Last year, in the early morning hours of December 28, 19-year-old Dafonte Miller and two friends were walking by the home of a Toronto police officer in the suburb of Whitby, Ontario. What exactly happened next remains in dispute, but Miller says that that he and his friends were confronted by the off-duty officer and his brother, who asked what the young men were doing in the area. The police officer and his brother then accosted Miller, brutally beating him with kicks, punches, and blows to his face and body from a metal pipe.
The incident might have gone under the radar if not for the efforts of a lawyer, Julian Falconer, who has alleged that Toronto police attempted to cover up the incident in order to protect one of their officers. Police Constable Michael Theriault and his brother now face aggravated assault charges in the vicious attack that blinded Miller in one eye.
While Canada benefits from a glowing reputation as a land of free health care, multicultural harmony, and political stability, the reality is more complex. America’s northern neighbor is plagued by police brutality, local political corruption, racism, and corporate-led environmental destruction. This week, however, saw an unvarnished discussion of these issues at the Toronto Hot Docs Podcast Festival. Intercepted host Jeremy Scahill held a live taping at the festival, featuring journalist and activist Desmond Cole, Montreal hip-hop artist Narcy, and author Naomi Klein.
Cole, in the course of the podcast, discussed the Dafonte Miller case, as well as one of the most pressing civil liberties issues facing young black and brown people living in Toronto today: the practice of “carding” – widely known as Toronto’s version of “stop and frisk.” Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of young men, many of them from marginalized neighborhoods, have had their names end up in police databases. The retention of their information often begins with a familiar ritual: Police officers detain young black and brown men to demand their identification, without the suspicion that they committed any crime.
“When I got arrested in April, I was protesting a police practice called ‘carding,’” Cole said on Intercepted. “We colloquially have given it that name in the communities, because it’s like, ‘Where’s your ID card?’ So, it’s police officers in our country, in the province of Ontario here, and in Toronto, everywhere in the surrounding Toronto area. It’s the practice of police officers stopping people — who, according to them, are not suspected of any crime: there’s no probable cause here. There’s no ‘We saw you doing this or that’ — stopping these individuals and requesting that they give identification carding and then taking that information and storing it in police databases.”
“So,” Cole went on, “we’re all in these databases.”
In the face of public pressure, the city of Toronto promised to revisit its policies related to carding and racial profiling. However, activists like Cole say that little has changed and that, in reality, carding and other forms of surveillance continue to target minority communities in the city.
“I honestly fear the amount of naked racism and anger that is allowed to present itself in public, in what we call the most multicultural city in the world.”
Then there are police transgressions even worse than building surveillance databases. The Toronto chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement has repeatedly raised the issue of police violence against minorities in the city. Yet it is a subject, in a city that prides itself on its multicultural image, that too many have been loath to address. Last year, BLM activists held an extended protest outside of Toronto police headquarters, demanding a meeting with officials to discuss several grievances, among them the recent police killing of a black man. It took weeks of camping in the bitter March cold to win so much as an audience with any stripe of police or government official — something that BLM organizers said reflected a general contempt and indifference towards their movement from public officials.
As one of the most vocal black activists in the city, Cole himself has become a lightning rod. Salvos against Cole have come from the right, but also from liberals uncomfortable with his outspoken approach to racism in the city. Last year, Cole was forced to leave his role as a columnist at a liberal newspaper, the Toronto Star, after he was confronted by his editors for taking part in a protest at a Toronto Police Services Board meeting. Cole had shown up at the meeting to denounce carding.
Despite the pressure and vitriol he has received for being an activist in such an uptight city, Cole said during the Intercepted panel discussion that he’s exploring a new approach to create change in Toronto: running for mayor. Outraged by the brutality suffered by young black men like Dafonte Miller, along with other instances where local police have appeared to operate with impunity, Cole said he is considering a political career as a means of helping redress some of the chronic wrongs taking place in a city that fancies itself “Toronto the Good.”
“I want to run so that we can start to weave all of those things together in a way that will build something lasting for our city,” Cole said. “I honestly fear the amount of naked racism and anger that is allowed to present itself in public, in what we call the most multicultural city in the world.”
Listen to the interview here: