Systemic racism

Ottawa mayor accuses Desmond Cole of ‘name calling’ over Abdi case

Analysis of columnist’s tweets does not support allegations
Photo: Emily Plunkett

In late July a 37-year-old Somali immigrant named Abdirahman Abdi was beaten in front of his own home by Ottawa police officers, leading to his death. Much outrage has been directed towards Ottawa police and that city’s government over the past month. Sadly, Mayor Jim Watson has not responded well to the criticism.

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Over the weekend, the Ottawa mayor blocked prominent Toronto Star columnist, radio host and civil rights advocate Desmond Cole from interacting with him on Twitter. According to the mayor, Cole had been “personally insulting” and engaged in “name calling.”

Cole described the allegations as “lies” on Twitter, arguing that the mayor was hoping no one would investigate his claims, and described Watson's behaviour as “calculated and meant to deceive.”

According to a tweet from Cole, Watson blocked him at some point over the last several days. Cole also pointed out that his tweets are all public and anyone can review them.

Ricochet reviewed Cole’s Twitter timeline back to July 25, when news of Abdi’s death broke, and were unable to find any examples of personal insults or name calling. What we found was criticism of the mayor for remaining silent in the days following the shooting, and pointed criticism of how his city handles issues of racism and police violence. Cole’s tweets were within the bounds of fair comment, addressed to the substance of the mayor’s job performance and about as mean as pundits often are to mayors and legislators across this country.

In short, pointed criticism of politicians is in the job description for columnists and radio hosts like Cole.

Outrage isn’t a personal attack

Here’s Cole’s first mention of Watson after the shooting. He sent several tweets criticizing the mayor for his initial silence over several days. The mayor had tweeted that he was on vacation.

Cole brought up Watson again on July 29, criticizing his belated statement on the death.

On August 25, Cole tweeted this:

Blocking those who use ‘vulgar and rude language’

This morning, Watson responded to criticism of him for blocking Cole and others on Twitter by explaining that he only blocks “those who use vulgar and rude language.”

Cole returns fire

Also this morning, and after he was blocked by Watson, Cole tweeted some more criticism of the mayor and his choice to block him on Twitter.

One could argue “poor baby” is a personal insult, but it occurred in response to the block, not prior to it. Cole went on to point out that Watson had declined to provide examples of the vulgar and rude language he accused Cole of employing.

Watson doubles down

A few hours ago Watson doubled down, repeating the allegation of “name calling.” Despite several instances of harsh criticism, Ricochet has been unable to find any examples of Cole calling the mayor names on Twitter dating back to July 25, aside from “poor baby” after he was blocked.

So do words like “disgraceful,” and criticism of how long an elected official takes to respond to a police shooting qualify as “personal insults” and “name calling?”

Has Watson’s job performance ever been critiqued as “disgraceful” by other pundits and radio hosts? Have they been blocked?

Politicians like to use Twitter because, among other reasons, they hope it will make them appear more responsive to the concerns of residents they represent. However, while mayors like Naheed Nenshi of Calgary and Denis Coderre of Montreal have been lauded for their use of the platform, others struggle to avoid putting their foot in it when they engage on social media.

Watson is correct that he has every legal right to block whomever he likes on Twitter, just as the people of Ottawa have every right to vote for whomever they choose in the next municipal election. But in the court of public opinion, making questionable allegations against a public figure of Cole’s stature when he criticizes you over an issue of concern to many residents seems like poor politics.

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