Authorial Note: Having recently preached at Weston Park Baptist church, in which sermon I briefly mentioned the practice of carding throughout the city of Toronto as a form of distrustful control similar to all governments that aspire to achieve God-like status of omniscience in order to control people- I must now admit that I am in a Jonah-like position. I spent some time reflecting on the public institution of the police in our society, my own knowledge of the police force, the concerns of dear colleagues of mine, and finally in meditation over Christian ethics in the example of Christ and I had come to denounce the practice of carding in some public manner. Below is a copy of a letter, a 3000 word essay to be precise, that I personally sent to the Toronto Police Service, and though I have yet to receive a reply, mayor John Tory’s call for an end to the practice of carding may have been just that. While obviously more needs to be done (but does it not always?), I can’t help but feel slightly disappointed at this sight of repentance, not because I want carding to stay in place- God forbid- but because that repentance went against my intellectual expectation. Whatever Tory’s motive, he humbled himself before the will of those who protested, as following his ‘conscience’- something while not completely unexpected, is in great tension with how I perceive the world and the workings of power- but if I’m honest, and not trying to pretend that that did not happen, I have to factor all this in. In light of this, it may appear ungrateful to publish this at all, but vigilance is needed not only in times of great protest but even when things are getting better, however slightly. As has been properly pointed out, though Tory’s announcement is significant, that does not mean the practice will be abolished, or that there will not be push back. Nineveh may repent, but who knows how long that will last. Justice is an on going work, that no election and no decision can ever put to rest.
Dear Chief of Police Mark Saunders, and the entire Toronto Police Service,
In response to the recent twitter campaign, lead by one of my good friends and colleague Jared A. Knight-Walker, to use the hashtag “#PoliceWeekONT” in order to raise important questions concerning your carding policy and much else, Joe Couto, director of government relations and communications for the Ontario Association of Police Chiefs replied that such questions, to quote the piece by Davide Mastracci on May 13th, 2015 from the National Post, “…went unanswered because complex issues can’t be tackled in 140 characters…”* Now while some may object to such a response as inadequate or disingenuous, the figure of Jesus presented in the Gospels of the New Testament advises his disciples, of whom I hope to count myself among, that “…if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles…” (Matt. 5:41, ESV). Fittingly enough this was addressed to a group of marginalized and oppressed people, who dwelt under occupation—a situation much worse than someone as privileged as myself has never had to experience nor hopefully will ever have too. If the Jesus of the Gospels makes such a demand upon a people more oppressed than myself, it is only right that I do my best to follow suit. I will go the ‘extra mile’ as the adage goes, and not only write to you a letter, but something else, which I’ve found I’m quite adept at writing, an essay. It may be longer than you wish to read, it may at times become uncomfortable as while it will strive to be academic, it will also be uncontrollably personal—as already exhibited by my appeal to my religious tradition—but my intentions are much like the intentions of our police force, both good in that I hope to see reform and steps toward reconciliation, but also maybe unknowingly selfish, as a strive for attention and a public voice. The content of this essay will also be much like the attitude many of our police force have toward our public, both praiseworthy and congratulatory, but also critical and condemnatory.
Let us begin with even how I came to be involved in Knight-Walker’s campaign, and how my own attitude toward our police force was formed before making my plea. Knight-Walker and I have known each other for years, now while he has been much more devoted to the political realm and to the life of our city than I have, we both strive to possibly too utopian a dream to achieve, which is justice reigning throughout the earth—though we may disagree as to how that may be brought about. He checks my cynicism, I check his optimism—and probably forever we will dance this tug-of-war. However, many may wonder why I would be critical of the police at all—why I would participate in Knight-Walker’s campaign at all? For, as I’m sure you’ll see, I have no criminal record, I’ve only talked to an officer once as a witness to a traffic accident, I myself have never been carded (probably because I’m a white male, but that will come later), neither of my parents have been abused by the police in anyway, I have no vehement defiance against ‘authority’ generally, and most of all, both of my parents have raised me to respect police for the most part and to be thankful for their service. We are grateful whenever we hear that you have caught a pedophile ring, or a drug cartel—and we are thankful that those have been stopped thanks to your intervention and action. My mother and I have even begun our own little Christmas tradition over the past several years to bringing deserts and treats to the police officers of our neighborhood near Islington and Bloor on Christmas day, to thank them for their service and for the fact that they are working even on that one of most sacred of days to us. I say all of this for you to know that I have no personal ‘score-to-settle’ or grievance to address, and that I do not do this of my own accord. Back again to the figure of Jesus, my motivation in becoming concerned about your conduct toward our community has to do with the simple command, taught in a variety of forms, to love our neighbors as ourselves. “But son, the police have been good to you”, yes but have they been good to all? The concern of any Christian, or of any human being concerned with justice should not be whether they have suffered but if others have suffered. With my ears wide open then to the cries of others, I have heard the grievances of those who have felt harassment and unfair treatment by the police—not only south of our boarder, but here in our city. I have participated, and will in no doubt continue to participate in my own small way in whatever campaigns my dear brother Jared, as well as his fellow activist partner Miranda, desire to employ me in—not because I have grievances to settle, or even entirely agree with the philosophy behind it, but because I love them, and desire to be as loving toward others in our city, especially those whom are on the receiving end of abusive power, as they are.
