If you have never participated in a protest where the police are basically at war with the demonstrators then you have not fully experienced the violence that policing represents. Fully decked out in their battle gear and arranged in battalion formation, the police represent, in both form and practice, a martial force arrayed against the very civilians they are supposed to protect. I have participated in two significant protests—the 1992 uprising and the 2010 G20 protests, both in Toronto—where it was made abundantly clear that the police are a violent force instead of the opposite. To experience police on horseback and in full riot gear advancing on you in unison, chanting, shouting, with batons raised, beating their shields in time, poised and ready to strike and trample you, is terrifying. And yet people continue to face potential violence by taking to the streets to protest police and other kinds of wrongdoing.
When you are in a situation where police violence is imminent, you begin to understand how the deployment of a violent institution cannot by its very nature stem violence; and can in fact only lead to increased violence. In most instances where riots break out, the police riot right back, indiscriminately beating, trampling, and abusing people. In the 1992 Toronto riots the police rushed us on horseback down Bay Street and their violence is stamped on my mind. At College and Yonge streets during the 2010 G20 protests, battalions of police similarly surrounded us, presenting themselves in a fashion that suggested a level of violence we neither expected nor deserved. It was during those protests that I not only learned what kettling was—a practice where police literally encircle protesters, prohibiting them from moving—I experienced it. In every one of these instances the police justified their use of extreme force and violence by making the claim that property had to be protected.
What is it about property that demands that we, as a society, collectively sanction this kind of violence to protect it? The role of the riot is crucial to understanding contemporary abolitionism. It should surprise no one that Black people might riot after years of building frustrations about policing in their communities. Indeed, it is alleged that some plantation masters understood the occasional rebellion as part of the cost of slavery. Plantation owners who made their peace with runaway slaves called Maroons are one instance of this. The deals they made often allowed the Maroons to keep land and settle on it in exchange for the return of other runaways. Jamaica’s First Maroon War, in 1728, was a perfect example of plantation owners accepting Maroon communities as the cost of dealing in slavery on the island.
The Black riot is a refusal of entrenched policing practices that has boiled over. The riot is an expression of revolt with a historical basis in slavery. In activist circles, riots have been renamed uprisings, thereby giving their actions a deeper meaning. And the difference isn’t merely semantic. Riots often garner the attention of state authorities in a way that so-called peaceful protests do not. The riot, or uprising, is an important element of the quest for Black freedom.
One might even call rioting a tradition, a claim I don’t make lightly, or in jest. I make it, rather, to point out how the aftermath of rioting or uprisings by Black people across the Western world often consists of a kind of reckoning for both the state and its non-Black citizens that would not have happened otherwise. Whether we are speaking of Canada, the US, the UK, or France, the “race riot” is a signal flare marking a deep-seated refusal to carry on as usual. While I sometimes use the word riot here, as opposed to uprising, I want to be clear that I do not understand the word as pejorative; rather, I see it as embodying a tradition of Black refusal and resistance, and just as importantly, as a way for Black people to reanimate and alter the worlds in which they find themselves.
Uprisings on slave plantations consisted of a wide range of practices, from burning crops and buildings to poisonings, breaking tools and other implements, to all-out rebellion and warfare. The Bussa Rebellion that took place on Easter Sunday, April 14, 1816, in Barbados, is notable for its pitting of enslaved Black people against free whites in outright warfare and the enlistment of Black people into a Red Coat militia to fight the rebelling slaves. It is reported that about seventy of the largest estates on the island took part in the revolt. The rebels lost the fight, with about fifty dying in battle and another seventy being executed.
In 1831, the Nat Turner Rebellion in Virginia was another example of all-out warfare by enslaved people against slavery. The Turner rebellions killed about sixty people before they were quelled by the local militia. Turner, a slave preacher who could read and write, led the revolt and remained free for a number of months after it was put down. Once captured, he was hung along with many others. Historian David Brion Davis notes that, after the Turner revolts were defeated, laws were enacted prohibiting teaching slaves to read and write, as it was feared that education contributed to their restlessness.
When the modern Black riot is understood within this genealogy, contemporary Black uprisings take on a different meaning and tenor. Within plantation slavery rebellions were an important means for the enslaved to change the conditions of their enslavement. Historians have documented how plantation rebellions led to things like the partial recognition of Black slave families, slaves being given plots of land to grow their own food, days off from work, better food and accommodation, and other compromises meant to produce a settlement between the master and the enslaved. The slave rebellion was therefore a way for the slave to achieve some negotiating power in a context where freeing himself might not yet be possible. Of course, Haiti remains the primary example of a successful slave rebellion, but even those rebellions that did not end in independence and nationhood played a significant role in the inexorable movement towards emancipation.
In this regard, two things stand out as important. Many revolt leaders, especially in the British colonies, were Christian converts who had been taught to read and were thus able to use the Bible to wage a moral argument against slavery. Secondly, as Davis notes: “In the 19th century, British slaves […] showed considerable wisdom and self-discipline when they focused their violence on property and took what must have been extraordinary measures to avoid killing whites. This restraint greatly aided the abolition movement in Britain, which would surely have suffered a setback if Jamaican blacks had followed the example of Haiti and had massacred hundreds of whites.” Though the French couldn’t defeat the Haitians on the ground, the fledgling country was nevertheless severely punished for its rebellion with an international blockade. Less successful rebellions were also met with further violence, punishment, executions, and other forms of intimidation, which might continue for weeks after a revolt was quelled to deter slaves from rebelling again. It is that culture of intimidation, derived from slavery, which continues on with modern policing, thereby producing the logical outcome whereby Black people become its main targets.When the modern Black riot is understood within this genealogy, contemporary Black uprisings take on a different meaning and tenor.
