Today marks the guilty verdict for the murderer of George Floyd in the United States. It jogs difficult memories for me. What would you do if you witnessed police brutality? For those of us that are white, privileged and in my case, male, the question does not come up very often because the buffer zone of position, replete with green lawns and gardens, keeps us away from the battleground on the streets. Unless, of course, we watch it uncomfortably unfold on the screen… from the safety of our couch. Of course, many of us think we would do the right thing. We would intervene. We would stop the choking, the hitting, the undue force if we were to witness it in real life. If you imagine that you, deep down, are this person then take note from my experience. I hope it helps you navigate the moment when, and if, it comes.
In the mid 90s, eating a late-night slice of pizza with friends on Granville Street in Vancouver, I noticed three police cars strategically parked. I then witnessed a white male police officer on the other side of the street hold an aboriginal man, with his hands behind his back, while another uniformed white male police officer repeatedly pounded his fists into the man’s face. The beating was prolonged. The man was on his knees and helpless. A third white female police officer watched only a few feet from the crime. Another white police officer was watching from his car a few feet from where I stood. It was clear to me that this was not about a lawful arrest. This was pure, late night police brutality. A thuggish demonstration of some nature among the willing and complicit.
I dropped my pizza slice and started shouting in protest. Later in court, exactly what happened next and in what order is something you should understand if you imagine yourself intervening in a similar situation. In Canada, the judge would later explain, it is a moral duty for us as civilians to speak out if we witness undue force. However, a peace officer is, according to the courts, trained in the use of “reasonable force” and we as civilians are not. If, for example, a police officer holds his knee on a person’s neck for a prolonged period of time the police officer’s opinion, not yours, will be seen in the legal courts to prevail, if not in the court of public opinion. This is an important detail if you like having a passport and are not keen on forced community service or a having a criminal record to deal with. It is not important if your moral compass is what solely guides your actions. Professionally trained as an officer of peace or not, your intuition matters.
On that night, a solitary police officer, who was sitting in his car watching on my side of the street, quickly jumped out of his car and threatened to arrest me if I did not stop shouting in protest. I then made a potentially serious mistake. I held out my hands and said “arrest me, I will be more than happy to talk about this in court”. Clearly, in retrospect, I was relying unconsciously on my skin colour and crime-free history as a foundation of confidence. Never offer your own arrest because later you cannot claim you were “unlawfully” arrested. Legally, it turns out, one is better off just being arrested instead of being loudly and voluntarily arrested, replete with speeches. Morally, however it feels better to speak one’s mind in a situation like that and I still feel good about the indignant speech at the time, even if it fell on deaf ears. It speaks volumes to my privilege and shelter from personal brutality, that I felt confident confronting the police in the first place. More than thirty percent of the population of our jails in Canada are filled with aboriginal people. They make up less than five percent of the overall population. The statistics for black men in American jails are equally appalling. Black lives do matter, both in the United States and in Canada. For black people, or aboriginal people here in Canada, it must be a very different consideration when it comes to intervening in police brutality. You are not just confronting an officer… you are confronting a collective attitude; you are confronting history and you are confronting a system. And it is a powerful, brutal system many of us will never personally, truly, witness let alone endure.
Luckily, after being handcuffed, the officer agreed to uncuff me and let me go if I would stop shouting at him about human rights. I agreed. I promptly said it was not him I wanted to shout at anyway, and I immediately marched across the street to shout at the actual police officers doing the beating. At this point a crowd had formed, the barely conscious beaten man was bleeding profusely and my pizza eating friend, who was attempting to join me, was being threatened with arrest for the untimely crime of “jaywalking” by the first exasperated police officer.
The officers I was then confronting immediately, and quite violently, arrested me for “obstructing justice” which quickly dispersed the crowd. There are two sections in a paddy wagon, one that is roomy in the back and another, more claustrophobic section where you cannot move, hands cuffed behind your back. I was stuffed in there while a very long silence ensued. I never met the un-named, beaten man nor did I ever learn his name or his alleged crime. After bleeding in the back of the paddy wagon he was dumped on the street somewhere while I eventually landed in jail. I was booked, photographed, my money was taken and eventually, the next day, my shoelaces were returned so I could walk home a bit wiser about power. The original obstruction charge was dropped and replaced by a possession of narcotics charge for the true crime, at the time, of having a joint in my pocket. Lesson number two if you plan to take on the police is to check your baggage before you intervene and, in the wise words of the judge presiding over the case, don’t let issues like this get in your way if you are trying to “do the right thing”.
Months later, this same wizened judge by the name of Libby, would explain to me that it is our duty, when we witness police brutality in Canada, to bring the matter to the attention of other law enforcement officers before we take it upon ourselves to intervene. I was in his view, definitely guilty of the narcotics charge but I had intervened in the correct order when it came to obstruction of justice. By sheer luck, I had talked to a different police officer first before venting my feelings to the three offending officers. So that order of intervention, it seems, is the key lesson I wish to share if non-violently respecting the law is important to you. If you witness police brutality in Canada you need to involve another officer first, which seems ironic. The assumption is that, while there may be bad apples in the barrel, the barrel itself needs to be trusted. We need to trust the police system, if not the individual officers.
I think the current focus of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States is that it is equally the system that is at fault… not just a few bad apples. I think if any person was to honestly investigate the Canadian legal system, with a view to aboriginal justice, the barrel itself would seem rotten here as well. So, what should we do if we involve another officer or the system itself, and it still does not stop the beating, chokings or abuse?
Legally and morally, Judge Libby flamboyantly explained to me that day in court – and to the police, my indigenous lawyer and the Aboriginal Justice Centre that took up my case – if the police brutality does not stop, “we” need to “go in with both guns blazing”.
His emphatic waving of hands, as if holding duel pistols, helped to drive the point home for me and the others in that court room so many years ago that intervening, speaking up, non-violently protesting and doing whatever we can, metaphorical guns blazing, is the right thing to do. If you see police brutality definitely do something, after first talking to another police officer.
He granted me an absolute discharge and despite the loud protests of the police and crown prosecutor, I was immediately free to go. The aboriginal man, on the other hand, remained shackled to a system in which actions like mine were nothing more than mosquito bites.
Would I do it again? Should you intervene if you see police abuse? In my opinion, and according to the Canadian court system, and certainly according to the court of public opinion, we should all intervene, personally and systemically to do what we can if we witness something. I say that fully cognizant of positionality.
Fighting it in the courts, on the streets, in whatever way we can, will be harder for some than for others. Maybe it makes no difference but maybe it does. Actions add up until they boil over. Today the streets of America are burning with frustration and mosquito bites are looking more and more like triage wounds. As the guns of discontent are blazing those of us watching from the couch cannot help but notice the buffer zone narrowing. There are ways to get off the couch, to speak up, to make a difference, to share our stories and our discontent and to offer support in the name of change. I hope these musings help in whatever small way they can should the opportunity come your way. It might be here right now.