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Examining Toronto mayoral candidates responses to violence in Toronto

Mary Code

October 12, 2018

In recent debates, Toronto mayoral candidates have been asked the question “How will you deal with criminal activity in the city?” While John Tory and Jennifer Keesmaat have offered plans to increase police presence, Saron Gebresellassi’s resilient voice and platform have consistently shown her to be the leader for solutions to violence in the city.

As she explained at the Global News debate on Oct. 27, “Clearly Mr. Tory, the people have lost faith in your ability to restore police community relations and that has not happened under your leadership, and Ms. Keesmaat is so luke warm on the question of police brutality, and that is not what the people in the city of Toronto need…To tackle crime, we need to eliminate poverty.” Gebresellassi’s poignant statements attack the heart of the issue and are consistent with her campaign’s platform– more police will not solve the gun violence problem in Toronto, and we need a bottom up approach to tackling crime that addresses poverty and marginalization.

With Toronto’s mayoral election just weeks away, candidates have been routinely asked how they will handle gun violence and safety in Toronto, and John Tory, Jennifer Keesmaat, and Saron Gebresellassi have three different approaches that will shape the future of this city in drastically dissimilar ways.

John Tory’s position: more police, more racism

Under John Tory’s current leadership, the city of Toronto passed a $12 million-dollar “gun violence reduction plan” that involves hiring more police officers with guns, and enacting a “Police Modernization Task Force” to put more police officers in Toronto’s “high priority areas.” He announced in August that he plans on hiring 200 more police officers by the end of this year, and in July the Toronto city council also approved $44 million plan including an array of initiatives including the use of the new “Shotspotter” technology—an expensive software that is essentially a network of microphones that can be attached to buildings, lampposts, and other outdoor structures, to alert police. Tory is also a supporter of the “School Resource Officer program,” which is a program that put police officers in Toronto schools, until it was cancelled by the TDSB in November under pressure from Black Lives Matter.

In an open letter to Tory, Black community activists, scholars and artists urged him to end the over-policing of racialized communities and get rid of this discriminatory Shotspotter technology. They describe how the $4 million allocated to the ShotSpotter technology would be better spent on programs that are part of a human-centred, violence prevention approach, rather than being added to the more than $1 billion the city already spends on policing. Overall, Tory’s approach to curbing gun violence throughout the years has been called “anti-Black” by many.

Increasing police is a staple reactionary tactic from the right that is used to give the illusion of safety to the public; in reality, however, the increased presence of police, whether it is in schools or in communities, is traumatic to victims of their often-targeted violence and does not stop crime. It negates the fact that many communities do not feel safe around the police, as it has been well documented that police use racial profiling, stop and search practices, undercover activities, and other tactics to disproportionately target and arrest poor and racialized communities. The police are an apparatus of the state that engage in violence with those that oppose the white supremacist power structures in society, and this includes those who oppose white supremacy by just existing in the world as a racialized group.

Additionally, adding more police does not fix the core of many gun crimes in Toronto, which is that many of the communities targeted by the police face serious employment and educational barriers to earning a living wage and supporting themselves in an increasingly unaffordable city. Zero Gun Violence Movement founder Louis March has dedicated his life to addressing the structural and socio-economic conditions that contribute to the gun violence problem in Toronto, and he explains that guns in Toronto sell on the street for around $200, making violence a highly accessible reaction to poverty. Adding more police and more surveillance technology to uphold the status quo instead of helping to pull Torontonians out of poverty and thereby out of the cycle of violence will not lessen violence on our streets.

Tory’s failure to enact policies to end poverty, and his failure to see how the police discriminate on the basis of class and race, can also be seen in the language that he uses to discuss violence in Toronto. Operation Black Vote Canada, a non-partisan, non-profit group supporting Black Canadians’ participation in government, held a debate on October 1 that saw Tory questioned on the language he has used to discuss the Black community. He would not apologize for his dehumanizing language used, i.e., using the term “sewer-rats” to describe two black criminals, insisting the comments were only meant for the two individuals involved in the crime and not the community itself.

Tory frequent use of language such as “sewer-rats”, “thugs”, and “gangsters” to describe criminals in Toronto is also worth noting. As linguist John McWhorter points out, the term “thug” is a veiled derogatory term used to convey racist ideas, and Tory uses this word to specifically discuss racialized communities. McWhorter explains that when someone uses this word “it is impossible today that they are referring to somebody with blond hair”. Toronto scholar Idil Adbillahi, assistant professor from Ryerson University’s School of Social Work, agrees and elucidates how the effects of this word can be devastating for racialized communities, further highlighting Tory’s disregard for an entire group of Torontonians.

John Tory’s actions of hiring more police and investing more in police technology, alongside his rhetoric of thugs and gangsters show incredible thoughtlessness to handling violence in Toronto and will not make the city safer, nor its people feel safer. 

Jennifer Keesmaat’s position: softer language but still more police

Keesmaat’s position includes a five-point plan on “Community Safety” that includes transforming policing through a neighbourhood approach, providing economic opportunities for youth, bringing Toronto up-to-code on 911 response calls, ensuring the right first responders are dispatched to emergencies, and banning dangerous weapons and ammunition. In a tweet from September 18 2018, Keesmaat stated that her plan “starts with a pledge to bring neighbourhood-based policing to each of our 140 neighbourhoods within 4 years.”

