09 April 2006

“NIGGER!” “NIGGER!” “NIGGER!” “NIGGER!” “NIGGER!” I remember the first time I was called a “Nigger”. I was about 7 or 8 years old, so it was around 1968 or ’69. I was living in Toronto Canada, and had moved there from Jamaica about a year before. I was outside playing with two white friends and I remember it was winter for there was snow on the ground. Two white teenage boys came along and started calling me “Nigger”. They pelted me with snowballs. My two white friends who I was playing with moments before joined in. I remember one of them took a shovel and hit me with it. I cried. I went home. Although I have experienced many racist remarks and situations since then, that first incident is the clearest in my mind. It’s like the first time you lose your virginity. You remember where you were, whom you were with and the experience itself, good or bad. I lost a large part of my innocence that day. I have never cried over a racist incident since then.

I watched the April 6th news conference of David Mitchell, a Black Man, a Deputy Superintendent of a correctional facility in Toronto, which is under the jurisdiction of the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. He had received a letter filled with racist slurs, taunts and death threats. Since January 2005 to January 2006, at least 11 such racist letters have been sent to more than 20 Black and Brown correctional officers, threatening them directly or indirectly with death. Some of the letters have indicated they come from the “Ku Klux Klan” and that their goal is to get rid of all Black people. 

What lead to all this? It all started when a correctional officer, apparently from Afghanistan, allegedly assaulted a handcuffed Black inmate and was criminally charged. At the trial a South Asian correctional officer who had witnessed the alleged assault with a number of other officers, was the only one to testify against this officer. Since it was his word against his other colleagues, there was an acquittal. The South Asian officer was harassed and ostracized at work for breaking “The Code” and testifying against a fellow officer. A Black officer who refused to go along with the harassment and sided with the South Asian officer then became the target of harassment. He not only received racist and threatening letters at work, but they where also sent to his home and to a restaurant he owned. It got so bad that he was hospitalized and is now off work. Sides started to be taken and any Black officer who sided with the victims were sent racist and threatening letters. Complaints and grievances have been filed by the Black officers with the Ministry, union, Ontario Human Rights Commission and the police. No results and the letters, harassment and intimidation continued. The Black officers subsequently contacted David Mitchell, who is also an active member of the Association of Black Law Enforcers, and after hearing their complaints he also received a letter. Hence the press conference.

What I find most intriguing is the form in which the intimidation against the Black correctional officers has taken. Racial slurs are being used to demean and dehumanize the officers. References to the “Ku Klux Klan” are meant to strike fear. Words such as “Nigger” is being used to remind the Black officers of a history, not so long ago, when they were looked upon as “three-quarter human” and had no rights that a white man was obliged to recognize! When they could be victimized, harassed, threatened, beaten, raped and killed at will and nothing would be done about it….. just like now. Let us be very mindful of the fact that those who are engaging in this behaviour are the same ones who condone and most likely participate in using their position to victimize those in their charge. They feel that due to their status in relation to the inmates, who are criminals and therefore sub-human, they can commit whatever atrocities they want, especially if that inmate is Black! (Shades of Abu Ghraib!?). And who will believe the inmates over those who have been charged to keep our society safe from these animals. And if it so ever happens that they are ever questioned or scrutinized as to their actions or tactics, then there is “The Code”. “The Code” is superior to integrity, honesty and compassion. “The Code” is above the truth. “The Code” is silence. And when one breaks “The Code”, then one must be made to suffer. Intimidation. Harassment. Threats. Racial slurs.

Hates greatest allies are silence and fear. As I watched David Mitchell speak out, he broke down and cried. I was reminded of that winter day so long ago. 

Asa.