Sammy's Legacy: Building a Community Response to Police Impunity
On Saturday July 27, 2013, eighteen year old Sammy Yatim, a resident of Toronto, died at the hands of the Toronto police. A video of the incident posted to youtube reveals Sammy, armed with a small knife and seemingly intoxicated, occupying an empty street car near Trinity Bellwoods park surrounded by a group of roughly ten officers. With barely a warning, a particularly overzealous cop fired nine shots into Sammy's body; shortly thereafter, a second officer tasered him as he lay fatally wounded. A single police officer, Constable James Forcillo, has been suspended with pay. According to the Sunshine List (a list of public sector employees making over $100,000 per year), James Forcillo's annual salary is just under $107,000. Clearly, commitment to one's role as a vendor of human misery and suffering doesn't come cheap.
Although in many cases it is perfectly reasonable and indeed necessary for workers to fight for and expect to be paid during any work-related suspension, as anarchists we must draw a hard line when it comes to agents of state repression, such as police officers and prison guards. We also must note the obvious reality that it is extremely unlikely that other workers, unionized or not, would enjoy such a privilege were they to be caught on camera committing a brazen act of murder. While some online commentators have made the argument that the police were just “doing their job”, the passionate community response that has followed quickly on the heels of Sammy's death clearly demonstrates that this type of reasoning is at odds with public conceptions of justice and due process.
In an attempt to perpetuate the myth of police accountability, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) has assigned six investigators and two forensic investigators to Sammy's case. This is hardly reassuring. Formed largely as a concession to the growing anger and mobilization of Toronto's black community during the 1980s—particularly following the 1988 murder of Lester Donaldson and further influenced by the 1992 “Yonge Street Riots” that erupted following the murder of Raymond Lawrence—the SIU was created as a supposedly impartial oversight body as part of a broader shift towards “community policing” initiatives taking place at the time. Largely composed of former law enforcement agents, the SIU as an “impartial body” is beyond woefully inadequate. It is an almost comical farce of justice primarily interested in closing ranks and protecting its own. Since its inception in 1990, the Toronto Police Services have killed 62 people; the SIU has cleared the vast majority of these officers of any wrongdoing—only three have actually served any time for their crimes, and none have been convicted of manslaughter, let alone murder.
Perhaps one of the more egregious recent demonstrations of Toronto police impunity took place in August 2011. Charles McGillivary—a mentally disabled man who didn't speak—was out for a walk with his mother in the Bloor-Christie area of downtown Toronto when cops mistook him for a man who “roughly fit his description”. The ensuing struggle resulted in the death of McGillivary, when one of the officers suffocated him by putting too much pressure on his back after tackling him to the ground. His panic-stricken mother pleaded with the police to stop, only to be told to “shut up” and back off. When she asked to accompany her son in the ambulance to the hospital after he had gone into cardiac arrest, the police officers callously suggested that she take a cab. The two cops involved in the altercation were cleared by the SIU of any wrongdoing.
It is clear these incidents do not occur in a vacuum, but rather as part of a broader context of white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, and the capitalist system that these institutions serve to benefit and reinforce. The ruling class may be persistent in its strained attempts to legitimize it's boneheaded defenders of property and capital, which are placed, hypocritically, above even the unsubstantial liberal democratic conceptions of law and order. But increasingly these armed thugs expose themselves as the charlatans they are to a public armed with wifi, camera phones, and in many cases their own lived experiences of police oppression and brutality.
The modern police force was not created in response to an endemic of crime, but is instead a unique product of capitalist urbanization in North America. In an essay based on his book, Our Enemies in Blue, Kristian Williams states that “[t]he police organization allowed the state to establish a constant presence in a wide geographic area and exercise routinized control by the use of patrols and other surveillance. Through the same organization, the state retained the ability to concentrate its power in the event of a riot or other emergency, without having to resort to the use of troops or the maintenance of a military presence. [...] With the birth of modern policing, the state acquired a new means of controlling the citizenry—one based on its experiences, not only with crime and domestic disorder, but with colonialism and slavery as well. If policing was not in its inception a totalitarian pursuit, the modern development of the institution has at least been a major step in that direction.”
Equipped with a sober understanding of the role that police play in enforcing social control, we need to use tragic examples of police brutality such as Sammy's death as a fulcrum that re-orients our communities' capacity to resist state repression. Organizing against police brutality means understanding the ways in which this violence intersects with capitalist endeavours such as gentrification, immigration enforcement and the prison-industrial-complex. As anarchists, we see organizing against the police as part of a holistic process of building community power outside of the hollow channels of representative politics. We must work with those communities most affected by police brutality and attempt to educate those who are blinded by the privilege afforded them under capitalist society. Sammy Yatim is dead. and nothing we can do will bring him back. But together, we can help to ensure that he did not die in vain.
Sammy's Fightback for Justice: Killer Cops off our Streets!
Black August: Organize Against Police Violence