The fire this time with Desmond Cole

Desmond Cole. Photo: Kate Yang-Nikodym

A few days before this interview Desmond Cole went to a huge LCBO in downtown Toronto in the middle of the day to purchase something. As soon as he entered the store and starting looking around, a security guard started to follow him.

Cole is a young black man, so this is not a new experience for him. He endures this kind of profiling, but he doesn’t have to like it.

“I almost went up to him and said ‘Why don’t you get a cart and you can push my cart since you want to follow me around the store’. But something like that could actually end my life. There are situations like that when police are called and a person’s life is taken from them.

“There are so many different ways that this happens that I don’t even think white people can even understand it,” he told ARTSFILE in an interview.

Cole has become a major voice in Toronto for his journalism and for his activism. Now his book The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power (Doubleday Canada) is a bestseller and he’s becoming a major voice nationally. He will be in Ottawa on Feb. 11 at Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington St. hosted by the Ottawa International Writers Festival. The 7 p.m. event is sold out, although there will be some rush seats available on the night.

Cole came to prominence in 2015 on the strength of an article in Toronto Life magazine which detailed the racist practices of the Toronto police. It detailed all the times Cole had been carded by cops. That led to a regular column with the Toronto Star, something that ended after he disrupted a Toronto police board meeting by calling for the destruction of all data collected through carding. The newspaper told him his activism didn’t fit the role of one if its columnists. He quit. He has a podcast on Newstalk 1010 (CFRB) radio station in Toronto, where he has been for the past five years.

His book is takes the reader, month by month, through a year-long examination of what Cole considers systemic racism in Canada. It’s hard to argue with him in Ottawa.

In March 2017, a Somali man named Abdirahman Abdi, who was described by his family as someone with mental health issues, died after a violent arrest by Ottawa police.

One officer, Const. Daniel Montsion has been charged manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon in relation to the death of Abdi. The case is still before the courts.

“I see so many unfortunately familiar circumstances around the killing of Abdirahman, in the same way the killings of Jermaine Carby in Brampton, Andrew Loku in Toronto, Pierre Coriolan in Montreal and Machuar Mawien Madut in Winnipeg. The similarities are very striking,” Cole said.

In the case of Abdirahman, what is telling for Cole is that the police described him as super-human and dangerous, even though the officers were chasing him.

“But what did Abdirahman do? He ran away.”

This is how black men with mental health issues are described, Cole said, as being inhuman, without emotion. That kind of perception, he believes, sets up a chain of events that can end in a life being taken.

“The family of Abdirahman said no one should ever die the way our son died. That should be a universal statement, but it’s not.”

He believes there are people in Canada who have a blood lust. He also believes police officers who bought wrist bands in support Montsion “were showing their blood lust. I’m disgusted” by that.

He also said Canadian society can respond differently to people in mental health distress if it chooses to do so.

He said the people dispatched to deal with the distress of someone in a mental health crisis were sent to talk and trained to de-escalate the situation, “Abdirahman would still be alive if we had that kind of police force.”

Canada, he says, is trapped in a fantasy that suggests the men with the guns will de-escalate a situation. “That’s not their job.”

He believes that Canadian society is just as obsessed with guns and killing as the Americans are. And white Canadians are as terrified of black people “as anybody else in the world. They want the option of lethal force when confronting black people. I want to take that option away from them.”

He is looking for a new type of policing, he said, one that “involves people who aren’t armed and that recognizes that so much of what we send police to do, we should send a social worker, a nurse and a mental health specialist instead.”

Cole says his book is speaking to black people “first of all. These are our stories and these stories don’t get the mainstream treatment they deserve.” His book does put these stories in a mainstream context with a major publisher and a sold out book tour, along with lots of interviews with many different media outlets.

“I wrote this book because black people need to know that what we are experiencing is real and valid and we have the right to talk about it. One of the side effects of white supremacy is that it causes black people, Indigenous people and other racialized groups to doubt our reality.

“I believe that writing these stories … without the false act of journalistic objectivity, just shows this is what it is, I think it helps us to feel more secure in our experiences.”

Beyond that, he said, he believes anyone can pick up the book if they believe that black liberation is “something worth pursuing. This book is absolutely for anyone who understands that their liberation … depends on other people being able to live fairly and freely.”

He believes white Canadians aren’t happy because they live in a “racist hellhole.”

One of the persistent traits in Canada is a sense that whatever people are like here, it’s worse in the U.S.

Cole tested this theory in Ferguson, Missouri after a white police officer shot and killed a black teenager named Michael Brown.

“I felt very powerfully that I needed to be there. Michael Brown’s killing really touched me. It made me angry and it made me scared. I wanted to be able to document it for Canada because I thought it was an important story.

“But what I didn’t realize was the urgency back home.” While he was in the U.S., Black Lives Matter held their first rally in Toronto in solidarity with the Brown shooting but they were also talking about the killing of Jermaine Carby during a Peel police traffic stop.

The Carby shooting wasn’t an echo of the prevailing attitude in the United States, Cole said. He said that it is an example of what has been happening here at the hands of police.

“White supremacy doesn’t have a border,” he said.

The book also shows black resistance to the prevailing conditions in Canada. It’s a century of struggle in Canada, he says.

“Black people have to fight back in all kinds of ways and it has to look all kinds of ways and it has to come from unexpected places that people don’t even look for.” (An example of that kind of story can be found in Cecil Foster’s history of the black porters in Canada.)

“Ultimately, my only hope is in myself and other black people continuing to resist and survive. We only have to do this as long as white people want to live in a racist unequal country.”

He also doesn’t intend to “sit down and hold hands with white people who are killing us. I deserve to live in freedom, peace, dignity and I shouldn’t have to beg my oppressors to give that to me.

“Canada needs people to knock it out of its slumber because we are sleepwalking to our deaths.” He has no hope for capitalist society because it produces hopelessness.

When asked about violence, Cole says he already lives in a violent society.

“I’m afraid to go outside and go for a walk through a park at night because if I am stopped the authorities they might kill me.”

As Malcolm X said, Cole said he would defend himself by any means necessary.

“Black people and Indigenous people are under attack and we have the right to defend ourselves if we are under attack. The lucky thing for white people, we actually refuse to go into an all-out war against them.”

When this interview happened Cole was on the verge of his book tour. He says, even though he has been doing dozens of media interviews, he is really trying enjoy the release of his first book “and have the moment.”

He hopes to be able to use the platform the book buzz is giving him to do some good and bring to light some of the stories that are on-going, but not widely circulated by national media and followed up.

“For example, two weeks ago a black woman (named Santina Rao) was shopping in a Walmart in Halifax” when she was profiled by police and violently arrested.

Cole notes that the experience of black people in Canada and Indigenous people is similar.

“We are in jails together, in the child welfare system together. We live in poverty together very often.” And they are working together to protest the conditions they face together, he said. “We might not be able to stop anybody by force, but we are certainly going to make ourselves heard everywhere.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.