Build the resistance, break the chain

The massive uprising in response to the racist police murder of George Floyd has sparked huge protests across Canada. To look at what this means for building the movement against racism and police brutality, People’s Voice editor Dave McKee spoke with long-time anti-racist activist Saleh Waziruddin. Saleh is a member of the Niagara Region Anti-Racism Association, and chair of the recently established City of St. Catharines Anti-Racism Advisory Committee.

PV: What is the impact on racialized communities here, of George Floyd’s murder and other acts of racist police violence? What about the impact of the uprising that we currently see?

SW: Contrary to self-serving assurances we hear that policing is different in Canada than the US, every incident of police violence in either country (and Canada is not lagging) puts a chill of fear into racialized communities who know this could quickly happen to us at any time. The uprisings and demonstrations strengthen our communities as they give us a voice and political power for change.

We are seeing a lot of politicians and people in media state that racism is not just a problem in the US, and that it exists in Canada as well. While this is good, there seems to also be an avoidance (by politicians and mainstream media) of the issue of racist police brutality in Canada. Are you seeing that?

Many politicians and police officials (chiefs, board members) are taking a public stand against racism only as a public relations maneuver to disavow any connection to the racist brutality in the US. They don’t want to be held accountable for racist abuse and misconduct in their own organizations and would prefer to pretend racism in Canada is something only for the history books.

Protests are happening in communities across Canada, and there have been some really impressive turnouts, including in smaller cities – we heard reports that 3000 people rallied in Antigonish and a similar number in Thunder Bay. I’m wondering if you can you comment on the nature (political, organizational) of those protests?

Many are being organized by first-time activists who bring a lot of creativity and imagination – which has helped make many of the events successful in terms of mass participation – but don’t necessarily have the political experience or background to always distinguish allies from obstacles. At the same time many white people who now want to take action in any kind of way are looking to simply demonstrate without having to do the other work to take away power from white supremacy. This makes it easier for the police and politicians to ingratiate and position themselves to get cover for not doing anything. But there will soon be opportunities to make these distinctions clear.

Some on the political left have described the uprising in the US as the beginning of a revolutionary situation. In response, some Black activists have warned that this is opportunist and narrow thinking that actually endangers Black people, and they have tried to clarify that the uprising is about some immediate changes that are badly needed. Does the current situation offer some insight into the role of allies in a community’s struggle for immediate reforms, and how we connect that to the struggle for longer-term change?

Those who thought that contemporary capitalism is too well-organized and too robust to face any kind of disintegration should take a clue from what we’re seeing. Marx’s writing about the instability of capitalism still applies, and this has led to sights many of us did not think we would see so soon. These include a police precinct being abandoned to protesters and city councillors pledging to disband their police force. The economic crisis is a necessary ingredient for why the current movement has so much power.

Although the movement and demands which have momentum now can make a real difference in power between white supremacy and racialized communities, and are necessary, the underlying power in society comes from the ownership of wealth. When there begin to be forays into challenging the power of private property, that can be a real basis of fundamental change where wealth is used for the common interest: socialism and then communism.

Some on the left are counterposing big structural changes such as defunding the police against smaller but easier reforms such as body cameras. But there is no reason we can’t have both, and it would be a mistake to forsake small gains in the name of bigger ones. Every gain is the future wresting power, in degrees, from the present until it overwhelms it and builds the new on top of what was. This is how Hegel put it. The most important reforms may be the ones which can give a knock-out blow, but until that is assured even small reforms can make real progress easier.

This situation has amplified demands for stricter civilian control and oversight of police. In concrete terms, what would that look like/involve?

There are already at least three types of civilian oversight in Ontario: police boards (with elected officials and appointees), the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, and the Ontario Civilian Police Commission which deals with higher-level administrative issues. None of these really have the “teeth” of discipline and enforcement powers in local cases. Even the Ontario police chiefs are looking for permission to suspend officers without pay. What’s missing is a purely civilian local body, with representation from equity-seeking communities, that has the power to discipline officers and refer prosecutions when police management fails to do so.

Similarly, there have been increased calls for defunding the police, or transferring significant portions of police budgets toward other, socially useful, programs. What do think will be necessary to achieve this kind of shift in political priorities, especially in Ontario where the premier has recently denied that any systemic racism exists?

Defunding the police, even in phases, has quickly become a mainstream idea with masses of people contacting their local governments to do this. The availability of money for different purposes is ultimately decided provincially and federally, so these demands will need to be shifted to higher levels of politics to break through funding restraints. For example, when cannabis was legalized the provincial government gave additional money to police for cannabis-related policing; this money can only be displaced so far, before the province and federal government say we are going to fund mental health care adequately instead.

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