“I heard the screaming,” Abdirizaq Abdi told CBC. “I see my brother lying down, police hitting so badly … I’ve never seen something like that in my life.” Interviewed as his brother was being transported to an Ottawa hospital, Abdirizaq described the horror, which he shared with other members of his family, as they watched what police officers did to Abdirahman Abdi. The videos that emerged of the encounter do not tell the full story, but witnesses, the Special Investigations Unit and Ottawa Police have filled in many of the details. And yet, in the face of another Black man dead at the hands of police, the Canadian conversation on anti-Black police violence demands our silence and obeisance to a broken system of accountability.
Here is what we know so far. According to the SIU, police responded to reports of a man groping women at a coffee shop on Sunday morning. Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau says Abdirahman Abdi, a 37-year-old man with a history of mental illness, fled on foot. He was chased by officers to the apartment where he lived. Witness Ross McGhie told CBC that an officer caught up to Abdi at the building’s entrance. McGhie says the officer proceeded to beat Abdi with a baton about the legs, arms, and body. Then another officer arrived, McGhie said: “The officer emerged from that car very rapidly … pulled up right in front of the building … immediately jumped into the altercation and administered a number of very heavy blows to the head and face and neck of Mr. Abdi.” Multiple videos were shot — one, obtained by the Ottawa Citizen, shows Abdi lying bloodied on the ground for nearly 10 minutes before paramedics arrived.
We have heard and seen these things before. We know it by rote. Whenever Black bodies, lives, and communities are ripped asunder by police violence, we await the voices of the public officials who serve us. Those voices always arrive heavily laden with moral cowardice, and shoddily draped in conventional wisdom. In that fashion, Chief Bordeleau, Mayor Jim Watson, Councillor Jeff Leiper, and the Ontario attorney general made statements, asking the public for their patience while the SIU investigates.
Others took this cravenness to outrageous lengths. Before Abdi’s condition was publicly known, city councillor and decorated veteran Jody Mitic tweeted: “I fully support the @OttawaPolice and its members as they put their personal health& safety on the line for us. #ThinBlueLine” (He later tweeted condolences to Abdi’s family, and expressed his trust in the SIU investigation). Ottawa Police Association president Matt Skof went even farther, insisting that discussing the blindingly obvious race issue is “inappropriate,” and that it was “unfortunate” that conversations on race and policing are bleeding into Canada.
Here is the difficulty in following their logic. According to these voices, we must ignore the words of Ottawa Police, the statement from of the SIU, video evidence, and the multiple witnesses who watched Abdirahman Abdi be beaten. Instead, we must wait months – maybe more than a year – for the SIU to produce all the facts. To do otherwise would be an unfair rush to judgment. And in order to judge in a way they deem fair, we must accept the SIU’s legitimacy. Given the organization’s history and operation, this is a tall order.
The mandate of the SIU is to investigate policing incidents involving civilians that result in death, serious injury or allegations of sexual assault. In the 2014-15 reporting year, 94.9 per cent of officers investigated by the SIU were cleared. Even in the rare occurrences when the SIU places criminal charges, it is rarer still that officers will be convicted, much less imprisoned. Fair judgment requires we accept that police face no sanction when they are less than co-operative with the SIU, which happens in more than a third of investigations. It also requires the acceptance that virtually all SIU investigators are white men over the age of 50. Most are former police officers themselves who think nothing of brandishing their police pins, rings, and tie clips about their bodies while they interview witnesses.
Once the investigation is concluded, it is highly unlikely the public will know the full story anyway. Yasir Naqvi — MPP for Ottawa Centre, and Ontario’s attorney general — knows this, as the attorney general is the one person entitled to the SIU director’s report. The rest of us receive a news release. Aside from the investigation into the 2015 death of Andrew Loku (spurred by the Black Lives Matter sit-in at Toronto Police headquarters, as well as massive public outcry), the SIU director’s report has never been made public. That lone exception, by the way, was a partial and heavily redacted version of the Loku report. We still don’t have all the answers.
In fact, if the SIU had full control of this investigation, the names of the officers — Const. Dave Weir and Const. Daniel Montsion — would not be known. Under the agency’s rules, the names of officers under investigation aren’t made public unless charges are brought against them. It was the dissemination of witness video that helped identify one officer, whose name badge was visible. The other officer was identified by Postmedia. The duties of both officers have not changed; if circumstances were different, residents in the Hintonburg neighbourhood would never know that officers patrolling the streets had viciously beat a man in broad daylight.
These officers, by the way, belong to a department with an already troubled history of unjustifiable violence against Black residents. In 2005, a young Black man named Chad Aiken claimed he was punched in the chest by an officer after he asked why he was being pulled over. When he asked the officer for his badge, the officer responded “666,” the number associated with the devil. In 2008, a young Black woman named Stacy Bonds was arrested after asking why officers stopped and questioned her while she walked down Rideau Street. While in custody, she was slammed to the ground by officers, stripped of her shirt and bra, and left half-naked in a cell.
With a history like this, we are asked to be patient and wait for answers after we have watched the horrifying manner in which Abdirahman Abdi died. The officers, sworn to protect and serve, milled about his bloodied body and waited long minutes for an ambulance. Rather than perform CPR, the two of them chatted while crouching over Abdi’s body. This image is searing, devastating, beyond comprehension. These officers are not likely to face consequences.
This is the system and circumstances we have been asked to trust. When we demand accountability for police officers, we are instead scolded for our impatience by those with the means to tear down this farce of a system. They ask us to refrain from “suggesting race is an issue,” as though speaking aloud the history of police brutality is more offensive than the brutality itself. They ask us to trust in a process designed to accomplish nothing, while our names continue to be ripped from our bodies and added to a sepulchral constellation of hashtags. It is a system that hears neither our grief, nor our pleas.
For Black Canadians, that is the justice we can expect. It is most certainly not blind.
But it is deaf.