Three days before Black History Month, Mamadi Ill Fara Camara was pulled over by Montreal police for allegedly using his cell phone while driving. During the stop, Mr. Camara witnessed another man suddenly attack the police officer. The assailant assaulted the police officer and took his firearm.
Mr. Camara remained in his car and called 911 to report the assault. When additional police officers arrived, Mr. Camara provided a statement and then left the scene. Shortly thereafter, police officers stopped Mr. Camara once again while other officers ransacked his home in search of the officer’s service weapon.
Mr. Camara was arrested and charged with disarming, assault and attempted murder of a police officer, the same officer on whose behalf he had called 911.
He was taken into police custody, strip-searched, and detained for six days and nights. Only after video surveillance and DNA evidence proved that he was not the assailant was he released.
In our quiet horror, we whisper among ourselves that he did everything right. Mr. Camara is a husband and expectant father of twins. He is an engineer by training and a PhD student at Laval University. Prior to his arrest, he oversaw a laboratory at Polytechnique Montreal. He was not required to be perfect to have the protection of the state. Yet he nearly was.
I was pained to look at his small face behind his pandemic mask, but I needed to look. We all need to look. I imagine the fear he felt. Small. Black. Man. A tenuous legal standing. An immigrant without the protection of Canadian citizenship. Many in the Black community live in a constant state of low-grade and sometimes high-grade fear. This is especially true for Black men. Insidious stereotypes invert reality by depicting Black men as dangerous and threatening. In fact, it is they who live in fear. Fear of a wrongful accusation, fear of appearing imposing, fear of being themselves. Black men are socialized to live with and deny this fear — a defensive posture that can be debilitating. We impose this standard on them rather than demand that our systems treat them with the respect they deserve.
In the case of Mr. Camara, the criminal law system moved with the arrogance reserved for a Black or Indigenous accused. Double down. Defend. Apologize. When we think about this case, we need to think about all that Mr. Camara lost that night and in those ensuing six days — what he can’t get back. His dignity, his sense of safety. As lawyers, we advocate vigorously in defence of our clients and work to secure recovery on their behalf. But we cannot reset the clock.
I started my legal career in criminal law with Nova Scotia Legal Aid. In 2017, I returned to Nova Scotia for the swearing in of a former colleague and fellow African-Canadian lawyer, Judge Rickola Brinton. While there, I had a chance to reconnect with another judge whom I had appeared before in youth court. He reminded me of a moment that stays with him to this day, in my colleague’s submissions on whether a custodial sentence should be imposed against his client. In my colleague’s words, “You only have your first strip-search once.” The judge refused to send that youth to jail.
A primary narrative about Black families centres on poverty, crime, single parents and a lack of opportunity. A less discussed ethos that guides many Black households is the importance of education, compliance, respect, and submission — particularly to state powers and specifically for Black males.
I know these lessons. I have three brothers.
Each has a different physical stature that renders them vulnerable in different ways. To my horror, each has faced sexual aggression, physical aggression, and assaults in part because of the bodies they inhabit.
In any household, parents approach child-rearing with caution, care, and a profound hope that their children will lead good lives. In Black homes, these lessons are also primers for protecting one’s safety and, in some cases, one’s life. But, we can’t contract out of racism, not through education, poise, or training.
Consider this: We live in a country where your call to 911 to report a crime can lead to a strip-search and detention for six days and nights. As a nation, we must demand better.
Karlan S. Modeste is a staff lawyer with the BC Teachers’ Federation, an LL.M. Health Law candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School, Graduate Fellow at The Law Foundation of British Columbia, and a sessional instructor at the University of Fraser Valley. The opinions expressed are those of the author.