement by the police with the community, including the kinds of relationships with organizations described above. "Where it gets confusing for some people is when you put a smiley face on the cop. ... It disorients some people" politically. But, he warned, while such forms of engagement may seem positive, they are "just another side of the social organization of policing, to meet exactly the same objective" as more directly repressive practices. While the notion of "community policing" is often understood as policing that is responsive to community, he said that a more accurate way to think about it is as a mechanism of reorganizing community in the interests of the police, and of marginalizing those who are critical of policing.
No concrete next steps emerged from the meeting, though there was a sharted consensus of a need to stay connected, to have more conversations in the future, and to act in mutual support.
However that happens, Dryden stressed that those who are most targeted by the police in the course of their everyday experiences "deserve to be defended," and moreover that must happen not only once they are dead and turned into a tragedy that recieves mass media attention, but "while they are alive." She stressed, however, "It cannot happen when there is no language" to name the experiences and issues.
She concluded, "I think we forget that so much of our lives happen without police. ... We forget that we don't need the system."
Scott Neigh is a writer, activist, and media producer based in Sudbury, Ontario. He is the host of Talking Radical Radio, the author of two books of Canadian history told through the stories of activists, and a blogger.