Imagine Otherwise

What’s a middle-aged white guy doing taking up the cause of defunding – and ultimately abolishing – the police and the whole apparatus of incarceration? Admittedly, I’m late to the party; it took the wave of outrage that swept Turtle Island in 2020 for me to open up to decades of work on this issue, much of it done by Black women such as Angela Davis and Mariame Kaba, and closer to home, El Jones and Robyn Maynard.

Policing is so central to the way we construct society – at least, a settler colonial society – that to conceive of living safely without it is to envision a fundamental restructuring. But isn’t that precisely what’s needed for our collective liberation?

At SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) Toronto, we talk about finding our stake in the work, rather than doing it “for others.” And we value the power of storytelling to bring that stake to life.

So, what’s my stake in abolition?

My own personal interactions with police have been minimal and fairly neutral, but, reflecting broadly on harm – harm I’ve experienced, witnessed, or caused, as well as the resolution of harm  – I do know a great deal about a culture of arbitrary, punitive discipline.

I’ve experienced that on several levels. Historically, for one: my family lives in the long shadow of the Nazi years in Germany. We don’t talk about it much, but it’s never very far from present either. And there’s echoes of that time in the populist anger that the alt-right is so good at channeling.

On a more day-to-day level, back in my school days, I lived in a pervasive atmosphere of arbitrary authority. In fact, when I see political leaders default to empty bluster, I’m like, That’s my high school teacher! I thought I was done with you. So I’m going to share a little snippet of my school experience.

High school is a vulnerable time. You’re an adolescent, trying to figure out who you’re going to be in the world – or, as the boys’ school I went to insisted on putting it, how to “be a man.” And the role modelling around that was just horrendous.

There was this one kid in my class, Menard, who struggled to keep up. He was painfully shy and awkward, and he rarely knew the answers or had finished the homework. So you’d think he’d have gotten some extra support. But it was quite the opposite.

One teacher in particular – a bitter, middle-aged man – when there was a lull in the classroom, would respond to that by calling Menard up to the board. The kid would stutter and mumble, and right on cue, the class ringleaders would do exactly what they were expected to do – they’d start to jeer and taunt and humiliate him, and it was clear that we were all encouraged to join in.

I don’t remember participating with any enthusiasm. I’d keep my head down and maybe chuckle a bit, relieved that the kids weren’t targeting me. I sure as hell didn’t stand up for him, though – that would have taken the kind of principled courage that, oddly, none of that school’s leadership thought to validate as manly.

And then class would be over. It was a success; the kids that mattered left laughing, with their energy up. And we could be sure that the next time he needed a little entertainment, the teacher would pull that same stunt again. For the kids, like me, that didn’t count, it felt like shit. Not to mention for Menard.

I backed up all the way to a high school memory because these systems are all interconnected.

Us white folks are only beginning to grasp the horror of the residential schools – the priests, Indian agents, and RCMP ripped kids from their parents’ arms. And we’re now literally learning where the bodies are buried.

Just last year in Mississauga, a six-year-old Black girl was led away from her class in handcuffs. I don’t know what she was doing, and I don’t care. She was six. What was that teacher thinking, calling in the cops? What was that police officer thinking when they whipped out the cuffs?

When you’re in a system of abuse, and you’re called upon to participate in that abuse, or to side with the abuser, that does nothing for anybody. It only perpetuates a cycle of harm and suffering. And it leaves you feeling that you should be grateful for a few crumbs, for not being the one who’s been singled out this time.

So I want to say no. We can dream so much better together.

No to a culture that seeks out weakness for humiliation. No to using the violence of policing to protect the few. No to solving poverty with prison cells. Not for me, not in my name.

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