Desmond Cole on Policing Public Space

Policing Public Space: Calling it quits with carding (from our new issue)

Story by Tammy Thorne

Photo by Mike Ford

Politeness and politics rarely mix. Yet, here in Canada, we’re often too polite to admit that racism even exists.

Well it does, obviously, and Desmond Cole has had some success recently in breaking down barriers to address racism in our oh-so polite Canadian culture.

Back in May, Cole penned a personal story called “The Skin I’m In”, a cover feature for Toronto Life about his experience being stopped by the police over 50 times, simply because he is black.

Cole is an award-winning freelance journalist. He writes for Torontoist, The Walrus, NOW Magazine, VICE, Ethnic Aisle, The Tyee and hosts a live radio show every Sunday on Newstalk 1010. He is now working on a book about his experiences.

Like many of our readers, Cole likes to get around town by walking, public transit or bike. As we learned in his first-person Toronto Life piece about systemic racism, the first time he was harassed by police was while he was walking his bike on the sidewalk, at one of the busiest and most dangerous intersections in this city.

“I was walking my bike because I hate it when other people ride on the sidewalk,” he says. “I don’t want to hurt anyone so I don’t do it. So I’d gotten off the street and was walking my bike along, and the cop came over and said ‘You aren’t supposed to ride on the sidewalk,’ and I said ‘That’s why I’m walking.’

“And then he asked for my ID.”

Cole says the officer took his identification back to his car and then came back and told him he was allowed to go.

“He didn’t explain what he was doing or why, and the pretense or pretext is what made me so angry,” says Cole. “For black people this happens so many times. And that this police officer couldn’t even man up and say anything like ‘sorry to bother you sir’ or admit that there was no reason to card me…”

Cole says he now refuses when police stop to ask for his ID. “I say it’s my right not to [show my ID],” adding that sometimes he does acquiesce, keeping his personal safety in mind.

“It is a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. My basic rights aren’t being respected,” he says.

The 33-year-old has ignited a conversation about the way police treat black people on this side of the border.

Cole was recently at a protest at police headquarters following the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Gray was killed by police on April 12, 2015 and was one of several murders of black men by police that are now coming to light in the media.

What does Cole think about Toronto’s first black police chief, Mark Saunders? “I’m happy we have a black chief, but I don’t see that as a guarantee that things will change and I don’t have that expectation. The only way things will change is if the new chief is interested in bringing justice.”

But on the heels of being given the title, the new chief said at the African Canadian Summit on April 29 that he would not put a stop to the practice of carding.

Cole says the police have no evidence that the practice of carding helps solve crimes.

“There’s no data,” says Cole, “Just ask the police. “If you want anecdotes, no problem, the police will tell you stories. But if you want hard data and proof they can’t give you any.”

Cole adds, “I have to say, even if the police could present a case that it helped solve crimes it is still a fundamental violation of our rights.”

He continues: “If it violates my rights I’m not interested in whether it works or not.”

Part of the problem is the commitment to the politics of respectability we seem to have in Canada.

He says the fact that people in his social circles were surprised by his personal story about experiencing racism shows that people aren’t listening.

“A cover story in a major magazine in Toronto by a black person, in the first person, is so rare. This is what’s surprising to people,” Cole says. “Race and struggle make people feel guilty and destroy people’s naive notion that we are living in this utopia. Yet, we actually have such little regard for black people’s lives in Canada it’s kind of like we’re saying, ‘Well you aren’t being killed in the streets so what is your big problem?’ There is a Canadian sense of politeness that is not really polite at all. It is really a deep desire to shut up and to not make anyone feel uncomfortable.”

Still, Cole says he feels good to have started a conversation and the reaction to the Toronto Life article has been overwhelmingly positive – but what we need now is real change.

He believes the reason people have responded so well is because it is a personal story.

“People can feel bad for me if they know me or know of me, which brings us back to the ‘respectability politics’ thing – It means people say ‘I can’t believe this happen to YOU’ or ‘But YOU act this way’ and ‘YOU dress this way’ and YOU YOU YOU, but believe me as soon as that message moves from me and we have to actually change policing or how we educate everyone…” it’s a different story, says Cole.

“Between my carding experiences and the biking and walking advocacy, the link there; it’s all about public space,” he says.

Most people would agree that police can’t just walk into a black person’s house. But in a public space right to privacy changes for black citizens.

“Everyone has the right to enjoy fully our public spaces… they should be able to do that regardless of their look or their ability and we should make decisions on level of ability so everyone can enjoy the public space comfortably and safely,” Cole says. “If you are carding someone, public space is not accessible.”

“But it’s the same if you don’t create bike lanes in the street to ride comfortably, that is also not accessible.”

Most dandyhorse readers enjoy the sense of freedom bicycling brings. Imagine not feeling free to enjoy public space.

“Do I feel free? The answer is no,” says Cole.

“No I’m not free; as long as a significant portion of the people I live with think the disproportionate attention that black people get in public space is okay, I’m not free. And as long as white males predominantly run all the institutions in our city, I am not free.

“I’ll be free when we are joined together to combat racism together. “You have to be anti-racist. Saying ‘I’m not racist’ is not good enough.”

The new issue of dandyhorse is here! Pick up a free copy at UrbaneSweet Pete's, Bikes on Wheels and Hoopdriver. You can buy it online here and at these independent book shops.

Related on the dandyBLOG:

Mennonite Mechanic: Car-free in the country (from our new issue)

Critical Mass Ride for Transport Justice!

Bike lane closed for Pan Am Games: City says no detour provided due to ‘short distance’ of inconvenience



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