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Justice for Mark and Candace

Brian Champ and Alex Thompson

August 11, 2020

On Tuesday, June 25, Candace Zinkweg and Mark Austin were subjects of a violent racist attack in Dentonia Park, Scarborough, while walking their puppy, Billy Bob.

Zinkweg and Austin were physically attacked by two men and a woman, who stole and destroyed Zinkweg's phone, knocked her to the ground and kicked her in the head until she was unconscious, causing a concussion. Austin was assaulted by the two men, threatened with gun violence and subjected to racial epithets.

Under the circumstances, Austin, a health and safety officer and Chief Steward for USW Local 1998 at the University of Toronto, was not satisfied at the 20 to 30 minutes that it took police and an ambulance to arrive at the scene. He was even more concerned that police did not take steps to protect him, or Zinkweg also a health and safety activist for USW Local 1998, from further attacks. In spite of death threats, the police did not interview any witnesses and they did not make any arrests. In fact, in the following days, police declined to pursue the matter further, on the grounds that the facts around the attacks were a matter of hearsay, in spite of a number of potential witnesses in the park, the evidence of injury to Zinkweg and the damage to her phone.

Initially Mark only shared what had happened with close friends and family, but then realized that he couldn't stay quiet anymore. On July 1st, he posted on Facebook an account of what happened to him, and put out a call to action. The support was immediate and began growing. Family, friends, union members, management and community members reached out to support. USW leadership from the local level right up to the national office gave support and wrote letters to the Mayor, city council and the Toronto Police Commissioner.

Other USW members who reside in the east end, being part of a grassroots network, Toronto East Anti-hate Mobilization (TEAM), responded to the call from Mark and worked on organizing a protest at 55 Division on Monday, July 6th demanding that charges be laid against the three assailants and that the police apologize publicly to Mark and Candace for their racist policing.

TEAM members reached out through their union, community, political and personal networks to mobilize people to come to the protest, including through Dentonia Park area community groups and activist groups. The protest was organized by the Steelworkers Toronto Area Council (STAC), the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), TEAM, Black Action Defense Committee (BADC) and endorsed by USW Local 1998 (U of T), #Beachers for Black Lives and the Caribbean Solidarity Network.

There were a number of great speeches at the protest, all of which can be viewed at the STAC FB page. Here are a few highlights.

Steelworker member and Algonquin activist Merv King led off by acknowledging that we were gathered on the land of the Haudenosaunee, Huron-Wendat, Petun, Mississauga of the Credit in the Treaty 13 lands. He added, “We have a collective responsibility to honour the land, the water, and the people living on this land, regardless of colour … we must learn to respect the dignity and equality of all peoples.”

Mark Austin spoke of his experience and commented that “some of the union training I’ve been given helped, especially Health and Safety ‘cause you keep asking why until you get to the root of the problem. And I did that. And there’s a lot of questions that I cannot answer.”. As well as the racist response from the police, Mark was underwhelmed by the emergency medical services, putting the pressure on the Mayor and city council for underfunding emergency medical services. But the experience has taken a toll:
“This has affected us substantially. This has changed our life forever. And you know what? When I was reflecting, you know - and to the assailants I want to say this to you “I forgive you. I forgive you. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn't be punished for your actions”

Mark Brown spoke on behalf of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) and started by leading a chant of “Black Lives Matter”. He drew a local connection to the US movement:
I can’t breathe ... Words that bled out as the arresting officer laid his knee on the neck of George Floyd. … those actions sparked protests around the world … including right here in Toronto … then-police chief Mark Saunders placed a knee on the ground in solidarity with protesters who were chanting Black Lives Matter. Sisters and brothers I came here to tell you today that if those same Black lives cannot get justice in their time of need then the knee that the police chief laid on the ground remains on the neck of everyone of those Black lives today.”

He made the connections to the killings of D’Andre Campbell and Regis Korchinski-Paquet and directly addressed the police:
“The policing construct has left the Black community with the belief that there will be little or no consequences for the taking out, or the severely injuring of a Black life. ...  Something is wrong with a system that is more willing to lock up a Black life, but when that same Black life needs justice it becomes an uphill battle ... the CBTU adds it’s voice to the voices of those calling for the defunding of the police, and the reallocation of the funding  … Until the Black life is valued as the non-Black life there will be no justice and there can be no peace.”

Valerie Steele spoke on behalf of the Black Action Defense Committee (BADC) that has fought for decades for justice against racist police violence. The Special Investigations Unit (SIU) was only brought into being because of BADC demands for accountability. Valerie offered some lessons from decades of organizing:
“The SIU is not effective because it’s mostly retired police who investigate the police. Okay, so that’s one lesson. Number two , the majority of Toronto police do not live in the city of Toronto. So how do you expect them to give a damn whether you’re safe - it’s all in the money”

She likened the prospects of reforming police and prisons to “trying to take salt out of a bad stew - you have to break it up and fix it again. And until we do that, nothing will change.” And she appealed for white allies: “White brothers and sisters: what they practice on us, they perfect on you. So we’re all in this together.”

Kevin Edmonds of the Caribbean Solidarity Network spoke about his own similar experiences being ignored by police and ironically thanked the police for making the argument for, “all the brothers and sisters that have come up here to talk about defunding, detasking the police ... But it's unfortunate that it comes at the cost of Candace and Mark being assaulted."

NDP MPP Rima Berns-McGown spoke on behalf of Peter Tabuns and herself, telling her story of growing up in South Africa and coming to Canada at a young age:
“The reason my parents left was because of systemic racism of the kind that Mark and Candace suffered. Where white people were permitted to harm, attack Black and racialized people with impunity. That’s why they came to this country to get away from that! And it’s here ... And systems continue to harm Black and Indigenous people particularly and other racialized people ... it’s there in every organization and system. And it has to change.”

She decried the nooses that were found at various construction sites, including at Michael Garron hospital, that had sparked an outpouring of support for those suffering anti-Black racism on the hoarding. She talked about how the police superintendent promised that they would fix this.
“People are sick and tired of platitudes - that’s why you’re seeing that marching in the streets ... We need systemic change and we need it now. “

Irshad Osam introduced TEAM to those assembled as “a grassroots group made up of local faith leaders, trade-unionists, social justice activists and residents. We believe to effectively counter hate and racism we need to build a broad based network to take action.”

Irshad is also an Imam, “who leads an Eid gathering for over 5000 people at Dentonia Park. Today I’m standing here as a father who takes his children to Dentonia Park very frequently … We thought Dentonia Park was a safe space … It is shameful that the perpetrators can do this with such impunity. It is even more deplorable that they are not being charged yet by the police. No one should be living in fear because of the colour of their skin or their ethnic makeup.”

He shared a profound statement made by Caliph Umar, an early ruler of the Islamic kingdom to the governor of Egypt after he heard that he had assaulted a common man from another ethnic group: “Since when you got the right to oppress a person. Don’t you know their mothers have given birth to them as free and dignified human beings”