COVER

BLACK AND ANGRY

A VIOLENT CLASH FOCUSES ATTENTION ON CANADA’S RACIAL DIVIDE

PAUL KAIHLA,ROSS LAVER May 18 1992
COVER

BLACK AND ANGRY

A VIOLENT CLASH FOCUSES ATTENTION ON CANADA’S RACIAL DIVIDE

PAUL KAIHLA,ROSS LAVER May 18 1992

Eileen Richards still does not know who shot her son, Joel. It happened on a frosty Saturday night in mid-March, after Joel walked out the door of their tiny 1 1/2 storey bungalow in a working-class neighborhood of northwest Toronto. He was just going for a stroll, the 28-year-old black warehouse worker assured his Jamaican-born mother, and he asked her to leave the door unlocked so that he could let himself in when he returned.

He never did. Shortly after 5 a.m., a phone call shattered the peace in Eileen Richards’s home. Jolted out of her sleep, she picked up the receiver and heard a strange voice telling her that her son had just been gunned down outside a shabby townhouse project less than three blocks from her home. Arriving there minutes later, she found Joel sprawled over a cement porch, bleeding heavily from a bullet wound in the neck, surrounded by some of the 50 revellers attending a raucous all-night reggae house party. “He was screaming—and I never hear him going like that, ” Eileen Richards recalls. By all accounts, a black gunman at the party had aimed for another man walking out the front door of the house, but hit Richards instead. Four weeks later, Joel Richards died in hospital of a massive blood clot in his lungs. Richards’s mother says that none of the people at the party admits to having seen the gunman, and police have not issued a description of a suspect. “They’re fighting, and an innocent one gets killed, ’’says Richards. “He didn’t even know what happened until he fell down and felt his body getting numb. All I can say is, I miss Joel. I cry—I know he’s not coming back. ”

To the family and friends that Joel Richards left behind, the cause of his death was painfully obvious: he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. But that fatalistic explanation defies the ugly reality of life for thousands of young urban Canadian blacks. Scarred by poverty and racial animosity, they occupy a social and economic no man’s land in a country that proclaims itself a haven for people of every race, creed and color. To be sure, many of Canada’s 500,000 blacks enjoy quiet lives in secure, prosperous surroundings. But others are trapped in a world apart at the bottom of society. Poorly educated, deprived of conventional job opportunities and hardened by repeated skirmishes between blacks and whites and among blacks themselves, they are caught in a maelstrom of frustration, rage and despair.

Last week, those toxic emotions boiled over on the streets of downtown Toronto. Angered by the acquittal of four white Los Angeles policemen in the savage videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King, black activists in Canada’s largest and most ethnically diverse city had organized a protest rally in front of the local U.S. Consulate. Several similar demonstrations against racism have passed without incident, but this time there was an additional, and highly volatile, ingredient: after the announcement of the rally, but two days before the actual event, a white policeman shot and killed a 22-year-old black man after a late-night chase on foot through dark alleys and backyards in a violent, drug-infested west Toronto neighborhood. The victim was Raymond Constantine Lawrence, an illegal immigrant and casual laborer who moved to Canada from Jamaica in July, 1990. According to police, plainclothes Const. Robert Rice shot Lawrence, an alleged crack dealer, twice in the chest at close range after the suspect approached the officer with a knife.

Within hours, reports of Lawrence’s death had spread throughout the 250,000-member black community in the Toronto region. The resulting anger was in clear evidence at the protest rally two days later: organizers reminded the thousand demonstrators that Lawrence was the 14th black victim of a police shooting in the city since 1978, and the fourth black fatality.

But the orderly protest soon dissolved into an uncontrolled rampage. As more passive members of the crowd stared in helpless disbelief, scores of young men and women—including skinheads, street kids and fashionably dressed suburban high-school students—stormed through the heart of the city’s central retail district, smashing windows, looting stores and pelting police with rocks and empty bottles fished out of sidewalk garbage cans (page 30). Police eventually quelled the violence, but later in the week there were several more outbreaks of vandalism and tense standoffs between crowds of young people and riot-ready officers on Yonge Street, Toronto’s seedy commercial strip.

