“We’re exhausted,” author and lawyer Kiké Roach said as she recalled the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis following a police encounter and the mass protests against anti-Black racism.
“This week has brought back so many terrible memories, I can think of so many cases of police brutality that have led to the loss of life right here in Toronto since I was a kid.”
Roach was nine years old in 1979 when Albert Johnson, a 35-year-old Black man, was shot and killed in his apartment by two Toronto Police officers.
The officers were charged with manslaughter, but eventually acquitted in November 1980.
“It was a historically important turning point for Toronto where we saw thousands of people come out and say we need accountability,” she recalled.
Roach wrote about that memory in a book she co-authored and published in 1996, called Politically Speaking.
“It was my first encounter with death and my first lesson in what injustice looks like, in what it feels like,” she wrote in her book.
“My family joined with hundreds of others pouring out onto the streets of Toronto to protest police brutality.”
It would be many years later that Roach would represent the family of another black man, Kenneth Allen, who died in police custody in 1991.
“He was actually strangled to death with a police baton at the hands of officer Paul Van Seters,” she recalled
“That was the first case that the Special Investigations Unit, which was newly formed at the time, actually investigated and criminal charges were laid. However, the officer was acquitted.”
A coroner’s inquest concluded in 1999 the death of Allen, while in police custody, was a homicide.
Allen had attacked a TTC streetcar driver after swallowing cocaine.
There was video showing Const. Van Seters holding his nightstick to Allen’s throat and dragging him into the Toronto Police Service’s 52 Division station.
“People often want to think that Canada is innocent, those kinds of horrific scenes that we’ve seen from the south didn’t happen, but it happened here in Toronto,” she pointed out.
Roach said she feels disheartened that after so many inquests and recommendations provided, there are still examples today of police brutality.
“We’ve been looking at this issue of police violence and people dying in police custody for decades, and people have come up with so many recommendations and pathways pointing to ways to save lives and it just hasn’t been implemented,” she said.
“That’s what led to the kind of frustration that we saw over the weekend.”
There were mass protests in cities across the United States spurred by the death of George Floyd, and demonstrators in the streets of several Canadian cities also decrying the killings of black people by police.
“There’s a great sense of frustration that our system isn’t working,” said Roach.
In the final line of a chapter in her book called Why I Speak, Roach explained why and how she came to activism and politics.
“It was walking with the community that gave me the sense of the power that we have as people, people who care about life, about justice, I’ve been demonstrating ever since,” she wrote.