Day 6

Hamilton's first black city councillor calls on everyone to "not be a bystander to bigotry"

This week, stories of racist posters, anti-Semitic graffiti and verbal assaults on minorities are being connected to the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President. Matthew Green, Hamilton, Ontario's first black city councillor, says it's a reminder that nobody gets to be a bystander.
Machzikei Hadas staff survey the graffiti at the their Ottawa synagogue Thursday morning. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

by Brent Bambury (@notrexmurphy)

Hamilton city councillor Matthew Green wants the province to take action against Ontario Court Justice Bernd Zabel. The judge made headlines for wearing a Donald Trump campaign hat to court on November 9th, and displaying it on the bench when he convened his session.

Zabel later apologized for what he called "my misguided attempt to mark a moment in history by humour in the courtroom."

Green, who is the first black councillor in Ontario's fifth largest city, wants Zabel off the bench. He's the only elected official in Hamilton to say so. 

And he wants more than that. Green says people should speak out when they witness incidents of smears, assaults and incivility like the ones documented here, here and here. On his Twitter page, Green added a new banner that says "Please Repeat After Me: I Will Not Be a Bystander to Bigotry."

Matthew Green is a city councillor in Hamilton, Ontario.

"We are in dark times," he told me on CBC Day6.   "This isn't me being alarmist. This is repeated history that we need to take serious, serious, serious heed to."


The option of doing nothing

Green's call for action was motivated in part by an unprovoked conflict a friend of his experienced as she waited in line at a Hamilton mall.

"It was a racially motivated attack on a female friend of mine just a few days after the Trump election," he said, "where a man shook a newspaper with the headlines of Trump's victory at this woman, suggesting that he was happy that Trump was going to rid North America of people like her, referring to murderers, rapists and the like."

"And what was most heartbreaking for her is that there were so many bystanders who saw what happened and did nothing."

Green acknowledges bystanders may have wanted to act but couldn't, perhaps out of fear or embarrassment.

"When people are faced with this type of violence, this type of racially motivated hatred, it is jarring because, I think, as Canadians, our sensibilities still have us believing that this doesn't happen here."

But not Green. He remembers being attacked by neo-Nazis at the same mall as a youth decades earlier.

"So this is a problem that we've had in this country for quite some time, but certainly it has been emboldened and compounded by the recent election of Donald Trump."

This week, stories of racist posters, anti-Semitic graffiti and verbal assaults on minorities are being connected to Donald Trump's win. Matthew Green, Hamilton Ontario's first black city councillor, says it's a reminder that nobody should be a bystander.


The normalization of Trump's politics

Green is wary of inaction because it could signal acceptance of newly energized intolerance.  That helps explain his adamant criticism of Judge Zabel. Green says an incident in an Ontario courtroom, instigated by the judge, needs to be countered at least as vehemently as an anonymous attack at a mall.

"This is our highest level of society," he says.

Green argues the symbolism of the Trump hat, with the slogan "Make America Great Again" can't be lightly dismissed as humour, as Zabel plead in his apology. Green says the slogan itself is a symbol of the intolerance of the Trump campaign.

"Violence, misogyny, abelism (are) all wrapped up into one slogan that this judge decided to use as a political stunt to bring it to his court of law."

"It is the only time in recent history where in North America we've had people calling for, you know, the mass deportations of people, the religious identification and registries of people."

I asked why Zabel's apology wasn't sufficient for Green.

"He is a judge which ought to be held at the highest standard of our society. He is ultimately responsible for sentencing people to jail and the foundation of our legal system is impartiality. People need to be able to trust in the legal system and when they walk into a courtroom the person who is responsible for their liberties is not overtly swayed one way or the other by partisan political interests."

"So if we let this happen what message does that say to every Canadian in terms of the way that they act in our society?"


Defenders of the hat

Complaints against Zabel have now been filed with the Ontario Judicial Council, and Green wants an investigation into the judge as well.

But Judge Zabel was not universally condemned for his actions.  A wide range of support for the judge manifested in comments on news stories like this one:

"God forbid we have a judge in this country that doesn't subscribe to the same weak, soft-on-crime, and anti-police notions that most of Canada's pathetic judiciary does," the comment-writer says. "I say good on him."

The slogan "Make America Great Again" has become of a fixture of the Trump campaign. Here, President-elect Trump puts on his signature "Make America Great Again" hat in Sacramento, Calif. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

Green says he's received criticism from people who support the judge and his hat but the vast majority of people who've reached out to him think he's doing something important.

"For every dozen or so trolls or vitriolic comments that I get from across the country based on my position, there are literally hundreds and thousands of people who are supporting it."

"So that gives me hope that the average Canadian at home who, even if they don't understand the complexities of our legal system, understand the importance of having a fair and impartial judge, understand that our neighbors should not be subjected to targeted racial violence, when our synagogues should be protected and our mosques should be protected."