As cleanup crews lined downtown streets, replacing shop windows and sweeping up debris, merchants and civic leaders issued urgent appeals for an even stronger police presence. But in the midst of the debate over public safety, few people spared much thought for the root causes of last week’s senseless violence. Rightly or wrongly, the participants themselves seemed convinced that their actions represented a justifiable response to the poverty and racism that define black urban life. Among them was Denzel, a 17-year-old high-school dropout who says that he lost his job at a fast-food restaurant last year because of the recession. Born in Toronto to a Jamaican woman who subsequently put him up for adoption, he ran away from his foster parents when he was 15. He now lives with friends in a two-bedroom townhouse in Regent Park, a concrete jungle that is home to 10,000 of the city’s poorest residents. Standing with three friends outside the downtown Eaton Centre, a popular hangout where street kids mingle with middle-class teenagers and an often bizarre assortment of pedlars and cult followers, Denzel talked openly about the damage that he and his cohorts had inflicted on the white business establishment. “Something that costs them money—that’s the only way to get their attention,” he asserted. His friend, Mark, 20, said that he was proud of breaking store windows and stealing merchandise. “All those broken windows can be replaced with insurance money,” he added. “The black people who were killed cannot be replaced.”

It is a chilly afternoon in the Montreal ghetto of Little Burgundy, situated in the shadow of an elevated expressway that cuts the area off from the boutiques and bars of downtown Montreal. In a small concrete park surrounded by sterile government-owned housing projects, half a dozen adolescent blacks are shooting baskets when two white adults invade their turf. One of the boys walks over to the strangers, swears at them and falsely accuses them of knocking his jacket off a nearby bleacher. Later, when the incident is forgotten, he lets down his guard and introduces himself as Lance Nigel, a 14-year-old student who lives with his mother and four older brothers. His father, he says vaguely, lives “somewhere in the States.”

In spite of their youth, Nigel and his friends are well-versed in the politics of race. They are capable of describing in graphic detail the videotaped beating of Rodney King, and refer by name to the three young black men fatally shot by Montreal police in the past five years: Anthony Griffin, 19, killed while trying to escape custody after a quarrel with a taxi driver; Presley Leslie, 26, shot four times at close range at a downtown nightclub after an alleged armed confrontation with police; Marcellus François, whose life ended with a single bullet to the head last July 3. A SWAT team mistook the unarmed 24-year-old father of four, who was sitting in the passenger seat of a car that had been pulled over during a police dragnet operation, for another man wanted on attempted-murder charges. Last week, a Quebec coroner’s report on the François killing criticized what it described as the “totally unacceptable” level of racism within the Montreal police force. And among other things, the report cited derogatory remarks made during the operation by officers, who referred to blacks as “darkies” (noireaux) and “niggers” (nègres).

One of Nigel’s neighbors, 15-year-old Jerry Murray, recounts his own experiences with the police—incidents that have bred in him a deep distrust of white authority. “One night I was walking with two white guys, coming back from basketball,” says Murray, an amateur boxer who wants to move to the United States when he finishes school. “The cops stopped us and took me in. Not them—me only. They said I was in a fight down in another part of town, and I told them I was nowhere near there. They kept me in a jail until three in the morning before letting me go. I couldn’t call my mother—she won’t talk to police because of the way they treat black people. So I couldn’t do anything.”

But the group’s anger is not directed solely at the police force. After complaining that he rarely receives an explanation or an apology after being stopped on the street by officers and asked for identification, Nigel mentions another case of apparent discrimination. “Once I walked into this department store with my buddy,” he says. “This old white lady comes up to us and tells us we have to leave because there wasn’t enough people in the store to watch us. I just wanted to grab her, I was so angry. I know it’s because I’m black—yeah, I’m black and I’m proud of it.”

In a private room on the third floor of a downtown Toronto hospital, a 34-year-old Jamaican immigrant is recovering from a painful operation. A large rectangular gauze bandage is taped over his left leg; two days earlier, doctors removed a section of artery from his groin and used it to repair a blood vessel that was ripped to shreds when a .25-calibre slug perforated his upper thigh. Propped up on pillows, he describes himself as an innocent victim of mistaken identity.

