A year to heal: Community, police mark anniversary of Abdirahman Abdi's death

The blood never washed away, and the grief lingers still. But one year later, those seeking justice for Abdirahman Abdi are determined to make sure he didn't die in vain.

Somali community demanded change, police pledged to listen in wake of fatal arrest

Nimao Ali says the memory of Abdirahman Abdi's violent altercation with police has been painful for many of the residents at 55 Hilda Street. (Idil Mussa/CBC News)

The image of Abdirahman Abdi's beaten and bloodied body is seered into Nimao Ali's memory.

Abdi, a 37-year-old Somali-Canadian man, died after an altercation with Ottawa police outside the entrance of his apartment building at 55 Hilda St. in Ottawa's Hintonburg neighbourhood on July 24, 2016.

The shocking confrontation was witnessed — and captured on video — by many, including Abdi's neighbour Ali, who said she now avoids going through that doorway.

When I walk here, the image of him lying down bleeding just flashes back to my head and it just makes me weak in my knees.- Nimao Ali, Abdi family friend

"I usually shake. It's very difficult," she said. "When I walk here, the image of him lying down bleeding just flashes back to my head and it just makes me weak in my knees. Most of our neighbours and family avoid entering the front door. They'd rather go in the side door."

Abdi, 37, died after a violent altercation with police outside his apartment building in Ottawa's Hintonburg neighbourhood on July 24, 2016. (Supplied)

The building's management tried to scrub the blood stains away, said Ali, but it seeped deep into the concrete and wouldn't wash off. "They had to replace the tiles," she said. 

"It's something that you cannot shake off. His parents had to watch their son bleed to death in front of the doorstep of their building. There's no words to express how painful it was."

Ali knew Abdi well. A close friend to his family, she's often acted as their spokesperson since his death. Her video recording of the incident played across TV screens throughout the country as the story of Abdi's death and the subsequent investigation into the actions of police officers that day unfolded.

Justice for Abdirahman

Good things came out of the community's grief, too, Ali said.

The Justice for Abdirahman coalition formed in the days after his death to demand greater transparency and more support for people with mental health needs, and to challenge racial inequality. The coalition has since won awards for its activism.

Farhia Ahmed, one of the coalition's founding members, said many expected Abdi's death to further deteriorate the already tenuous relationship between police and Ottawa's Somali community, but that hasn't been the case.

"Of course there's frustration and anger and resentment," she said. "There's a fracture in the relationship. However, rebuilding and maintaining a collaborative and productive relationship with those responsible for our safety has been very important to us."
Farhia Ahmed is one of the co-founders of the Justice for Abdirahman coalition. She says although she never met Abdi, his legacy has inspired many in the community. (Idil Mussa/CBC News)

'A community has risen'

Soon after Abdi's death, coalition members sat down with the chief of police, Ottawa's mayor and Ontario's attorney general to express their frustration about what they see as systemic barriers facing members of racialized communities when interacting with police.

Ahmed said she's particularly proud of the feedback the coalition gave to the panel reviewing Ontario's police watchdogs. The panel was led by Michael Tulloch, the province's first black Court of Appeal judge.

"From our understanding they were some of the soundest recommendations he'd received, and many of them are reflected in what's now his official set of recommendations to the province," she said.

We're very sad for his loss. But thankfully, it has not been in vain.- Farhia Ahmed, Justice for Abdirahman coalition

"Through an extraordinarily terrible circumstance, a community has risen," said Ahmed.

"I never knew him. I never met him. I never saw him. But what I know is that he was a special person, and from working closely with his family I can see where he got his spirit, and I think that the spirit lives on in terms of the legacy that he's left behind," she said.

"We're very sad for his loss. But thankfully, it has not been in vain."

Difficult discussions

Staff Sgt. Isobel Granger says the Ottawa police service wants to learn from what happened to Abdirahman Abdi so that it never happens again. (Idil Mussa/CBC News)
After Abdi's death, the Ottawa Police Service put together an outreach group to engage with members of Ottawa's Somali community. Staff Sgt. Isobel Granger was picked to lead it. 

Navigating difficult discussions around race and policing is familiar territory for Granger. Before coming to Ottawa, she was the first non-white police officer to join the upper ranks in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.

"It makes perfect sense," she said. "I am a conduit between community and police for several reasons. I am a woman. I'm a person from a racialized community. I live in both worlds. I understand the perspectives and perceptions from both sides."

I live in both worlds. I understand the perspectives and perceptions from both sides.- Staff Sgt. Isobel Granger, Ottawa Police Service
Granger said the first job was to let the community know they were being not just listened to, but heard.

"The plan was to listen, so we listened," she said. "A lot of what the community was saying was, 'We want you not only to listen to us but to hear what we're saying, because you need to know what our lived experiences are.'"

Over the first six months of the outreach project, Granger's team spoke to over 1,000 residents, both in groups and individually. 

"They wanted to work with us. There was no standoff," Granger said.

One year after Abdi's death

CBC News Ottawa

4 years ago
Two people who witnessed the death of Abdirahman Abdi talk about the community. 0:49

Two residents of 55 Hilda St., Yasmine Abdullahi and Ahmed Hassan, share their memories of Abdirahman Abdi.

Striving to erase bias

Among the issues that kept arising were accountability, racial profiling and a general lack of trust. Now that the consultation process is over, police plan to use the feedback to build an action plan for what they call "bias-neutral policing."

The police force will also use race data collected during a traffic stop program, which found officers were pulling over Middle Eastern and black males at a disproportionate rate, as well as a diversity audit, which found women still struggle to get ahead on the force, to build its action plan.

"Our organization has realized, as have others, that there are systemic biases that actually precede all of us, that were there because when the system was first created it wasn't as diverse and as evolved as it is now," said Granger.

Perhaps the first test of the evolving relationship between Ottawa police and the city's Somali community will be the trial of the officer accused of killing Abdirahman Abdi.

Const. Daniel Montsion is facing charges of manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon. He's scheduled to face a judge-only trial beginning in February 2019.

Meanwhile those who want to remember Abdi will gather in Somerset Square Park in Hintonburg on Monday, the anniversary of his death.