I'm standing with Desmond Cole against anti-Black racism -- and you should too

Desmond Cole sits at Toronto Police Services Board table. Used courtesy of @pangmeli on Twitter.

Desmond Cole sat alone at the end of the long Toronto Police Services Board table, waiting to be arrested.

A throng of reporters documented his words and movements from a few feet away. I and other regular board-meeting attendees were sprinkled among them, watching anxiously.

It was July 27, 2017, and the fourth board meeting in a row at which Desmond was calling out board members and chief Mark Saunders for letting the Toronto police run roughshod over Black residents' civil rights.

This time, the issue was the four-month delay before the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) was told about the December 28, 2016 severe beating of Black teen Dafonte Miller by off-duty Toronto cop Michael Theriault and his brother Christian.

The incident was not on the public agenda; instead, the board had discussed it behind closed doors before the public meeting began.

This is one of the rapidly escalating measures the police brass, board and union are using to ensure public participation is an extremely controlled veneer.

The meetings are held in police headquarters; other board meetings, such as those of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), are at city hall. Police screening of every civilian who enters the building started some time last month -- ostensibly because an armed man entered the building and threatened to kill police, although the incident has not been independently verified. Then, in the boardroom itself, a newly erected row of stanchions cuts the public off from the board table and from the far side of the room, except for a small gap that gives access to the chairs where people sit when addressing the board. There are also uniformed police in the room during meetings; they first made their appearance in April.

But the police and board hadn't counted on the courage, confidence, charisma and conviction of Desmond Cole, who's a freelance journalist, activist and radio host. He's a tour de force -- shown, for example, in his article and documentary titled The Skin I'm In.

This propels his voice ever deeper into the public consciousness, giving him a rapidly expanding platform from which to call out the powerful for their continuing complicity in anti-Black racism.

Cole had followed the rules and signed up in advance to speak ("depute") at the July meeting about one of the items on the  public agenda: abuse and misuse of accessible parking permits. But once the meeting began and he was in the deputant's chair, he said he wanted to talk about Michael Theriault's violent assault of Dafonte Miller [video starting at 44:36].

Board chair Andy Pringle immediately cut Cole off by turning off his mic -- despite the fact that the board's bylaws give leeway to allow people to speak about issues that are not on the formal public agenda.

Cole turned the mic back on, and conveyed his message clearly in the gaps between the mic being turned off again and again, and Pringle trying to dismiss him.

"There should've been an opportunity for us to sign up and speak [about the Miller beating]! ... The chief of police of this city has made several statements in the public about this issue. ..... [H]e said that ... this [police] force didn't go to the SIU [to report the beating] ... because it wasn't in their mandate to do so," Cole said. "If this Toronto police force thinks that a [police]man beating a teenager with a steel pipe was not in the interest of the SIU, what are you guys doing here? ... What are we paying you guys to be here for, if not to discuss something of extreme public interest?"

Pringle then called a recess, and the board members including Mayor John Tory quickly left the room. A long intermission ensued during which police and the board deliberated about what to do next.

There was a similar series of events on April 20, when Cole movingly deputed without notes about carding data. He decried the board's and the chief's insistence that the police are legally required to retain rather than destroy the data [video starting at 1:32:30]. Cole then stood up, gave a Black power salute and remained in place.

Pringle recessed the meeting. A few minutes later I went up to Cole and stood beside him, prepared to be arrested with him. But he chose to leave instead of being arrested that day.

At the May board meeting, I handed out #IStandWithDesmond lapel buttons I'd made. The topic at that meeting was the School Resource Officer (SRO) program. Chief Saunders unwaveringly maintains that the program is helpful and must remain in place. However, several people -- including Cole and members of Educators for Peace and Justice -- described how the program fuels the "school-to-prison pipeline." They also explained that it results in many children being deported every year, because SROs meet regularly with Canada Border Services Agency officials to report students and their families who do not have their immigration papers in order.

The SRO program was on the agenda again in June. This time, the police stacked the meeting by bussing in dozens of solely pro-SRO students, teachers and administrators from the Toronto Catholic District School Board. Uniformed and armed police physically barred the boardroom doors -- including by using bicycles as barricades -- so that dozens of people who they believed don't support the SRO program couldn't enter. In addition, police sat in many seats in the boardroom and only gave them up for people who were going to speak in favour of the program.

Cole and members of Black Lives Matter Toronto repeatedly interrupted the proceedings to protest these egregious actions.

Then, last week, Cole again made his singular stance.

After he spoke out against the cover-up of the beating of Miller by the Theriault brothers, I slipped past the newly erected stanchions and sat in the empty chair beside him. He said it wasn't necessary to stay with him, but thanked me for my support.

Several minutes later, police officers approached Cole again. They quickly hustled him out of the room and out the north exit of police headquarters. They questioned him and gave him a $65 trespassing ticket for having failed to leave the boardroom when asked to do so. He is now prohibited from entering police headquarters.

Cole then addressed the waiting media. While his actions were snarkily described as "hijacking the board meeting" by a Toronto Sun reporter, what he did was vital.

"[Toronto Police] did not [notify the Special Investigations Unit about the Miller beating] and now they're asking us to let them pick who should investigate them for not doing it," Cole said, referring to Saunders's pronouncement at the meeting that he'd asked the Waterloo police to look into the beating.

"[This is] complete and utter corruption, and an insult upon injury already to Dafonte Miller and by extension to Black people in this region. So, no! No more second chances for [Toronto police chief] Mark Saunders. No more second chances for John Tory and this [police services] board. They are demonstrating that they value decorum more than they value our lives. So to hell with them all!"

Cole is now one of the strongest voices on the issue of anti-Black racism and violence in Canada. Black Lives Matter Toronto and the Black Action Defence Committee also form part of a powerful phalanx. In addition, the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition and Educators for Peace and Justice play important roles.

But they can't accomplish the Herculean task of changing police culture without a very large number of supporters. I strongly encourage many others to become active allies, linking our fate to theirs, and reducing the risk to each of us by acting together. There are many ways to be supportive, but the best way to start is by showing up.

Rosemary Frei is a Torontonian who until last year was a full-time freelance journalist for newspapers and websites for physicians and other health-care professionals, mostly in the U.S. She also ran for the Green Party of Canada in the 2008 and 2011 general federal elections, but no longer has any political affiliations or personal political ambitions.

The author thanks Elizabeth Littlejohn for her help in editing this article.

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