In fact, the details of the shooting remain obscure. An unemployed construction worker who has the muscular build of a weight lifter, the victim says that he was standing in a townhouse-complex parking lot in the middle of the afternoon early last week when two strangers, one bald and stocky and the other with short, dark, wavy hair, approached him. “One thing about a Jamaican, if you look close in his eyes you know what he’s up to,” he said glancing up from his meal. “I saw how they were looking at me, so I got in my car and tried to roll up the windows, but I was too slow.” One of the strangers, the man added, quickly thrust a pistol through the window, held it against his head and squeezed the trigger. “I swear to God, I thought he blasted my head, but then I looked down and saw no blood on my chest. That’s when I realized he shot me in the leg.”

The police, however, doubt that version of events. Investigators told Maclean’s last week that, at the time of the shooting, the victim was driving a car registered to a suspected drug dealer. They also say that he failed to report the incident and that they learned of the shooting only two hours later— from hospital staff. Unless he provides a more candid account, one officer said, the injured man may face a charge of public mischief.

Still, there is one issue on which he and the police agree: for many young black men, Toronto has become a virtual war zone, presided over by gun-toting entrepreneurs who run the city’s trade in crack cocaine. Much of that underground traffic takes place in the highrise canyons of the Jane-Finch corridor, a northwest Toronto neighborhood dominated by low-income housing. Police say that dozens of street gangs vie for turf in the area—and, on average, there is a shooting every second day. “Toronto is a clean city, but there’s crazy guys out there,” said the hospitalized victim of last week’s daylight shooting. “When someone gets a gun, he feels big. He wants to show off and be a troublemaker.”

Often, the worst trouble occurs not on the street but when people get together to dance and get high. On a typical weekend, according to a recent report by Metro Toronto Police Chief William McCormack, suburban communities such as Scarborough are rocked by as many six all-night house parties—each of which attracts hundreds of paying guests who sway to the pulsating rhythms of reggae, rap and hip-hop music blasting out of concert-sized speakers. Although house parties are an inexpensive and popular form of recreation for young blacks, they also attract an unsavory mix of drug dealers and hoodlums armed with knives and handguns. Says Devon Webley, a disc jockey at a reggae nightclub in a Caribbean neighborhood of Toronto: “When we went to house parties 10 years ago, we fought with fisticuffs. But now, man, it’s a gun scene. They dress up to go and dance and sweat in someone’s basement, but they don’t fight with their hands no more. They say, ‘I don’t want to get my suit dirty.’ They would rather waste them right there.”

That kind of violent impulse is as foreign to large segments of black society across the country as it is to the majority of other Canadians. Indeed, what appears to some as a single, unified black presence is actually a mosaic of distinct communities whose members arrived in Canada at various stages over the past four centuries. Some of the early arrivals from Africa worked as slaves or servants in Nova Scotia and New France in the early 17th century. They were followed by United Empire Loyalists in the 1780s and fugitive slaves from the United States in the early 1800s. Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, hundreds of blacks from Barbados, Trinidad and other islands were recruited as cheap labor for the transcontinental railways and the coal mines and steel mills of Nova Scotia. But the largest wave of black immigrants came in the postwar era from Caribbean countries such as Jamaica and Haiti. More recently, Canada has accepted tens of thousands of refugees and immigrants from strife-torn African countries, including Somalia and Ethiopia.

For many of the recent arrivals, the adjustment to Canadian society is jarring. Ahmed Kahin, 41, is a Somali native who moved to Ottawa as a refugee after the August, 1990, Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, where he had spent 15 years working in business and finance. According to Kahin, some Somalis wait as long as three years before immigration officials in Canada approve their refugee claims. “They start out staying with friends and then they seek housing subsidized by the government. But even after they get refugee status, they stay on welfare because there are no jobs,” he explained. Families also face strains when parents cling to old traditions while their children embrace the values of North American pop culture.

Even so, Kahin has no regrets about his decision to come to Canada. “Our treatment here in Canada has been much, much better than in other parts of the world, especially Europe,” said Kahin, who now works as a volunteer for a community group that tries to find employment for Ottawa-area welfare recipients. “Somalis view Canada as a heaven.”

