What a false accusation of antisemitism from Winnipeg’s mayor reminds us about political power

Photo by Festival of Faiths

On Tuesday, Winnipeg mayor Brian Bowman delivered a press conference calling for Linda Sarsour, a prominent Palestinian rights activist and New York-based co-chair of the Women’s March, to be removed from an upcoming speaking event for the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg’s centennial anniversary event.

“She has continually attacked the foundation of the state of Israel’s right to exist,” declared Bowman, who was accompanied on the stage by representatives from the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg and B’nai Brith Canada. The mayor then accused Sarsour — a hijab-wearing Muslim woman of Palestinian descent — of playing “racialized identity politics.”

The Social Planning Council was already forced to relocate the event in late March following public pressure regarding Sarsour and the cancellation of another Palestine supporting speaker in Winnipeg earlier that month. At the time of the relocation, a Winnipeg-based member of Independent Jewish Voices pushed back against critics by arguing “it should not be seen as being anti-Semitic to criticize a state or any government.” The organization maintained its stance on Tuesday, telling media that it had no plans to cancel the event.

The criticisms of Sarsour as antisemitic are dubious at best. Jewish writers have defended Sarsour against such claims, including her alleged peddling in the “dual loyalty” trope. In mid-2017, over 100 Jewish leaders signed an open letter that stated “we will not stand by as Sarsour is falsely maligned, harassed and smeared, as she, her organization and her family suffer vicious public threats and intimidation.”

Attacks re-erupted against Sarsour and fellow Women’s March co-chair Tamika Mallory for alleged apologism of vehemently antisemitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan following the horrific Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh. In response, Talia Lavin tweeted: “so a right wing gab dude killed 11 people in a synagogue and now everyone is yelling at linda sarsour about louis farrakhan? seems like punching the wrong way to me tbh.”

All of that political tumult came crashing down in Winnipeg on Tuesday. Mayor Bowman fell for a reactionary talking point harnessed to redirect criticism of far-right violence against a Palestinian rights advocate, the same way that attacks were leveled against U.S. congresswoman Ilhan Omar (who, likely not coincidentally, is also a hijab-wearing woman). In doing so, Bowman blatantly reiterated the false conflation of Jewishness with Zionism, deploying the power and legitimacy of the municipal government to promote a all-too-common crackdown on free speech about Palestine that continues the long legacy of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

It also served as an acute reminder of the incredibly skewed priorities of political leaders in Canada — and how they leverage power.

Sarsour doesn’t represent the vaguest of threats to residents of Winnipeg, yet Bowman summed up some extremely rare courage to erroneously condemn her as antisemitic. Meanwhile, the instigators of actual violence against marginalized communities in the city and country only continue to grow unabated and without any condemnation: fascists, police and all the connections in between. That must change.

Convenient omissions

Winnipeg is an extremely treacherous position. While a relatively small city — population 780,000, making it Canada’s eighth largest census metropolitan area — such conditions and trends have the potential to quickly spread to other places.

Here’s an extremely brief breakdown of what’s happened in the city and region over the last several months, none of which Bowman has publicly commented on. Keep in mind that it doesn’t include any of the vicious austerity measures being unleashed by the provincial conservative government led by Brian Pallister. It’s all well within municipal jurisdiction.

On January 11, Chad Williams — a 26-year-old Indigenous father of two — was shot to death by the Winnipeg Police. An eye witness said the police accusation that Williams was wielding a weapon at the time was likely false, given that he was in a position of surrender at the time. Only six weeks later, 43-year-old South Sudanese man Machaur Madut was killed in his own apartment by police while suffering a mental health crisis. In mid-April, 29-year-old cyclist Thomas Krause was detained and maced for asking a police officer to turn his high beams off and questioning his right to search his bag without and arrest or warrant.

Bowman didn’t hold a press conference about any of these events.

In mid-February, Winnipeg’s downtown library introduced airport-like security measures including metal detectors, pat-downs and confiscation of alcohol, drugs and anything that could constitute a weapon. Many experts in harm reduction and social services for unhoused people criticized the policy as highly discriminatory and a potential example of racial profiling of people who may be using substances or dealing with mental health issues. Libraries have long been the last resort of people displaced by the police and downtown business security forces, and now this important refuge is being threatened. A series of events were organized by the downtown community, including a consultation led by concerned library users and a 200-person “read-in” in the lobby of the library. Library management openly admitted that they’d only consulted with the police prior to the introduction of the security measures.

Once again, Bowman didn’t issue a statement about this.

Winnipeg mayor Brian Bowman

Dozens of pedestrians have been killed or seriously injured by drivers since the start of 2019, including the death of a four-year-old Eritrean girl just over a year after an eight-year-old Eritrean boy had been struck and killed. Almost 50 people are being sued by a Winnipeg developer to the tune of tens of millions of dollars for alleged participation in a peaceful Indigenous-led blockade in the summer of 2017 to protect a pristine aspen forest from clear-cutting. The city is an unequivocal nightmare for people with disabilities, ranging from broken lifts to intolerably late Handi-Transit. And there are still no safe consumption sites for drug users in Winnipeg.

