February 24, 2017
A Black immigrant in Toronto waves an everyday object in a “threatening” manner. Police are called. The man is described as disturbed, unruly, unstable, and, most importantly, dangerous. Concerned police plead with the man to drop the weapon, but their cries are ignored. Finally, they shoot him. He dies.
In 2015 the man was Andrew Loku, a refugee from South Sudan, killed holding a hammer. Police officers claim that Loku acted erratically and rushed them. His death was investigated by the SIU and the officers involved were cleared of any wrongdoing. His death was one of the incidents that led organizers to establish Black Lives Matter Toronto.
In 1979 the man was Albert Johnson, a Jamaican immigrant killed in his Manchester Ave home holding a lawn edger. Police officers claim that he bounded down a staircase towards them wielding what appeared to be an axe. Johnson’s death led to protests from the Black community, a high-publicity trial and the acquittal of the two accused officers. The trial of the two officers would eventually result in the establishment of the SIU.
Separated by nearly 40 years, both men were killed in almost identical circumstances at the hands of Toronto police. What is particularly chilling about both incidents is not merely the violence, nor the similarities of their deaths, but rather the virtually identical responses to both deaths in the Canadian media.
Killable Black bodies
The uncanny similarities between both men’s deaths offer two clear examples of a pattern that is usually too subtle to detect: when white police officers kill Black men, Canadians look to a range of excuses and justifications that shift the blame from the killer to the killed. In our media and in our collective responses, we engage in the same pattern time and time again.
In Johnson’s and Loku’s case, perceived mental health problems transform racist killings into unfortunate tragedies. This pattern has gone on for years: Reyal Jardine-Douglas (2010), shot by police on a TTC bus and Lester Donaldson (1998), shot in the hallway of his rooming house, were both described as “troubled” men with “mental health issues.” For Jermaine Carby (2014), his “mental health challenges,” “suicidal tendencies” and “well-documented history of mental instability” justified his death at the hands of Peel Police officers.
In the shooting death of Michael Eligon (2012), Toronto Star reporters began their story by noting that he “suffered from depressions and delusions.” Perhaps the most visceral description comes in the case of Abdirahman Abdi who was beaten to death by Ottawa police. Newspapers describe Abdi as not merely mentally disturbed, but as “frothing blood from his mouth.”
Where the mental health of the deceased can’t be used to justify their killing, reporters draw on victim’s alleged criminal past. Michael Wade Lawson (1988), shot in the back of the head by Peel Police officers, was described as a criminal and joyrider. In the case of Buddy Evans (1978), his criminal behavior and status as a “street brawler” justified his shooting. Albert Johnson had “numerous run-ins with the police.”
Similarly, when describing police encounters with Johnson, Carby, and Evans, Canadian media highlights how the officers involved were all “scared for their lives.” This rhetoric transforms the silenced, deceased victim into a violent aggressor while the police officer becomes the sympathetic figure, the border guard defending the public from this violent, criminal Black man.
What is staggering is not merely the repetition of familiar tropes and stereotypes by which a victim of police violence is transformed into a mentally unstable, dangerous, and ultimately killable subject. Even more horrific is the ease with which this history is repeatedly forgotten by Canadians such that each incident of police killing is imagined to be the first.