Kahin, whose wife and five children are currently stranded in a refugee camp in Ethiopia awaiting approval to join him in Canada, added that he feels little affinity with members of other black communities, especially those from the West Indies. “There is a big cultural gap between these different black groups, especially with the way they dress and their manner of speaking,” he said. “Somalis have only been coming here since 1985, so it will be a long time before we intermingle enough with Canadian black groups to feel completely comfortable.” A fellow Somali refugee, Toronto taxi driver Mohammed Elmi, complained that some Caribbean-born immigrants had whipped up racial tensions in the city and tarnished the reputation of all blacks. “Not all black people are bad,” he said. “It’s the Jamaican drug dealers who are causing the trouble. If I see them on the street, I never pick them up.” Added Elmi, steering his cab away from a line of police officers and cruisers that were sealing off a street full of rioters at the height of last week’s destructive melee: “The police are way too lenient with those guys. They’re crazy, and their leaders don’t represent me.”

In Canada’s oldest black community, in Halifax, the racial divisions appear more clearly etched between black and white. Walking home from school last week in a windbreaker and a baseball-style cap, 17-year-old Craig Cromwell, a Grade 11 student at Queen Elizabeth High School, talked about the petty taunts and insults that strangers occasionally level at him and his friends. “Sometimes people yell ‘nigger’ out the car window and that kind of stuff,” he said.

But Cromwell is clearly less worried by those slurs than by what he regards as the shortcomings of the education system. “At school, white kids complain to the teachers that they find groups of black kids intimidating if they pass them in the hallway. So every time teachers see a group of us congregating together, they tell us to move along.” Cromwell recently gathered 120 signatures on a petition complaining about that practice and presented it to the school principal.

An even more serious obstacle, he added, is the shortage of positive role models in the school system for struggling black students. “I don’t see people like myself teaching and I don’t see people like myself in the textbooks. No wonder a lot of young blacks have low self-esteem,” Cromwell said. “A lot of people say that they hate white people because the whites are doing so well and we are doing so poorly. What they are really saying is that they hate themselves.”

Before long, Cromwell is joined by another Grade 11 student, Terry Dixon, the 17-year-old son of a Halifax telephone company employee. The teenagers have both closely followed reports of the recent racial convulsions in Los Angeles and Toronto, as well as a less dramatic flare-up in their own city last summer that began as a routine settling of accounts between two barroom bouncers, one white and the other black. That dispute escalated into a riot when 150 people—mostly blacks—smashed downtown store windows and attacked white bystanders. Recalled Dixon: “It was frustration. It wasn’t so much a racial incident—things just got out of control.” At the same time, Dixon said that he has gained respect for local police as a result of a recently introduced program in which officers play basketball with neighborhood teenagers. “They know you by name—they are part of the community,” he said of the police officers who take part in the program. “Sometimes if you’re in trouble they talk with you and let you go. They are all right.”

Another program that is helping to break down barriers is the Positive Attitude Youth Group (PAYG), an organization set up three years ago to help black youths in Toronto’s Regent Park. “The idea was to help people resist falling into the negative stereotypes,” explains Ron Winn, 41, a City of Toronto recreation co-ordinator who helped to found the group. The area is clearly a breeding ground for social problems: a recent report noted that 62 per cent of the adult residents of Regent Park were unemployed, 61 per cent lacked a high-school diploma and 53 per cent of the families were headed by a single parent—compared with 15 per cent for the rest of Toronto.

The activities of PAYG are intended to foster pride in black achievements and encourage teenagers to look for local heroes. One such meeting took place in a neighborhood assembly hall one evening last week, only a few blocks from the downtown streets where small groups of unruly youths were taunting police in riot shields. Guest speaker Afua Cooper, a Jamaican-born poet, began the discussion by tracing the long history of blacks in Canada. “When people tell you that you just got off the boat, you should say, ‘No, we’ve been here for 350 years,’ ” Cooper advised about 25 teenagers seated in a circle on stackable chairs. She added that the recent antiracism rallies in the city “definitely were necessary because right now, people just feel that they can break our arms and shoot black people and get away with it.”