Any appropriate response from the suddenly vocal mayor? No.

The securitization of the downtown library rapidly spread to provincially-run liquor stores, which were dealing with an alleged uptick in thefts. New measures included ID checks at the door, bottle locks and alarm pedestals — and far more concerning was the assigning of armed police to stores and awarding of citizens’ arrest powers to “loss prevention officers” ordered to chase down and detain suspected thieves until police arrived. In late March, the province’s liquor commission was condemned for posting the full names and ages of people who had been charged but not convicted. One expert told CBC that “you are basically convicting them in the court of the public” while another argued that it adds to the “stereotyping and demonization” of Indigenous people.

Did Bowman comment on this racist debacle? Of course not.

Meanwhile, fascists emboldened by the likes of U.S. President Donald Trump and Ontario Premier Doug Ford have been flexing their confidence in Winnipeg’s streets. In mid-March, a photograph was taken in a local third-wave cafe of a young white man wearing a Trump-adjacent Make Canada Great Again hat. Following a round of public pressure, the cafe instituted a “keep the love policy” that banned articles of hate. Only days later, a local speakeasy was slammed for using a similar hat in an advertising shoot, taking days to apologize.

A month after that, a brand new tattoo shop that opened on the same day as Hitler’s birthday was busted for having a slogan from Auschwitz — yes, you read that correctly — on its wall. The next day, a motorcyclist was photographed in the city while wearing explicitly Nazi clothing that including references to the Reichsadler, SS and “death squad.”

The person who photographed the motorcyclist was told by the police that it wasn’t illegal to wear Nazi iconography.

When forces combine

Somehow, none of these situations made it on to Bowman’s radar — or at least to the point where he felt pressured enough to make a public statement about them. It’s no coincidence.

Winnipeg’s police budget now represents 27 per cent of the city’s operating budget, up from 17 per cent in 2000. The city has one of the highest per capita ratios of police officers in the country, and by far the highest incarceration rate. Almost three-quarters of people admitted to custody in Manitoba are Indigenous adults, despite only representing 14 per cent of the population. And people who are incarcerated are routinely killed in custody: five people died in the Winnipeg Remand Centre in 2016, while another five have died in the federal Stony Mountain Penitentiary since August 2018. Entire communities are ravaged by policing and incarceration, with people unable to see their friends and loved ones without the services of a volunteer-led rideshare program.

Meanwhile, Manitoba Progressive Conservatives are teaming up with other right-leaning provinces to crackdown on migrants with bureaucratic tools. In 2018, the PCs culled universal healthcare for international students, threatening the academic position of anyone who became seriously ill. Only last week, it was reported that 40 per cent of the $500 “head tax” introduced by the provincial conservatives on immigrants that was intended for settlement services had not be spent on that intended outcome.

Such changes may seem relatively innocuous, but when paired with the increasingly xenophobic rhetoric emerging from the likes of Ford and federal Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer pose a substantial threat to the lives and well-being of newcomers.

But spineless neoliberal acolytes like Bowman have helped create the conditions for police and fascist violence to continue rising. They continue funding and promoting murderous and abusive police forces while standing by as provincial leaders whip up horrific levels of racism against refugees and asylum seekers. When asked in early 2017 if Winnipeg would consider becoming a sanctuary city — allowing every resident to access services regardless of documentation — Bowman falsely suggested that Winnipeg was already doing most of the things that such a concept would require. He never completed any public follow-up on the subject.

Yet Sarsour has somehow become his target. Still licking his wounds from his scrap with Winnipeg Jets owners True North in 2015, Bowman has consciously decided to pick a fight with one of the oldest leftist institutions in the city for booking a renown Palestinian rights activist — all the while ignoring the endless slew of bad news that actually warrants serious press conferences and condemnations. Such cowardice will likely be no surprise to anyone who has watched the mayor capitulate to the likes of True North, or ignore the opportunity to condemn the highly controversial 2018 appearance of far-right goon Jordan Peterson in the city.

But it should serve as a prescient reminder to organizers in both Winnipeg and elsewhere: if right-wing organizations can successfully pressure their city’s leader to conjure up public criticism of a prominent activist and speaker, what are we waiting for? Let’s camp outside his office until he holds a press conference condemning every fascist and killer cop in the city. If Sarsour has taught us one thing, it’s to never stop fighting until justice is won.

James Wilt is a freelance journalist based in Winnipeg, focusing on energy & environmental politics. He holds a journalism degree from Mount Royal University and is currently working on his MA in Geography at the University of Manitoba. He regularly contributes to The Narwhal, and has also written for VICE, The Globe and Mail, National Observer, CBC and Briarpatch. He tweets at @james_m_wilt.