Two particular events in my life, concerning how others have been mistreated by the abuse of the force’s power, would be dishonest to leave out of this personal account, if I were to aspire to disclose the entirety of my influence in determining my opinion of the police force. One event was the week of riots preceding the 2010 G20 in Toronto, and the response of the police force. You know the statistics and the arrest numbers in much more detail than I need to recount here.But the most surprising of all, was how suddenly it had all come about—“How did we go from tolerant friendly Canadians to virtual police state in downtown Toronto almost overnight?” Many of my friends from my largely immigrant neighbourhood, who were very conspiratorially minded, had long be afraid, thanks to rumours and stories from the United States, but also from the simple lessons of history that their countries of origin taught them, of the police but even more specifically of the ‘police state’.While I had been sympathetic all of my life, it seemed obvious to me and many others that “Well, Canada has to be betterthat’s why they came here”—and truly our land and laws are more stable than those other countries, but then the G20 happened and suddenly the concerns of my friends were as real as the weather. I hope and pray that I will not have to urge the Christian communities of which I am a part of, to be resisters to the police state, and be part of the legacy of those lonely ‘voices in the wilderness’—which while I am not yet panic stricken of the possibility of yet, I am not naïve enough to discount it.
The second event which has personally affected my view of the police force was the death of Eric Osawe in 2010 by Const. David Cavanagh** Eric was a young man that I knew personally for a brief period of time in my childhood. My aunt was counseling him to get his life together, and my parents hosted him in our apartment for what could not have been more than two weeks to the best of my recollection. We played GameCube together, laughed and slept in the same room. The extent to which I knew him personally again not vast, nor was the time we spent together lengthy but for the first time I knew of someone who was killed by a police officer. In the US there have been a variety of high-profile cases of unarmed black men being shot and killed by police officers or others, and those who committed the crime were found innocent. But now, I knew someone—it is true that his life was troubled, with a past history in drug trading with which I do not dispute, nor I am here to plea for his utter innocence. Nor am I certain of all the details concerning the case, but in the aftermath of the event a short opinion piece was written by Michael Plaxton, an assistant law professor at the University of Saskatchewan,*** in which he showed how this case boiled down to the question of,
“Should we treat Constable Cavanagh like any other citizen who broke into a person’s home and shot him dead, or should we treat him as someone who had the authority to decide whether Osawe should be shot?”
It was Plaxton’s conclusion to this exploration that was most frightful. He argued that if police officers were held accountable in a criminal court, as like any other civilian they might be discouraged “…from doing what they think is necessary…” because they would be “…uncertain as to the limits of their authority…” Plaxton’s conclusion (or implied sympathy) is troubling for two reasons: (1) the idea that accountability might discourage some form of action is undoubtedly true, that is the very purpose of accountability, but the notion that the police force, who come from the civilian population, are now somehow above public scrutiny, because we should be fearful of civilian communities making their own decisions as to how to govern themselves, is not only too high an exultation of the police force but absurdly condescending to civilian populations and their moral judgments; (2) the notion that the police force if held to the same or similar standards as the public would be utterly confused as to the limits of their authority is condescending to those in the force that do know the law, but would even be more troubling if it were true, for it would imply that the officers who serve our city would not be entirely sure as to how to conduct themselves under the same scrutiny as the public—as if they were not entirely knowledgeable about the law themselves. The impression left was the troubling notion that police officers, far from having a greater responsibility to the public because of their power and authority, actually had less responsibility to the public because the power and authority bestowed upon them suggested they knew what was better for the public than the public themselves.
Having now traced most of the contours of the formation of my own thought concerning the police force, I would now like to make a plea concerning the practice of carding, which, in the spirit of full disclosure, I was not immediately or entirely aware of in detail until just a few months ago, but like any other subject I address in writing, I try to be as best informed about it as I can be, then hopefully offer a perspective that has hitherto gone unexamined. The perspective that is offered here is not that of young black men and others like my colleague Knight-Walker who have continual experience of harassment, for, as previously mentioned, I have had no encounters with the police, being carded or otherwise. Furthermore, the perspective offered here is not from a legal perspective, though the case that the practice goes against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms appears irrefutable, the Canadian legal system and law enforcement are not my most immediate areas of expertise.