At that point, a young woman wearing glasses and a brightly colored jumpsuit spoke up. “Whenever someone gets shot, the first thing we do is shout racism,” she said. “But we have to look at the situation. I’m not going to support a brother just because he gets shot—maybe he was robbing people or selling drugs. Our people are doing that and we have to open our eyes.”

Sean Jones, a 19-year-old high-school football star clad in a grey Pizza Hut T-shirt and purple sweatpants, listened intently and then offered his own opinion. Too many young black males, he said, look up to the drug dealers and pimps who prowl their neighborhoods. “They see the bad man getting all the girls and the bad man getting all the money, but they don’t see the bad man getting shot.” He added that many young men in his neighborhood “try to act out a role—they want people to say, ‘Whoa, don’t mess with him.’ It’s in to be bad—you know that is true.”

On the other hand, Jones said, local children who show promise at school face constant pressure not to rise above their peers. “If you have a black kid who’s doing well, everybody tries to drag him down—‘Hey, you’re nothing special. Forget about you.’ They never give you any encouragement.” Jones, however, seems to have transcended that anti-success ethic. In a conversation in the hallway after the meeting breaks up, he explains that his own outlook changed dramatically six months ago when he found religion and began to study the Bible. More recently, he received a football scholarship from a junior college in Oklahoma. “I’m leaving here in August,” he added.

But the anger does not subside. Late last week, Ontario Attorney General Howard Hampton announced that the province had decided not to appeal the acquittals of two white police constables in the December, 1988, fatal shooting of Wade Lawson, a 17-year-old high-school student in Mississauga, Ont. During a two-month trial earlier this year, both officers testified that Lawson had tried to run them down with a stolen car. But Lawson’s relatives disputed that version of the events, noting that forensic evidence showed that the teenager had been shot in the back of the head. Moreover, the bullet that killed him was a .38-calibre slug known as a “hot bullet,” which expands on contact and is banned under the Ontario Police Act. In the wake of Hampton’s ruling, Lawson’s mother, Evelyn Lennon-Lyon, held a news conference in the living room of her suburban home, and was supported by prominent activists such as Dudley Laws, a founder of Toronto’s Black Action Defence Committee. “I wanted justice,” she declared. “Now I want vengeance.”

Adding to that emotional tumult were rumors about an alleged police coverup in the shooting of Raymond Lawrence, the Jamaican immigrant who died in the early hours of May 2 after a police chase in west-end Toronto. “There are a lot of things in this case that don’t add up,” complained Courtney Betty, a lawyer who represents the victim’s family. “We’re going to take a hard look at this.”

Still, others were hoping that the tensions aroused by the recent clashes between police and young Torontonians, black and white, would soon fade. One such person was Selwyn Hicks, 29, co-founder of a six-year-old organization that sponsors seminars which enable young people from Canada’s myriad ethnic groups to air concerns about public issues. According to Hicks, the “silent majority” among Canadian blacks rejects the hard-line position adopted by well-known activists, including Laws. “The pressure is very great as a black person to get with the cause,” Hicks said. “But I’m interested in finding ways to bring people together, not divide them.”

Hicks himself is acutely aware of the barriers that confront young urban blacks. He grew up in poverty in the Jane-Finch corridor convinced, as he put it, that “life was about getting old enough to get your own welfare check and then moving out.” He added: “There were six kids in my family and five different fathers. On top of that, my mother was abusive—she had her own share of problems.”

In Hicks’s case, salvation came in the form of a Big Brother who took him under his wing at the age of 11. That experience left him with a lasting dedication to community service: he now does volunteer work for several social agencies and was the national youth co-ordinator for Keith Spicer’s commission on national unity, a job that ended last July. Since then, he has been unemployed. “I’ve been having a bitch of a time,” he lamented. “Every day I look through the papers for jobs, but there’s nothing.” Asked whether he believed that racial prejudice was behind his continuing unemployment, he responded: “It’s so tough not to use that excuse, but I have to admit I’m finding it very difficult.” For the thousands of alienated black youths who are trying to break free of the cycle of despair, it is a sobering reminder of the hurdles they have yet to overcome.