Erica Ifill is an economist, columnist and founder of the equity and inclusion research consultancy Not In My Colour.
More than two years after the killing of George Floyd, we have now borne witness to the final minutes of the life of Tyre Nichols, who was brutally beaten by five Black Memphis police officers.
This is how we’re going into Black History Month.
It was a grim reminder that the simple presence of Black people does not translate into the absence of anti-Blackness. As the many anti-racist book clubs that have popped up should’ve taught us, Black people do internalize white supremacy and racism. As The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb writes, citing W.E.B. Dubois, racism can “make its victims see themselves through the eyes of people who hold them in contempt.” Indeed, J. Alexander Kueng, who pled guilty to aiding and abetting in Mr. Floyd’s death, was a Black officer.
Like body cameras, diversity is just another performative “solution” that obfuscates the need to address the institutional anti-Black racism that is apparent in many police forces around the world. That racism is why, in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s death and the protests that followed, defunding the police and reallocating that money toward social services became a rallying cry, at one point supported by 51 per cent of Canadians, according to a 2020 Ipsos poll. Yet, as TVO reported this month, Canadian police budgets have only increased. The 2021 federal budget even handed the RCMP $75-million over five years and $13.5-million on a continuing basis to “address the issue of systemic racism” in the organization, whatever that means – just a few months after the RCMP got $238.5-million, plus $50-million ongoing, for body cameras.
Tyre Nichols’s assailants were wearing body cameras. That didn’t stop them from beating him up.
So it’s curious that police chiefs from across Canada felt the need to promptly denounce the killing of Mr. Nichols – all the better, it seems, to direct attention to American jurisdictions, and away from any issues here at home. A release by the Ottawa Police Service called Mr. Nichols’s death “inexcusable,” just four years after footage emerged of two of its officers striking Abdirahman Abdi, who later died. In Halifax, the police chief condemned the killing, without mentioning a 2019 report that found that Black people there were six times more likely to be stopped by police than white people.
“In this instance, because the assault was captured on various sources of video and it was so egregious, to not speak out could imply that the conduct was condoned,” Natalie Wright, communications adviser to the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said in an interview. That is true, but it was Memphis police who released the body-cam video of Mr. Nichols’s death – which only highlights Canadian police forces’ general lack of transparency.
“This is an attempt at public relations and image management for the Canadian police,” author and journalist Desmond Cole told me. “They’re using the police murder of Tyre Nichols in the U.S. to paint themselves as good by comparison.”
Angela Marie MacDougall, the executive director of Battered Women’s Support Services, agreed. “The police weighing in is a brilliant PR move for them, as mainstream Canada will agree with them and feel reassured that Canada doesn’t have these ‘racial’ issues,” she said.
Ms. Wright herself acknowledged the concern that the footage could damage “the reputation of a majority of officers who are unwavering in their commitment to public safety.”
The race of the Memphis officers may have played a role, too. The swiftness of the response from Memphis’s Black police chief, Cerelyn Davis – she promptly fired the Black former officers now facing second-degree murder charges – stands in odd contrast to the white officer on the scene, who has merely been placed on desk duty.
Meanwhile, many Canadian media outlets proved themselves to be complacent. Many ran stories that simply parroted various police statements about the Memphis killing, seemingly without considering why these police forces would be leaping to issue them about a case outside their jurisdiction.
The statements lend legitimacy to police forces’ self-serving narratives that policing is more just in Canada, even though the number of police shootings in Canada increased nearly 25 per cent in 2022 compared with the year before. These narratives, in turn, shape the public’s perception of police as the only way to stay safe, amid reports of increased crime, which leads them to support increased funding for police, often at the detriment of other public services.
It’s a vicious cycle. And we need to see past the distractions if we hope to stop it.