Activists call for defunding of police to address anti-Black racism in Hamilton

A group of Hamilton activists took over Toronto's Black Lives Matter Twitter account on Tuesday to call for changes to address anti-Black racism in the city, including defunding the Hamilton Police Service. (@BLM_TO on Twitter)

A call from local activists to defund the Hamilton Police Service is the latest addition to a growing conversation about anti-Black racism in policing.

That call was among a list of demands issued by organizers of a series of virtual protests, which were live-streamed from Toronto’s Black Lives Matter Twitter account on Tuesday and filmed from various locations across Hamilton.

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Gachi Issa, one of the organizers of the protest, said anti-Black racism is pervasive in Hamilton and needs to be addressed by elected officials in the city.

“It not only happens in Canada, but it happens in our city,” said Issa during an interview on Global News Radio 900 CHML’s Bill Kelly Show. “We should focus on it and we should work toward a more just society for Black and racialized people. And that means defunding the police, that means allocating these resources back into the community.”

Issa and the other activists argue that some of the money that the city has dedicated to the police budget — which is $172 million for 2020 — could be better spent if it were used to fund anti-racism initiatives and social programs, including food security and housing.

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“We have to question if police actually keep us safe,” said Issa. “Because I would say Black and Indigenous and people of colour don’t feel safe around police. So who are they really serving? Not us.”

Greg Dongen, a student from Bernie Custis High School, was among those who appeared in the live-streams. He said the demands listed in those videos are not issues that sprung up overnight, but have been growing in importance for young racialized people for a long time.

“These demands have been long in the works,” said Dongen. “I feel like the support we are getting from the community — we’ve been getting the signatures on our petitions, as well as people just trying to reach out and figure out how they can support — and I feel like that in itself is helping the community come together behind the demands.”

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The group’s live-streamed protests also included demands for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board to end its program with police that puts officers in Hamilton high schools, which they say disproportionately target Black and racialized students, and for the province to restructure the Special Investigations Unit, which is in the midst of investigating the death of a Black woman during an interaction with Toronto police.

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Mouna Bile, a social worker with the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic, said the city has the power to appoint Black people in leadership positions, including the Hamilton Police Services Board, which has been criticized for a lack of diversity.

“We need folks that understand — through not only experience — but experts that can apply an anti-Black racism lens in the way that these officers operate, in the ways that they respond to mental health crises,” said Bile.

“I think there are opportunities where the city can certainly take a leadership role, and by taking that first step — that meaningful first step — it will hopefully influence other institutions in doing the same.”

Bile said she can understand why marginalized people are frustrated and calling for funding to be distributed in a different way, simply because there are situations that police may not be trained to handle.

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“The police aren’t social workers. The police are not counselors. We can use our funds, our money, our taxpaying dollars toward these social services and programs that will actually support and help and use trained experts to deal with these issues, as opposed to calling an officer to respond to them at all times. Officers are not meant to deal with all of the elements of our society.”

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In an emailed statement to Global News, Hamilton police spokesperson Jackie Penman said the service “remains committed to growing with, and learning from, all of our communities.”

“We know we are not perfect and there is much work to do,” the statement from Penman reads. “We appreciate the issues raised by Black Lives Matter and look forward to engaging in an open and transparent dialogue.”

Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger, who is chair of the city’s police services board, also issued a statement on anti-Black racism on Wednesday.

“I understand that I will never experience the pain and injustice experienced by Black people,” the statement said. “I will, however, continue to further educate myself on the Black Lives Matter movement and reflect on what I, as an individual, can do to work better together with our Black-led community organizations.”

“My role as Chair of the Hamilton Police Services Board enables me to provide guidance and recommendations to our police force. I am committed to having these conversations on how we can continue to serve and protect all members of our City equitably and respectfully.”

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