OTTAWA – An Ottawa community is finding itself conflicted over how to respond to the death of a Somali-Canadian man following a physical confrontation with police.
Ray Miron said he has had nightmares about what he saw and heard from the window of his west Ottawa apartment Sunday when 37-year-old Abdirahman Abdi was taken down by police officers on a sidewalk across the street.
“It just was not right for the beating that they gave that poor guy when he was down,” Miron said in an interview.
The incident, which ended with Abdi being taken to hospital where he was later pronounced dead, has left him angry, Miron added.
“I got to the point, I’m 67 years old and if I’d had been 30 years younger, I would have jumped that cop.”
Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit is probing Abdi’s death and was interviewing witnesses inside a truck parked at the scene Tuesday. The SIU investigates whenever there is a death, serious injury or allegation of sexual assault involving police in the province.
Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau said officers were responding to multiple 911 calls Sunday regarding “multiple assaults” at a local business, confirmed by other sources to be a cafe. After trying to make an arrest, officers chased Abdi on foot.
Shortly afterwards, the SIU said, there was a “confrontation” outside the apartment building down the street, where Abdi lived with his family, and he suffered medical distress.
On Tuesday, people in the community stopped by to visit a collection of flowers laid below a tree on the lawn of the apartment building, the surrounding sidewalks filling up with the now-familiar slogan “Black Lives Matter” written in chalk – a movement that began in the United States in response to police brutality against black people and other forms of racial prejudice and discrimination.
The fact that Abdi was a black man who died during a confrontation with police has become a central part of the conversation about Sunday night’s tragedy. Not everyone believes it should be.
Ihsaan Gardee, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, called Tuesday for a swift and open investigation into whether racism played a role in the death.
“The protection and preservation of human rights and dignity, regardless of skin colour, religious belief, or any other characteristic, are integral to our collective and individual sense of safety and inclusion,” Gardee said.
WATCH: Ottawa police are under investigation after a man died following his arrest. Shirlee Engel explains.
Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association, said it would be “inappropriate” to imply race played a role in the incident.
“In a situation like this, race is simply a fact to the case. I mean, this is no different than gender or height,” said Skof, adding that police were responding to an assault-related call from the public as required.
Skof said the suggestion that race was a motivating factor is being fuelled by events in the U.S., which he believes is misplaced.
“Our relationships with the community are very well established and we do not have the same history around racial tensions that the U.S. experiences,” he said.
Abdourahman Kahin, who leads a group called Muslim Presence, said it is too early to assume the police were racially motivated.
He said members of the Somali community in Ottawa would be gathering for a private meeting Tuesday evening to discuss how to respond to the issue, and he will be urging everyone to avoid jumping to conclusions about racial discrimination.
“We condemn the brutality of the police -100 per cent condemn but don’t put the colour of the victim (first),” he said Tuesday.
“Before he was black, he was a human being. He was a human being who was treated inhumanly,” said Kahin, who used to live in the same building as the Abdi family, knows one of his brothers and like others, described the man as having some kind of mental illness or disability.
Miesha-lee Perry, 19, is unconvinced that race should not be part of the conversation.
She works at a restaurant – sometimes frequented by Abdi, who she remembers as “a very sweet guy” – that put out a “Black Lives Matter” sign on the sidewalk to let passersby know what they thought about what happened.
“There is not as much racism in Canada as there is in the States and stuff, but we still get it every day,” said Perry, who said she has been treated unfairly by police and others in Ottawa.
Bordeleau hinted at this broader context in a statement delivered to the Ottawa Police Services Board Monday.
“We are well aware of the context within which we police,” Bordeleau said in a statement, which was released before he learned Abdi had died.
“Our officers are professional and they are dedicated to protecting the community they serve.”
A woman who did not want to be publicly identified said she worked with Abdi at an Ottawa car wash. The woman said Abdi got married in Somalia last fall and wanted to bring his wife to Canada. She said he had changed since returning from Africa.
“He was a nice person, he was a good man. A good employee. I knew him when he was well, and I knew him when he came back and I knew that there was something drastically different, bothering him,” she told Global News.
“It’s very sad that he died the way he did. I don’t think anybody deserved that.”
With a file from Bryan Mullan