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Policing the poor

“The justice system is class based and the police are its gatekeepers”

Economic CrisisHuman Rights

Toronto Police assemble to confront protesters guarding homeless encampments in Trinity-Bellwoods Park in the west end of the city, June 22, 2021. Photo by Martin Reis/Twitter.

Recently, we have seen massive police operations mobilized in Canadian cities to drive homeless people out of the parks in which they have sought shelter and safety during the pandemic. In Toronto and Halifax, remarkable scenes of brutality unfolded as encampments were attacked and dispersed.

As those in economic and political power prepare (perhaps prematurely) for life after COVID, they have clearly decided that visible destitution impedes their agenda of upscale urban redevelopment and that it must be chased from view. They are thus resorting to legally sanctioned force, discharged by the police, to drive out the homeless people who have nowhere else to go.

That cops are deployed to make life even meaner for homeless people in the interests of developers and merchants points to some fairly obvious conclusions about who they really serve and protect. However, it also raises somewhat more complex issues about the social control function they perform within a political system of liberal democracy that is supposed to offer equal rights and the enjoyment of civil liberties.

Targeted communities

As I had repeated occasion to observe in my work as an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) over nearly three decades, the myths of evenhanded law enforcement and respect for the rights of all, come up against the stark reality of how the police actually conduct themselves. Though there are a wide range of specialized police functions, the basic day-to-day task of most cops is to patrol and control poor and racialized communities. This means harassment, intimidation and keeping them in what is seen as their place.

Some years ago, I was living in a basement apartment located on the fringes of Forest Hill, one of Toronto’s wealthiest communities. A Somali member of OCAP was coming to visit me and, nearing my place, he stopped his car to check the directions I’d given him. A police car pulled up and the cop demanded to know what he was doing there. Being a strong and confident leader in his community, he simply told the cop that he had broken no laws and didn’t have to give him any explanation. The cop replied, “You can’t be here” and demanded his ID. The OCAP member told him that since there was no issue of any driving infraction, this was obvious harassment and he was going to drive off and go about his business. Though the cop yelled at him to stop, he must have realized that he was dealing with an exceptionally well-informed and assertive person and chose not to follow him.

The police, in this particular case, weren’t targeting a poor community but a poor person entering a rich area that was also overwhelmingly white. The cop obviously saw a Black man in a very much more modest vehicle than those driven by most people in the neighbourhood as a threat that had to be confronted. That he challenged him and demanded an explanation is bad enough but he actually told him that he was not allowed to be on that street. From the standpoint of formal legalities, the cop was acting entirely improperly but I’m going to suggest that, in reality, he was doing exactly what was expected of him.

Woodcut of a captured vagabond (c. 1536)

As an example of how the police deal with the public housing community this OCAP member lived in, we can take our (ultimately successful) campaign to force the housing authority to install a basketball court. There was actually another court within a reasonable walking distance, but local parents told us they were too scared for the safety of their teenage children to let them go there. The threat they feared, as they told us very clearly, was the police.

These experiences are but manifestations of an historically conditioned police function. The Tudor monarchs in England, from the end of the 15th century on, enforced the “King’s Peace” against peasants who had been driven from the land and who were now expected to seek waged work. Brutal punishment was inflicted on those who were deemed to be unemployed vagabonds, and unlicensed beggars were flogged and branded. At this time, however, the regulation and control of the poor was still being conducted without any police forces. It would take the Industrial Revolution to bring such institutions into existence.

As the growth of manufacturing created densely populated working class communities, the need for a force that specialized in social control became pressing. The Metropolitan Police, the first police force in Britain, came into being in 1829 and, just five years later, a police force was created in Toronto. Previously, if the poor grew restive or took unauthorized measures to try and survive, assembling and deploying the repressive power of the state would take some time. Now, with the creation of modern police forces, that state power was patrolling poor working class neighbourhoods every hour of the day and night.

In North America, colonialism and heavily racialized poverty have ensured that the police function is deeply and fundamentally racist. In the US, slave patrols were forerunners of present day police forces, while Canada’s federal police, the RCMP, were established as a colonial force, tasked with clearing the plains of Indigenous people to make way for the settler population. To this day, the RCMP plays the main role in policing Indigenous communities and its record of brutality is so glaring that, even the head of the force has had to admit to its systemic racism.

The degree to which policing across Canada reflects a deep-seated racism can be demonstrated in many ways but it is perhaps most starkly visible in lethal police violence. Across the country, Indigenous people are ten times as likely to be killed by cops than white people while, in Toronto, Black people are fully twenty times more likely to die at the hands of cops than white residents of the city.

Keeping “vagrants” out

One day, in Toronto’s west end, I saw a cop issuing a ticket to a homeless man lying on the ground in a public park. When I went over to investigate, I discovered that the offence listed was “camping in a park without a permit.” The man was fully clothed and had nothing with him but a small bag but, the motive for the false accusation was clear enough. The cop had told him that he shouldn’t be in the park because local businesses didn’t want homeless people in the area. On another occasion, a Toronto Police staff sergeant informed me that he considered his most important duty as a police officer to be keeping the central area of the city free of vagrants in order to protect the businesses there.

All these stories reveal police officers enforcing a brand of public order that couldn’t possibly be officially sanctioned. We see a poor Black man being told he simply isn’t allowed in a rich white neighbourhood. We have another cop functioning as a bouncer for local business interests and making a deliberately false accusation against a homeless man in order to drive him away. We even have a fairly senior officer openly proclaiming that he works to keep homeless people out of a major urban space, in complete violation of their legal rights. Yet a look at the historical roots of policing and any serious examination of this present day function makes it clear that each of the officers in question was doing exactly what was expected of him. This kind of behaviour goes on each and every day across this country on an enormous scale.

A judge with whom I once had a private conversation told me candidly: “The justice system is class based and the police are its gatekeepers.” In the decades of austerity we have endured, that police function has been greatly expanded and intensified. The call to defund the police was put on the political agenda in Canada as well as in the US in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, and its importance has not diminished. The vast resources that have been poured into bloated police budgets urgently need to be diverted into the public services to meet the needs of vulnerable communities under attack.

John Clarke is a writer and retired organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). Follow his tweets at @JohnOCAP and blog at johnclarkeblog.com.

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