Justifying police killing a national past-time
Forgetting these names and ignoring these histories makes these killings possible. It is only by learning these histories that we can begin to understand this particularly Canadian strain of anti-Black racism.
The cases of Albert Johnson and Andrew Loku are particularly revealing in this sense both for their striking similarities and in the way that the mental health problems of the victim are used to justify racist police killing.
In the March 31, 2016 Toronto Star, president of the Toronto Police Association, Mike McCormack, insisted that the killing of Andrew Loku “is not about race” but rather describes the death as “the tragedy of Andrew Loku.” He insists that Loku’s Black skin “had no bearing on the officer’s decision that night” and “What we don’t need is people trying to distract from these real issues and making this tragedy about race.”
The real issues, according to McCormack, are Loku’s mental health and the need to arm police officers with tasers. As Anthony Morgan argues, “McCormack’s bald-faced claims that race had nothing to do with Mr. Loku’s death are…not only ridiculous, but also baseless.”
Morgan points out that mental health and racism are not exclusive and that a Black man with mental health issues may still be the victim of racist police violence. Therefore a victim’s mental health never justifies their death at the hands of police. He also uses the historical record to demonstrate that “The tragic truth is that this kind of policing has seemingly rendered it permissible for Toronto police to continually take Black life with impunity.”
If it’s good enough for the police, it’s good enough for the media
There are a number of striking parallels between McCormack’s arguments and those made about the death of Albert Johnson some 30 years earlier. Paul Walter, serving in the same role as McCormack when Johnson was killed, also ignores this history of police violence against Black men.
He insisted that Johnson “was sick” and the tragedy of his death was “that the system broke down for him long before the two officers broke down his door.” For Walter, it is Johnson’s mental illness and the failings of the system, rather than racist police, that killed Johnson. His comments were reported, verbatim, by Christie Blatchford in her coverage of what she calls “the Johnson trial” (the very name of which reveals whose character is really under scrutiny).
Blatchford’s reporting is particularly instructive as she consistently depicts Johnson as a mentally disturbed and dangerous man who terrified and threatened rational and peaceful police officers. She regularly describes Johnson as “mentally ill” and as exhibiting “increasingly erratic behavior.” Blatchford accepts the police account of Johnson as “berserk” and acting “in a rage.” She transcribes the police account of Johnson’s “bulging” eyes and “puffed” cheeks.”
Similarly, Don Dutton describes the scene entirely from the police perspective: “Blood was running from a cut on Albert Johnson’s face and he was swinging what looked like an axe as he came down the narrow stairs.” Johnson’s bloody face, the lawn edger that looked like an axe and the narrow stairs — each detail aligns the reporter’s narrative with that of the police.
Neither reporter weighs these claims against Johnson’s neighbours’ and relatives’ testimonies that he was calm and peaceful. Instead, they present the police testimony (which is inconsistent and was changed after conflicting with ballistics evidence) as fact.
Blatchford writes that “it’s true that just about everyone who came into contact with the 6-foot 200-pound Johnson in the last months of his life says…that he was mentally ill and needed help.” Never one to let the facts get in the way of a good opinion, Blatchford neglects to mention the testimony of Dr. Rodney Mahabir who interviewed Johnson one month before his death and concluded that Johnson suffered from no major mental illness.
Johnson met with Gail Guttentag, of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, to ask for help about the constant police harassment. Guttentag wrote that Johnson’s “biggest fear…was that police would shoot him down. He repeated that he thought the police are trying to kill him, and have been making a concerted effort to continually and increasingly harass him. He feared that this would culminate in his own death.” Ten days later, police killed Johnson in his own home.