This article originally appeared in the April 2011 edition of The Leveller.
Police violence is a systemic issue and not a series of isolated incidents, according to the Mar. 18 opening panel of the Forum on Police Violence, Incarceration, and Alternatives.
“On a daily basis police harass, they profile, they abuse people, they injure, they assault, they intimidate, they kill. This is police impunity. This is something that people live day to day,” argued community organizer Jaggi Singh.
Subsequent speakers described in detail three separate cases of police violence in Canada and the resultant deaths of Anas Bennis, Gladys Tolley, and Ben Matson.
They illustrated the issues faced by families of the victims, including difficulties in accessing information on the cases, the near impossibility of getting an independent inquiry called, and the lack of available options.
They also noted discrepancies in police reports and the problem of having another police force investigate incidents of police violence, so that the police are effectively investigating themselves.
Samir Shaheen-Hussain discussed the 2005 death of Anas Bennis, a practising Muslim who was shot by Montreal police after morning prayers in the working-class neighbourhood of Côte-des-Neiges.
Police were in the area because of a fraud investigation that had no relation to Bennis. They claim Bennis attacked an officer with a kitchen knife and that the shooting was in self-defence.
It remains unclear why Bennis would have had a knife or been provoked to use it.
The crown prosecutor decided that no criminal charges would be laid against the officer, based on an investigation by the Quebec City Police.
Bennis’ family and a coalition of supporters have spent years fighting for a coroner’s inquiry, which may finally occur this spring. It was announced in 2008 but stalled due to police opposition.
“So long as justice doesn’t respect people, injustice prevails, and as long as injustice prevails, people must fight against it,” concluded Shaheen-Hussain.
Bridget Tolley of the Kitigan Zibi First Nation explained how her mother Gladys died in 2001 after being struck by a Quebec police cruiser on a highway in the reserve.
Although an agreement gave authority over the highway to the Kitigan Zibi police force, the Sûreté du Québec maintained control of the scene. The subsequent police investigation was led by the brother of the officer who had hit Gladys Tolley.
With the help of a lawyer who cost almost a thousand dollars, Bridget Tolley managed to obtain the coroner’s report. It revealed that the coroner had not even seen the body, and yet had indicated that negligence and alcohol on the part of Tolley’s mother had led to her death.
Tolley’s request to the Quebec government for an inquiry was rejected.
According to Tolley, the police look out for themselves and do not serve all members of the public equally. “We are paying them to protect their families, not ours,” she said.
Julie Matson detailed how her father Ben Matson was beaten to death by a group of police officers in downtown Vancouver in 2002.
Ben Matson was in a bar with friends when he was told that someone was moving his parked motorcycle. He went outside and engaged in a verbal argument with an off-duty RCMP officer, who was attempting to park a car. A call was then made to 911, claiming that a member of the Hell’s Angels had a knife.
The situation was eventually defused and Ben Matson returned to the bar. The police then arrived and entered the bar with Tasers in hand. Matson exited out the back and was chased by police, who then kicked him repeatedly. Within hours, he died in handcuffs.
Ashanti Alston, a former Black Panther Party member and political prisoner, noted that for marginalized communities “police violence is a constant; it’s a regular. It’s not an exception to the rule; it’s the rule. And it’s the rule for those of us who are locked in the bottom of society because of who we are, whether it’s because we’re of African descent, we’re indigenous, or poor white folk.”
The event raised questions about reasons for reliance on the police, as well as the abolition of the police force and the establishment of community self-regulation as a long-term goal.
Leading up to the forum, rallies were held on Mar. 15, the International Day Against Police Brutality, in several Canadian cities. In Ottawa, over 100 marched from the Human Rights Monument to the police station on Elgin Street.