By BARRY WEISLEDER
Bowing to enormous public pressure, the Special Investigations Unit of the Toronto Police Service on Aug. 20 charged Constable James Forcillo with second-degree murder in the death of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim, three weeks after the shooting on an empty streetcar. While the charge is a nod to the power of street protest, including a July 29 march of nearly 1500, it falls far short of justice for Sammy, a young Syrian immigrant to Canada, or for the many victims of violent Toronto cops.
Outrageously, Forcillo got bail in record time (less than 10 hours). He remains suspended with pay ($106,800 in 2012) while the case slowly makes its way through the court system. It will undoubtedly take years. None of the 22 “witness officers,” so designated by the SIU, are charged.
So, is the indictment of Forcillo merely a release valve? Is it an exercise in distraction? Would there even be an arrest if not for the video-gone-viral showing nine shots fired by one cop at Sammy, followed by another’s use of a taser gun on Sammy’s motionless, prone body?
The SIU is itself a distorted product of mass protest. Created in 1990 with the Police Services Act in Ontario, the SIU was a response to widespread social discontent arising from a series of police killings of civilians, predominantly in Toronto’s Black community. Black Action Defense Committee leader Dudley Laws (deceased, March 2011) gave voice to the movement for accountability and for an end to racist policing practices.
In its 23 years, the SIU has conducted 3400 investigations into police actions causing serious harm or death. Only 95 led to criminal charges, only 16 to convictions, and only three to jail time.
Const. Forcillo is just the second cop in over two decades to be charged with causing a death while on duty. Since 2011 alone, Toronto police have shot at least 15 people, seven of them fatally. No Toronto cop has ever been convicted of murder in an on-duty killing.
Lawyer Peter Rosenthal, who is representing the family of slain Toronto man Michael Eligon at an upcoming coroner’s inquest, said the video in Yatim’s case could make a difference. And Rosenthal goes a step further. He says it’s time to consider disarming front-line police officers. With “lesser weapons,” Rosenthal argues, street-patrol police might be more inclined to talk to potential arrestees, especially people exhibiting mental issues, with the option of calling in the armed emergency task force should that appear to be necessary. He notes that regular police in Britain do not carry guns.
Without any illusions that such a step would fundamentally change the nature of the police force, socialists support the call to disarm the cops. Why? Because it would save civilian lives, it would boost grassroots movements that demand an end to racist policing, and it would marginally weaken the repressive capacity of the state.
Recent events dramatize the urgency of building social protest movements—organizing that could lead to self-policing by poor and working-class communities, in alliance with labour unions.
During the infamous G20 Summit in Toronto in June 2010, authorities spent nearly $1 billion turning the downtown core into a police state. Arbitrary beatings and detention in inhuman, makeshift facilities ensued. “Kettling” entered the lexicon. Despite 1118 arrests, only 308 were charged, and six convicted of any offence—and no police have been punished for their transgressions.
In the fall of 2011 police harassed protesters and forcefully uprooted the Occupy Toronto site at St. James Park. Also in 2011 a Toronto police spokesperson told a York University audience that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” That cop’s brazen sexist declaration sparked the defiant, international “slut walk” movement. Such misogynist musings give rise to the question: What do police have to say about the hundreds of missing and murdered aboriginal women?
Quebec provincial and Montreal city police savagely attacked students and their supporters at marches and picket lines during the mass movement against university fee hikes in Spring/Summer 2012. They arrested thousands, enforcing a law that made it illegal for more than three people to gather in one place.
Add to this the police practice known as “carding.” It involves detaining and prying personal information from people, stopped on the street because they appear suspicious. Police admit this investigative procedure disproportionately targets black and brown racial minorities, as well as youths and the poor. It is estimated that Toronto cops are “carding” 400,000 annually; some young people report being carded up to 20 times in the past two years.
So why is all this happening, and what’s the solution? Liberals and social democrats tend to argue that the main problem is a lack of training; that police lack sensitivity, and are not provided the necessary social work tools.
Certainly social expenditure cutbacks, and chronic lack of attention to the needs of mentally and emotionally challenged people, aggravate the situation. But let’s not miss the forest for the trees. Dealing with human needs has never been a priority for the police or the establishment—nor can it be in a world increasingly characterized by gross inequality and deteriorating living conditions for the vast majority. The Great Recession only aggravates these failings. The system has less room for maneuver, while it drives more people to desperation.
The Toronto police motto, “To serve and protect,” really means to serve the bosses and protect the rich. Notwithstanding other duties, like traffic control, search and rescue, dealing with illegal drugs, minor thefts and assaults, etc., the primary police function is the protection of major private property, and the repression of political challenges to the profit system. Police attacking workers’ picket lines, indigenous peoples’ blockades, anti-capitalist marches, and racialized youths is commonplace. Their role flows from the class nature of the state in capitalist society.
The state is never neutral. It serves the interests of the class that owns and controls the major means of production, distribution, and exchange. Today that’s the 0.1 per cent. At its core, as Frederick Engels explained over a century and a half ago, the state consists of “special bodies of armed men.” The police, the courts, the state bureaucracy and the military are guardians of the social status quo. Some well-meaning people enter those occupations hoping to make “improvements.” But soon they are overwhelmed by the major material determinants: the controlling force of wealth and power in class-divided society.
Sexism, racism, homophobia, and police brutality are inherent features of capitalism, crucial to its rulers’ divide-and-conquer strategy. Austerity measures, including the current round of attacks on public services and union liberties, foment wider social discontent—which the state confronts with mounting surveillance, its propaganda for more “security” spending, and blatant repression.
While the bosses claim there is no money to fund social services and youth employment, on Aug. 27 Madelaine Meilleur, Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services, announced that the Ontario Liberal government had approved the wider use of Tasers. Her aim is to provide all 26,000 police in Ontario with the lethal devices, at a cost of $1500 apiece. It is fatuous to claim that this is a “safer” alternative to guns and bullets given how frequent and widespread the use of Tasers will be.
The response of socialists is to reject more weapons for the cops, and to pose the need for workers and oppressed communities to take control of policing. We say: Refrain from reliance on the bosses and their state. Promote mass mobilization of the ranks of labour, the labour-based NDP, and progressive social movements. Fight for a Workers’ Government and a Workers’ Agenda.
Socialists demand: Reverse the social cuts. Money for decent jobs, for quality health care, child care, education, and environmental protection—not for war.
We say: Disarm the police. Jail killer cops. Abolish the SIU. Fire Toronto Police Chief Blair!
Free political prisoners and unjustly detained immigrants and refugees! Stop the harassment of Arabs, Muslims, and people of colour! Justice for Sammy and for all victims of state violence!
Photos: (left) Constable James Forcillo; (right) His victim, Sammy Yatim, a Syrian immigrant