As she said in the Global News debate, “we need a plan that is proactive that focuses on neighbourhood safety”. But it is unclear if Keesmaat understands the plight of communities that experience police brutality, as these critiques of police have absent from her rhetoric. Keesmaat places great emphasis on reforming the police, and offers very little insight on how to handle the Toronto Police’s abhorrent track record with racialized communities, which has put her plan under scrutiny from those on the left and by her fellow mayoral adversaries. Opponent Gebresellassi has pointed out that “Ms. Keesmaat is not qualified to speak on police-community relations in the city of Toronto.”

Indeed, neighbourhood safety and community policing are Keesmaat’s main talking points when discussing gun violence; however, it is again uncertain if she understands the impact that putting police into low income or under-served communities has for the safety and mental health of those targeted most by police brutality and violence. When asked at the Global News debate if she would reverse the pledge for 200 more police officers, Keesmaat did not directly respond, only suggesting that a top down response to violence would not work and again stressing the need to be proactive.

Both Keesmaat and Tory’s insensitivity to the impact that police presence can have on others is perhaps best summarized by Mathew Cole, a 16-year-old who attended the Operation Black Vote Canada debate. At the end of the debate, Global News interviewed Cole and he shared that he was disappointed with the responses by candidates Tory and Keesmaat, because “I don’t want police officers in my neighbourhood, I think that’s just wrong.”

Cole’s sentiments mirror the greatest concerns of Keesmaat’s ability to be mayor: would she make the right choices when it comes to policing and fighting gun violence, or would she continue to let the police be a tool of oppression under the guise of neighbourhood safety?

Saron Gebresellassi’s position: more jobs, less cops

Saron Gebresellassi is the only candidate with a multi-faceted approach to gun violence. As she explained in the Global News debate on September 27, “We know that there is tension between the police the police and a number of migrant communities, including the black community, and I would say the solution to crime is simple: no jargon, no mumbo jumbo. To tackle crime, we need to eliminate poverty, so instead of hiring 200 more police officers as John Tory has proposed to do, under my plan I will create 1000 new youth jobs for youth in all 31 neighbourhood improvement areas. And that is how we will actually tackle crime.”

In the Operation Black Vote debate, Gebresellassi explained that she would put a hiring freeze on the police, sticking true to her message that if the city wants to tackle crime, the government has to make the city more affordable. “We need a community-based strategy, and we need to have young people actually working in the city of Toronto, and we don't need more policing.”

She has also called for the reversal of the decision to hire 200 more police officers, and has criticised the city of Toronto for paying Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders more than $300,000 a year for his salary. She has continually referenced his salary as an example of how police spending can and should be redirected to benefit youth in underserved communities. She has also called for a community-based strategy to eradicate firearms that gives the agency back to communities without reliance on the police.

Her “Fix the Six” platform frames her six major policies as basic human rights, explaining that people should have the right to housing, the right to transit (towards free public transit), the right to fair allocation of city resources, the right to employment outside of the downtown core, the right to mental health and accessibility, and the right to diversity in city politics and hiring. Her platform’s message on crime reduction through the elimination of poverty is manifest in these six rights for Torontonians. By making housing, transit, and mental health, more accessible and affordable, and by redistributing city budgets to put more investment in employment opportunities for youth, the landscape of Toronto would be completely transformed, and gun crime reduction would be a direct result of the quality of life improving for us all.

Gebresellassi’s platform puts Torontonians from all backgrounds, and their struggles, first. Not only does she understand the relationship between poverty, lack of educational and employment opportunities, and gun violence, but she has an informed perspective on the ineffectiveness of police in preventing crime. As a human rights lawyer, she has been on the front lines when handling police-community relations in Toronto, as one of her most notable cases came from representing Jean Montaque, a Black mother whose house police officers illegally raided. Gebresellassi worked with Black Lives Matter Toronto to issue statements and defend her client, and her work is consistent with her platform and message.

Her ability to illuminate solutions to violence other than reliance on police sets her apart from every other candidate in the race. A Toronto under the leadership of Saron Gebresellassi would see more jobs, a decline of poverty, and of course, a reduction in violence that the city needs. Saron Gebresellassi consistently speaks to the complexities of gun violence, to the racialized youth who are under served and over policed, and to the economic hardships that make people turn to crime. Her plan for Toronto is one where people can afford to live, and is more preventative than reactionary.

She speaks about gun violence in a starkly different way than Tory, who consistently reinforces racially charged narratives when discussing Toronto’s violence. She has more experience being on the front lines for victims affected by gun violence than Keesmaat, and the human rights outlined in her platform speak to this. In further contrast, Mayor Tory has been critiqued as having a racial blind spot, especially when it comes to supporting important movements like Black Lives Matter Toronto, whereas Saron Gebrelessali is an ally to the movement and has actually represented Black Lives Matter in court.

In this election, Toronto has an important choice to make with respect to community safety and gun violence: does it want to maintain the status quo through policing, which we will experience with Tory and likely Keesmaat, or do we want real change with a reduction in violence through addressing the real root cause of poverty as offered by Gebresellassi’s Fix the Six platform?

Toronto elections are Monday October 22 with advanced poling running from Wednesday October 10 to Sunday October 14. The International Socialists are happy to endorse Saron Gebresellassi for mayor of Toronto

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