The riot, then, achieves something that other forms of protest rarely do. Importantly, it also achieves its ends more rapidly and with renewed attention and commitment from authorities. The immediate result of the 1992 Toronto uprising, for example, was the appointment, by Ontario’s then-governing New Democratic Party, of Stephen Lewis to produce an analysis of the riot, along with recommendations. Lewis eschewed the more usual bureaucratic report, writing his in the form of a letter to the Bob Rae-led government, and drawing on a series of previously delivered but largely ignored reports to make the case that anti-Black racism was significantly impacting the lives of Black people in the province of Ontario, and that this should be urgently addressed.
The Lewis report recommended, among other things, significant police reforms around “race relations” and for the introduction of employment equity legislation. It called for a list of education reforms rooted in multicultural and anti-racism training for school boards and schools. It strongly recommended changes to how the qualifications of foreign-trained professionals and tradespeople are assessed to improve new immigrants’ opportunities for viable employment, the striking of a cabinet committee on “race relations,” and, last but not least, a set of community development plans. The Lewis report immediately led to the implementation of youth summer employment and job training programs, funding for agencies serving Black people, and the creation of other mechanisms for combatting young Black people’s alienation from Ontarian society. Without the preceding riot, none of these changes, which had a tremendously positive impact on Black and other marginalized communities, would have occurred. The implementation of some of Lewis’s key suggestions also resulted in the flame of resistance being turned down a notch. In a political war of position, the attempt to narrativize the riot as anathema to a democratic society is often merely an attempt to hold on to the status quo of the governing order and to not respond to the often legitimate demands of rioters.
Of course, sometimes the official response is one of continued brutality. In 2016, Black Lives Matter Toronto camped out at Toronto Police Services headquarters on College Street for fifteen days. The protestors had gathered at City Hall to demonstrate against the police shooting of Andrew Loku, a Sudanese immigrant who resided in mental health assisted housing. Loku, who was shot almost immediately after police arrived on the scene to quell a noise dispute that had already been resolved by a neighbor, suffered from severe PTSD and had been in obvious distress. There is little doubt that there were ways to diffuse the situation other than shooting. Protestors marched from City Hall to police headquarters, where they set up camp, demanding that the officer who shot Loku be publicly named.
The protest was peaceful, but the police responded by putting out fires built to keep protestors warm, dismantling tents, and spraying protestors with a white foreign agent. The images of these actions, captured by television cameras and cell phones, clearly show how terrifying the police can be, and that so-called “de-escalation” tactics are often meant to incite more violence. The police retreated shortly after the images made the news and the occupation carried on, but something more violent could have and most likely would have occurred had there not been a significant amount of outrage from Torontonians about police behavior.
Police tactics like carding are often geared toward entrapping Black people. Take the case of Jermaine Carby, who was shot dead by police in Peel Region on September 24, 2014. The police reported that Carby pulled a knife on them after being stopped and carded for suspected drunk driving. A toxicology report did find amphetamines, meta-amphetamines, marijuana, and anti-depressants in his system, but Carby had only a few days prior been hospitalized for mental health and depression-related illnesses. The officer responsible for Carby’s death wasn’t charged with any crime.
Then there’s the case of Ottawa’s Abdirahman Abdi, who was beaten to death by a police officer in front of his neighbors. Abdi, who had mental health issues as well, had experienced some trouble on July 24, 2016, after it was alleged that he groped women at a café that morning. Abdi was apprehended by police outside the apartment building where he lived, and neighbors filmed the arresting officers using fists and batons to subdue him. He was dead 45 minutes later. It’s alleged that one of the officers used a prohibited weighted tactical glove, something akin to a mobster’s brass knuckles, in the beating. The officer was charged, in a nod to the ensuing public outcry, but was later acquitted. In The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power, Desmond Cole documents this case in detail, before concluding:
Abdirahman was engaged in conversation with a stranger when the police arrived. If we can’t imagine a different outcome than the police’s violence, that’s on us. We have to imagine something less violent, less reactive and reckless. Daring to imagine kindness and fairness for Abdirahman is a truly revolutionary act in a country that offers no alternatives.
In both examples—though there are many, many others—the victims of police violence suffered from mental health issues. Yet both met a brutal, violent end; in Abdi’s case literally at the (weighted) hands of the police. There were other ways to handle these cases, other approaches and possibilities and treatments. Take a moment: try to imagine them. But our reliance on the police in situations like these precludes other, more humane approaches. In one instance, police carding resulted in the shooting of a Black man. In the other, another Black man in obvious need of a different kind of intervention was beaten to death. These examples illustrate how violence remains the reflexive response of police, especially in situations involving Black people. And they also illustrate why calls to defund the police or for abolition are finding more and more support. There must be a different, better way to handle things.
The manner in which modern policing reproduces the same targeting of Black people as the slave patrols or pattyrollers of the slave-holding colonies links past and present together. For Black people, contemporary policing, as Arnold Minors made clear, is often experienced as war. This feeling of embattlement becomes more understandable when one begins to explore the difference between how Black and white people interact with the police. An Ontario Human Rights Commission study found that between 2013 and 2016 Black Torontonians were twenty times more likely to be shot by a police officer than a white person. This fact alone justifies Black wariness when it comes to the police; yet as we’ve seen, and will see again, these kinds of violent interactions between Black people and the police are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. White people, on the other hand, tend to see the police as helpful, or providing a necessary service.
From On Property by Rinaldo Walcott. Used with the permission of Biblioasis. Copyright © 2021 by Rinaldo Walcott.