What defunding police means, why protests matter: Hamilton's Black community leaders
The interview was part of the CBC Asks series of live interviews on Facebook and Instagram
For some people in Hamilton the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by a white Minneapolis, Minnesota police officer, and the massive protests that have followed in the United States might seem very far away.
For many in this city's Black community the problems that exist in the U.S. that led to Floyd's murder can be found right here in Hamilton and not just with the police.
CBC Hamilton's Conrad Collaco spoke with community leaders about anti-Black racism in policing, government, schools, the media and more.
Play the video at the top to see and hear the entire conversation or read an edited and abridged selection of quotes from the three panelists Evelyn Myrie, President of the Afro Canadian Caribbean Association NDP MP Matthew Green and Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion program coordinator Samson Dekamo.
CC: What have the last few weeks, since the murder of George Floyd, been like for you?
Evelyn Myrie: Every time I speak with someone on the phone they have been in pain. I've had people from the Caribbean call me crying. My mother is 89-years-old. George Floyd talked about 'Mama.' That really affected her. It spoke to mothers. When your grown son is calling out for you. He's just about to take his last breath. My God, those images are forever etched in our minds.
Samson Dekamo: Exhausting. It's feeling like it's constantly looping, over and over again. It feels inescapable.
Matthew Green: This conversation did not start two weeks ago. There's a numbness that comes with the velocity of the video coverage we have seen over so many Black murders that we can't even name them all. Under the height of lynching they would leave Black bodies hanging from the tree to send a message to the Black community. When I see these videos there's a numbness that happens. So much violence. So much sudden death at the hands of an institution that is supposed to be sworn to serve and protect.
What are you hearing from people in your communities?
EM: Finally someone is listening. Finally someone is thinking that what we have been saying for so long might be real.
MG: It's only through community pressure that we have forced these institutions to release race-based, desegregated data so we can get beyond this Maple-washed version of Canada. In Toronto, Black people are 20 times more likely to die at the hands of police. In Hamilton, when we called on the police to release race-based desegregated data, first they said it didn't exist. We used FOIs - I think it was Kelly Bennett at CBC Hamilton - and we found out that Black men in Hamilton were four times more likely to be racially profiled and street checked.
SD: I'm hearing that even though we are talking about this currently, it's not stopping how police interact with us. While we are looking to make change, I'm not hearing about people having high hopes for change.
Defunding police (at 10:00 in the video)
The city of Los Angeles is cutting $150 million dollars from its police budget. A majority of Minneapolis city councilors have said they will vote to disband their police department and replace it "with a transformative new model of public safety." Do you support defunding police and what does that mean to you?
SD: Yes. Some people get confused because they believe defunding means completely taking away all funds and abolishing police. It's the idea that some of the money from Hamilton's police budget ($171.6M) could be put into community work and could make a dramatic change. Divesting $5 million to $15 million from the police could have a dramatic change in the community.
MG: We spend as much on police as we do on all social services. The police budget makes up 20 percent of the municipal budget. When they hear defund people think about the violent crimes. Let's talk about their case load. How many calls are about violent crimes? Let's begin to prioritize their budget to focus on the most violent crimes. When we talk about public health we know that in the last 15 years there have been 460 people who have died in incidents with police. They are not trained in de-escalation or non-violent intervention. We have people who are. Is it radical to defund police? I think it's radical to defund education and health care and social housing.
EM: I agree. The idea behind defunding is to reallocate funding to health care and social service programs and re-imagine policing in our community. It's a timely conversation that has growing support across communities.
MG: We are already hearing clear calls from the right who are saying we have to balance the budget coming out of COVID. In Hamilton, balancing the budget after COVID is going to mean property tax increases and drastic and significant and deep cuts to social services right across the city. We're talking shelters, food programs, transit. What they're not talking about are ballooning police board budgets where they are spending millions of dollars on things like tanks, full riot control, tear gas. If we were to have an honest conversation most Hamiltonians would see the value of redirecting money into front line social determinants of health.
The former police officer who murdered George Floyd is charged with 2nd degree murder. Minneapolis has banned the use of choke holds. The Transit Authority in Boston refuses to transport police to and from protests. Officers in Buffalo and Fort Lauderdale caught on video shoving peaceful protesters get suspended. A street in front of the White House is renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza. Confederate monuments are being taken down.
Could any of this have happened without massive protests?
MG: Absolutely not. This movement is as big as Selma. As big as what we saw in the 60s. We romanticize those times but back then civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King were highly criticized. There have been Black Lives Matter protests from St. John's, Newfoundland to the Yukon. This is a substantial global moment we are having right now.
EM: Nobody in the ivory towers is going to say let's make things better for the people being oppressed. They say the revolution will not be televised but the murder of George Floyd was televised. People saw that and said, 'no more.' If we hadn't had this protest there probably wouldn't even be an investigation. This was just a catalyst to say we have had enough.
The Media (25:00)
It would be dishonest of me to hold a conversation with you about racism and institutions in Hamilton and mention policing or government but not mention the media. How well does mainstream media in Hamilton including the CBC, the Spectator, CHCH and CHML represent the city's Black community?
MG: How many Black people do you have employed at CBC Hamilton? How many Black writers do you have telling the stories of Black experiences in mainstream media in this city? We already know the answer. The problematic framing of race-based incidents of hate, of systemic racism in this city are always told through the lens of white media whether it's through the editorial process down to the journalists who are hired.
EM: Representation matters. Framing is important. I keep hearing 'the death of George Floyd.' It wasn't a death, it was a killing. At our local newspaper I was the only Black columnist for years. Don't just talk to us about diversity. Call us for everything.
SD: News is not present in our communities. The people who write are not at our events. I go to a youth event, a basketball game with hundreds of kids, and the media isn't there. If media is just covering our community when the police put out a report then it makes sense why the narrative is what it is.
What needs to change in the education system?
EM: The images you see in your classroom, the pictures on the wall are really important. We've been pushing the board of education to embed a Black history curriculum for many years. The idea that Canada was the place to come to be safe from slavery is not the full story. We aren't told stories about our culture. The stories of African Canadians is robust. We've been here since the 1600s but you would never know that.
MG: Birth of a Nation was propaganda used by the Ku Klux Klan. Hamilton was one the first cities in the country to hold a public showing of that in the theatres in the 1920s. The Ku Klux Klan marched on James Street North in full regalia in the 1920s. We had crosses burning on the escarpment. This is not about Mississippi south.
SD: Even just yesterday walking down the street with my friends we see a cop car go by and we know what's happening. We know it's going to turn around. When student trustees at the school board call for an end to the SRO (police in schools) program the board decides not to suspend it.
We've seen laws change already, thanks to massive protests. And faster, more likely, than if it were left up to governments without the pressure of protest. What do political leaders need to do to respond more quickly to the needs of the Black community before thousands of people feel compelled to take to the streets?
MG: I'm continuing to tell people to turn the heat up. Politicians will not move on a significant issue unless there's pressure. We need white people, racialized non-Black people to show solidarity. Through that pressure we can give politicians the courage they need to champion the demands of their communities. If we don't have people who are civil rights minded in our elected bodies then we need to replace them in the next election.
EM: We've been pushing an anti-Black racism lens to government policies and programs for years. It's a major concern that you don't see Blacks in leadership in the public service in Canada. The Hamilton anti-racism office has been closed. We need to move forward with that and it needs funding. It needs to be focused on anti-Black racism. The city needs to show leadership by consulting with the Black community. What are our vital signs around diversity and anti-Black racism?