A community memorial was held earlier this summer for Abdirahman Abdi, a 37-year-old Black Somalian with unspecified mental health issues who was beaten to death by two Ottawa police constables in July 2016. Abdi, who was in mental distress at the time, was killed in front of his home.
“We’ve all made a commitment to make sure something like this never happens again,” said Fahia Ahmed, a spokesperson for the Justice for Abdirahman coalition. “I never want my child to grow up and hear about this kind of thing happening to anybody.”
The memorial, held July 24, brought together 150 people under a steady rain. The crowd huddled under tents, eating and talking happily despite the tragedy bringing them together. Speakers at the event included Algonquin faith leader Barbara Dumont-Hill, Imam Samy Metawaly, and Rabbi Idan Scher. City Councillor Jeff Leiper and MPP John Fraser also attended.
After the speeches, everyone was invited to see the plaque that had been installed at the entranceway of 55 Hilda St., where Abdi had lived. The bronze plaque was affixed to a brick wall, only feet from where he was brutally killed as his family and friends watched in shock and horror while police officers prevented them from helping him.
The plaque reads, “O you who believed, persistently stand out firmly for justice as witnesses to God, even if it be against yourselves, your parents, or your relative, be they rich or poor….”
Media coverage has regularly repeated allegations about Abdi’s conduct towards a woman in a Bridgehead coffee shop which supposedly contributed to his death. These allegations will never be proven, but the implication is that Abdi’s death is in some way his own fault.
This is true regardless of the race of the victim in a police killing, but even more so when the victim is a Black man, due to racist stereotypes about Black men being violent and criminal.
If the situation were reversed and a Black man killed a white police officer, would journalists portray the officer as being to blame for, or perhaps deserving of, the violence done to them?
“[A 1996 study] revealed a strong and widespread belief [amongst Canadians] that Blacks are crime prone….65% [of respondents] thought that Black people committed more crimes than other racial and ethnic groups,” wrote Kelly Welsh, a University of Pennsylvania professor, in her essay “Black criminal stereotypes and racial profiling.”
Police killings and systemic anti-Black racism in Canada
In June 2017, Pierre Coriolan, a Black Haitian man, was shot and killed by the Montreal police. Like Abdi, Coriolan was also experiencing mental distress when he was killed by the police.
Studies show that, in Montreal and Toronto, Black people are killed at rates that are grossly disproportionate to white people.
“If you look at the statistics in Ontario, Black people are actually ten times more likely to be shot by the police than white residents, and make up around a third of the deaths caused by police force,” said Robyn Maynard, activist and author of Policing Black Lives. Black residents make up slightly more than three per cent of the population in Ontario.
In 1992, Stephen Lewis wrote a report on race relations in Ontario, written after Toronto police killed Raymond Constantine Lawrence. It was also written in the aftermath of the L.A. riots following the Rodney King verdict. The report concluded that “what we are dealing with, at root, and fundamentally, is anti-Black racism.”
This report is only one of many to say that racism generally, and anti-Black racism specifically, is a historic and ongoing feature of Canadian police forces. Yet so far anti-racist reforms have been minimal.
That is to say, these deaths must be set against a background of everyday harassment, surveillance and smaller scale violence against Black people by Canadian police forces.
In April of this year Justice Michael Tulloch released his Independent Police Oversight Review, initiated in the wake of the police killing of Andrew Loku, a 45-year-old Black man born in Sudan. The report contains 129 suggestions for reform. Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi has promised two changes: the Special Investigation Unit will release all past and future SIU reports (but not the names of police officers who have killed or injured civilians); and the SIU will begin collecting demographic data on SIU complainants. Naqvi has evaded questions about whether he will implement more of Justice Tulloch’s recommendations.
Justice For Abdirahman
The Justice For Abdirahman coalition has been tirelessly fighting for racial and disability justice since it formed two days after Abdi’s death.
They have kept the issue of Abdi’s killing in the spotlight as the SIU investigated and ultimately brought charges against Constable Daniel Montsion for manslaughter, aggravated assault, and assault with a weapon. Most recently they expressed disappointment at the two-year wait for Montsion’s trial, which is scheduled for 2019.
The coalition’s efforts fit within a historical struggle to protect Black lives from police violence, according to Maynard. “Black communities have been fighting for a very long time. We’re fighting for the conditions that continue to make us vulnerable to death by the police and other state institutions to change.”