I pondered how to node something for the Lost Gems quest to focus reader awareness on the essay On Blackness. I am an average-build Caucasian male who has never had to deal with racial discrimination. (I was once treated rudely in Hull, Quebec because I am a maudit Anglais with terrible spoken French, and I am starting to feel the mild burn of ageism, but that is as close as I can get.) I can't speak to Evil Catullus' experiences with police racial bias. But I have had various interactions with the constabulary over the years. I wonder how they might have gone if I'd been black instead of white.
I grew up in a small town in southwestern Ontario, Canada. One time during high school, I had been working very late in the second floor computer lab. This was well before the advent of the Personal Computer. We had the latest cutting edge tech, four SWTPC 6800 minicomputer systems. These were basically PCs, but a bit before their time. I was the favoured computer nerd back then, and I had free run of the lab. One night after some typical geekery, it must have been around 11pm when I wrapped up. I ambled downstairs to discover that even the custodians were long gone, and all the doors out of the school were firmly locked. I was stuck inside. After some thought, I decided to climb out a ground-floor window. As it happened, a police car was passing by during my exit. As I dropped to the ground the headlights speared me. I was called over by the police, who sat me down in the back of the squad car and inquired into my doings. Once I explained, I was allowed to go home with no further consequence. It never even crossed my mind that I was in any kind of real trouble. If I had been a black kid dangling out of the school window at midnight, the story might have taken a different turn.
I remember running a red light in my hometown when I was about 17. It was once again close to midnight. I was tired but sober, driving some pals home after Dungeons and Dragons (nerd, remember?). There was no traffic in any direction, so rather than wait for the pokey old light to change, I decided to proceed. Once again the prowl car was on the case. What happened next? I got a stern lecture, and that was it. Later the officer went to my house and told my Dad, who had been a town cop himself back before I was born. That was no picnic, but a black kid would’ve likely had a much harder time of it (contrast the story of the Toyota Previa in EC’s How I learned to stop worrying and love the LAPD, though of course L.A. is not small-town Ontario).
So let’s consider Toronto, at least a somewhat more multicultural environment than my hometown. The policy of 'carding' carried out by the Toronto police service has had a great deal of press here. Just yesterday in the city’s news came the story of an award-winning criminal law graduate, one George Singh, who is black. During his studies he requested, and was denied, a ride-along with Toronto police. The basis for this rejection was that he had been carded in the company of people with criminal records. Which the media found to be a bit of a sketchy reason. So we can confidently assume the possibility of racial profiling or bias during ordinary policing in Toronto. I should note that I have never observed the TPS be anything but respectful to all citizens, and this is purely a speculative exercise.
I was stopped once for speeding on the 401 in Toronto, in the basketweave. I got caught in a radar trap. My roadside detention was brief and cordial. I got my ticket, thanked the officer, and went on my way. I wasn't given a sobriety test; my car and/or my person were not searched. I never even considered the traffic stop to be more than a minor pain in the wallet. A person of color might, possibly, have been looked at more skeptically. One day not too long after that I ran a yellow light, and once again I got nabbed. The officer felt the light was red. I argued with him a bit, which did me no good at all. I was at this point already on the books, and I remember how angry he was that I dared to dispute his judgment. I wonder what might have happened if we'd had other tensions in the mix.
I was a young man during the height of the minivan revolution, and one of the domestic automakers released a new model. I forget the make, but recall that it had a colossal rear light stack, better suited to a Saturn V than a van. There was an advertising blitz on, including billboards with a full-size 3D replica of one side of the van. Being single and stupid, I climbed a couple of stories up the support to the platform, to see how well this bit of plastic secured, with petty larceny on my mind. Yet again I failed my spot check, but was in turn spotted by TPS officers in a prowl car. However, they and I were separated by a parking lot crammed with cars. I slid down the scaffolding and departed the scene with alacrity. I was not pursued, but would it have been different if I was black? I never did end up purloining the billboard, by the way.
Another time, I was industriously gluing politically motivated flyer
s to any flat surface, also in downtown Toronto. The posters had to do with the then-pending NAFTA
, on which I had a particular opinion and had made what I thought were compelling flyers supporting said opinion. Toward the end of a busy evening posting these flyers, I was affixing one to a Canada Post mailbox
when a pair of flatfoot
s approached me. I duly produced ID, and was lectured on the felonious
nature of defacing government property
with my handiwork. After this monologue, I was allowed to hightail
it with my messenger bag
of supplies intact. I rather suspect the officers were sympathetic to my views, since they did not even confiscate my materials. And again I wonder how that interaction might have unfolded with racial tensions added to the mix.
For a while I lived in Toronto on Jarvis street at Bloor, just north of an area known for various unsavory characteristics. Back then Hooker Harvey’s was a well-known area landmark of the sex trade, and there were some drug dens scattered about the area too. But those weren't my thing. I liked to watch the first period of Toronto Maple Leafs games on TV, and then I would amble down through the streets in question toward Maple Leaf Gardens, there to relieve scalpers of their sharply discounted ducats in order to see the rest of the hockey game in person. One evening, I turned a corner to encounter ETF officers in full gear, armed with a ram and some sort of BFG. I simply nodded respectfully, performed an about-face, and returned to my apartment, having lost my enthusiasm for an evening out. Would I have been detained, or worse, if I wasn’t a derpy looking white guy?
I have omitted a couple of other minor traffic stops and any number of unremarkable non-interactions with municipal police that were simply respectful nods, but which could have led to carding if I'd been black. When I think about it, that's a lot of times I didn't have to worry, or think to worry, mostly because of my racial characteristics. I fully realize that I have the luxury of presuming that any police interaction I have will be respectful, and that for many of the city's residents, that's just not the case. That has to change, and hopefully it will. Ontario has banned carding in legislation finalized in March 2016, which is due to take full effect on January 1, 2017. That’s a start, but we have a long way to go.