The perspective offered here is one from history, sociology, and motivated by, in the spirit of full disclosure, the notion of love found within the Christian tradition, though it is hoped that the proposal is in no way limited to the Christian community to the exclusion of any others. Hannah Arendt, wrote in her important work The Origins of Totalitarianism, concerning the secret police and the surveillance states she was studying that,
“The task of the totalitarian police is not to discover crimes, but to be on hand when the government decides to arrest a certain category of the population.”+
Learning many of the stories concerning people who have been carded, and learning what is involved in the process of carding, including the collection of information to be stored in police databases, what other conclusion can be drawn other than that the police, while possibly not finding the information they collect all that helpful in the short-term, will find the information helpful in some other manner in the future? “Woah, woah, woah” is the cry, “you are so accusatory! Already claiming that we have some sinister plot against minorities in the collection of their data! The nerve, and yes, while racism in carding may happen, you can’t possibly think all cops are racist, can you?!” If you have felt any ‘over-the-top’ accusation at this point, now hopefully you will understand in some measure the fear imposed upon minorities in our city who are being carded and interrogated, while having done nothing wrong—the very act of being carded is on the surface accusatory.
In addition, the kind of information being collected by those who are being carded, is neither of the quantity, nor the quality, of simple ‘engagement’ or getting to know the community. Imagine if you will, a young man is at a party in college, and wants to get to know a certain young beautiful woman he sees across the room. If he wants to get her attention, get to know her, and hopefully build some sort of relationship of trust, most certainly he may go over, try to tell a joke, introduce himself, and maybe strike up a conversation. Now if the woman is interested or is enjoying his company, she will engage him and show some outward sign of consent, however if she is not interested and shows implied or explicit desires to be left alone, hopefully, if the young man is acting like any human being should, he will politely withdraw, perhaps slightly disappointed. Now imagine the same college party, with the same man and woman, except this time, the man wants to ‘scout’ the whole room, and sure, why not try to get to know everyone in a spirit of fun? But instead this time he walks up to only certain women, that fit a particular body type in the room, and we clearly begin to see that his motivates are not just to ‘engage’ but to find particular types of women that he is interested in, for some other purpose (wink, wink). Furthermore, it seems clear that his interest is not really in these women at all, for, as he makes his way over, he begins by asking their name (fair enough). Then however he asks about their height, their weight, who they associate with, their ID, their relationship history, where they live, what they are currently doing—now all of this, while very thorough, may come out in the course of a relationship over a period of a few months, but is rather odd to ask within a first 10 minute conversation. Lastly, while possibly appearing just a little ‘creepy’, he has her fill out a card with all this information, repeats the same process with every woman in the room with that particular body type, and then saves that information on his laptop and send it to all his guy friends. Hopefully we would all recognize that this scenario is highly inappropriate, invasive, and would be all the most troubling if the young man was armed in any capacity. What this entire thought-experiment has hopefully shown, is that the simple collection of information is by no means neutral. Can information be collected and learned about through innocent community engagement? Absolutely, and it would be strange if the police did not learn more about the people it was protecting through engagement. But, is the collecting of information an act of community engagement itself? Not in the slightest, for the intention of the collecting, and the process of its’ gathering, can be an enormous hindrance to actual relationship building.
All of this has lead to the final theme and the vocal plea: be sincere in your interest in us, and please stop acting like we are an objectified body to be controlled. The violence in our communities toward minorities, and women is abhorrent, and we know that all of you in your investigations know this in much greater detail then hopefully most of us will have to. But violence, harassment, fear, intimidation, is exercised just as much by the powerful to maintain their power and control, as it is by the powerless over those less powerful then themselves and against structures more powerful than themselves, in the attempt to gain power. The continued militarization of the police force as exhibited in the G20 of 2010, the differentiation of accountability in the use of violence between the police force and civilian populations as in the case of Eric Osawe, and the current practice of carding, are all forms in which the police force continue to try to maintain its power as opposed to exercising it in our interest. The figure of Jesus Christ, by whose example this entire essay was inspired, proclaimed, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11, ESV). The more power exults itself, the more apparent it becomes that it will be humbled by others. The more power humbles itself, the more apparent it becomes that others will exult it. We are asking that the Toronto Police Force humble itself before this public plea to repeal the practice of carding, so that we may exult it as a force for which our city can be all the prouder of.
Thank you for reading through all of this, if I have in anyway persuaded you to repeal the policy of carding then, it is to you and my colleagues that I am grateful for the inspiration.
Caleb David Upton, MTh
*Mastracci, Davide. “Critics overtake Police Week hashtag to condemn carding and demand accountability.” Canadian News Site. National Post, May 13, 2015. http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/critics-overtake-police-week-hashtag-to-condemn-carding-and-demand-accountability.
**Blatchford, Christie. “Toronto police officer Const. David Cavanagh exonerated — again — in 2010 shooting of Eric Osawe.” Canadian News Site. National Post, April 2, 2014. http://news.nationalpost.com/toronto/toronto-police-officer-const-david-cavanagh-exonerated-again-in-2010-shooting-of-eric-osawe.
***Plaxton, Michael. “Charging of David Cavanagh in Eric Osawe case highlights conflicting views of police powers.” The Toronto Star, February 28, 2012. http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/2012/02/28/charging_of_david_cavanagh_in_eric_osawe_case_highlights_conflicting_views_of_police_powers.html.
+ Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism, New Edition (USA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade & Reference Publishers, 1973), 426.