This past Thursday my workplace, Dalhousie Legal Aid Service, held their annual general meeting. Each year as part of the AGM we hold a panel discussion around some issue that we’re working on or that is of interest related to social justice and law. This year our students organized a panel discussion about street checks. Street checks are any interaction between police and citizens. This means that even observations by police officers are counted without the knowledge of the people they are observing. When street checks happen information is logged into a database held by the police. This can include names, vehicles, types of interaction and more. Rally whatever the police deem to be of interest. This past January a report came out from the Halifax Regional Municipality Polic Department that showed that the majority of street checks involved black men. This, of course, called for an examination of the practice and how much racism (conscious or subconscious) was happening in the everyday interactions of the police with citizens.
Police checks happen more in areas of higher crime. That seems reasonable except that the areas considered to be higher crime are in part, deemed by the act of the streetcheck. So because there are more street checks happening in an area, the area is considered to have higher crime. Because it has higher crime, there are more street checks. And as you may have guessed, these are areas that have a higher population of people of colour. In the eyes of the inhabitanats of these areas, there is over-policing. And the interactions with people, especially young people, leads to a mistrust of the police. That’s in part due to the history of relationships between police and particularly black people, but it also comes from the higher incidence of arrests of blacks. Imagine there are two youth who have been involved in a similar crime. The white kid gets off with a slap on the wrist far more often that the black kid. And it could be that part the reason the black kid gets arrested more is that they have learned to mistrust police and so their defences go up very quickly and they react in ways that the police consider inappropriate. But the fact that mor black kids get arrested in similar situations to the white kids perpetuates this cycle.
As panel member and social worker, Lana MacLean, said during the AGM, this is a multi-layered issue and there are no easy answers. It’s clear that something needs to happen. Exact,y what I can’t say. Some people in the audience said that street checks should be done away with altogether. Is that the answer? I’m not sure. But the discussion sure got me thinking. At one point, a whit woman commented that white people need to get involved. My initial reaction was uncertainty. I don’t really know what I can do. I know I can speak up when I see injustice, discrimination, racism, and all the others “isms” happening, but what do I do beyond that. And more, is my help wanted. As a white person I’m never sure. I hear comments like ‘the solution has to look like me’ and I wonder if that means stay out of it because you can’t possibly know what this is like. And I can’t. I don’t have a clue what it feels like to be judged, punished, mistrusted, left out- because of the colour of the skin. I enjoy the privilege of being born white.
The next day I asked one of my co-workers who is well versed in these issues how to get involved. She mentioned an organization here in Halifax called Solidarity Halifax. It is specifically for white people. I was taken aback by that. She said there are organizations only for black peop,e to address these issues, but this group is for whites only. I was confused because while a see the need for black only groups, I don’t feel like blacks (or other groups) need white people to fight their battles for them, rather along side them. My co-worker explained some of the reasons to me. Historically, because the black communities were so tight knit, there was a level of discomfort having someone from the community advocating for you. They didn’t want people in the community to know their business so to speak. I get that. Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a stranger about something personal than a family member or friend. There’s a level of detachment. So, I ended up joining the group. I don’t want to be e girl who sits on the sidelines claiming I care but who does nothing to help. I don’t know how impactful I can be, but as a group, along with other groups, maybe real change can take place. I know nothing happens overnight, but in this era where a racist can be voted into the White House, every little bit helps. It all starts with a voice.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on these very complex issues.
To read about the Dal Legal Aid AGM here are a couple of articles: