Rallying against racism: A BLM Toronto member on building a better society

TVO.org is speaking to activists across Ontario to find out what's happening in their communities — and how they're fighting injustice. Today, we interview Syrus Marcus Ware, an artist and core team member with Black Lives Matter Toronto
By Nathaniel Basen - Published on Jun 10, 2020
Syrus Marcus Ware is working on a PhD on prison abolition and disability justice. (Courtesy of Syrus Marcus Ware)



George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police on May 25 has sparked a wave of protests in the United States, in Canada, and around the world.

Over the past two weeks, millions of demonstrators have taken to the streets. Coverage in the U.S. has focused largely on the massive displays of support in major cities, but demonstrations have also been held in smaller towns across the country.

The same has been true in Ontario: thousands have grouped, gathered, and marched in such major centres as Ottawa and Toronto to speak out against anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. But events have also been held in Guelph, Thunder Bay, Niagara Falls — and the list goes on.

This week, TVO.org will talk to those involved in the movement in cities, towns, and other communities across the province about what they're fighting for — and where Ontario should go from here.

Today: Syrus Marcus Ware, an artist, activist, and core team member with Black Lives Matter Toronto since 2016.

TVO.org: The work and theories around prison and police abolitionism aren’t new. You’ve been studying this for a while now and are working on a PhD on prison abolition and disability justice. What's it been like to suddenly watch these ideas move into the mainstream?

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Syrus Marcus Ware: Sometimes I wake up and I can't quite believe what world I'm living in. I mean, I read an article in a mainstream magazine about prison abolition the other day, and I thought, what's happening? It's incredible to think about the fact that we could have abolition in our lifetime — that's what we've been fighting for. So the fact that everybody is talking about it and discussing it right now is really exciting. As someone who's done that work for 25 years, this is a movement whose time has come. Our ancestors were working on the abolition of slavery, and many say that the abolition of prisons and police is just the continuation of that unfinished project — that we didn't actually finish abolishing slavery and that this is the final step. So to see people talking about it, to hear people engaging with these ideas, is amazing. I think what we have to be careful of is that the message doesn't get watered down or co-opted into a story about reform. We're not asking for reform: we’re asking for abolition. We're asking for a society where we don't put people in cages as a way of resolving conflict or crisis.

TVO.org: That’s obviously an important point, as elected officials are talking about reform. Toronto city councillors have proposed cutting the police budget, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is suggesting increased use of body cameras on police. This isn’t what you’re asking for — not even close — but do you consider it progress?

Ware: When we see Trudeau calling for body cameras, that’s actually increasing police budgets — body cameras are really expensive. They're obviously not the solution: police officers can turn them off; they don't always work properly; the data isn't always considered as witness data or as valuable data. So we are absolutely not supportive of that. And then the motion in city council — I mean, on the one hand, it's wonderful that the effort was made, but we are not asking for a 10 per cent reduction; we're asking for a 100 per cent reduction. That's what we're fighting for.

City council doesn’t actually have jurisdiction over the police budget. They're just making an ask. I feel like, if you're going to make an ask, please join us. Ask for a 100 per cent reduction.

TVO.org: There are a lot of people engaging with the idea of defunding the police for the first time in the last week or so, and for a lot of them, their first reaction is, “That’s not realistic” or “That’s impossible.” What do you say to those people?

Ware: A lot of us have been told that the police keep communities safer and more secure, but they do not. As people start to realize the police are brutalizing and killing Black and Brown and Indigenous people at an astronomical rate, that we are witnessing police rioting all across Turtle Island — when people sort of start to realize that maybe the problem is policing, it's easier to start getting them to think a little bit further down the line. What happens to those Black people and Indigenous people who are arrested by the police who don't get shot? They also have their lives taken away from them. They get sent away to prison where they end up in a cage and doing labour.

It’s about recognizing that the prison system is just an extension of the police system — that it's another form of violence, another way of disappearing people from our communities. People start to realize that maybe the larger system could look different. The first thing that people ask is, “But what about the dangerous few or really bad situations?” The police have never really helped in those cases; they don't actually do good in the case of really harmful things.

We need to start thinking about the ways we want to resolve conflict in our communities. What is the support that we could provide to people so that they have everything they need, so that they don’t have to struggle to survive? How would you make sure everyone had financial resources, housing, access to a safe supply of drugs? It’s about the decriminalization of the way we live our lives and our jobs, like sex work and drug use. What would our society look like if we dealt with conflict in a different way? Abolition is really just an invitation — an invitation to think about resolving conflict and crisis in new ways. That's what we're asking people: to take that imaginative leap. Dream with us. Help us build a society that works for all of us, because the society right now is working for none of us.

TVO.org: The big news in Toronto is that the police chief, Mark Saunders, announced that he will be stepping down. What was your reaction to that news, and what do you hope will happen with that role?

Ware: What we saw with Mark Saunders was a perfect example of the fact that increasing diversity in the police force doesn't solve the problem. Having a Black police chief doesn't solve the inherent anti-Blackness and white supremacy that is built into the police system in Canada. His tenure belied this idea that you could just get a person of colour in the job and things would be better. What he shows is that there's a much larger problem with policing overall. He did a terrible job at addressing some of these things during his tenure, and I think that his tenure will largely be looked upon as a missed opportunity and maybe even as a failure. We are not sorry to see him go, but we don't want to see him replaced by somebody else. That salary of $400,000 could go directly into community supports, community-programming services. We live in a world where hospitals were short personal protective equipment during a pandemic, but the police force has unlimited money for tear gas and tanks and other militarized things. We don't need to spend $400,000 on a new police chief. We need to reinvest that money into our community.

TVO.org: The Toronto board of health declared anti-Black racism a public-health crisis. From your vantage point, what does that look like, and what needs to change?

Ware: It's one way of trying to get people to recognize that there are dramatic effects on the lives and the health of Black and Indigenous people, and all people, as a result of racism, systemic racism, and white supremacy. It’s affecting the health of all human beings on the planet but is disproportionately detrimental to the lives of Black people. So what we are applauding in this effort to name it as a public-health crisis is it's a way of getting people to engage and react. It's a way of getting people to act up, to organize, to say, “Hold on, we need to take this just as seriously as we're taking the crisis of COVID.” How do we respond quickly to make sure that all of us get to survive after this? If we can do it for other health crises, we can do that for anti-Black racism. This is dramatically affecting the lives and the health and the potential livelihoods of Black people.

TVO.org: You mentioned Indigenous issues as well, to what extent do you see the Black and Indigenous experience in Toronto as linked?

Ware: Black organizing and Indigenous organizing are intrinsically linked. When you look at what's happened on Turtle Island, with the colonization of this continent and the displacement and attempted genocide of Indigenous people, and then you look at how they used Black bodies that they had enslaved to till the soil and change the landscape for this land that they were trying to colonize — they’ve used both Black and Indigenous communities as a tool to fuel settler expansion. We are in solidarity with each other. Our freedom and liberation are tied up with each other.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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