Rallying against racism: Why these Hamiltonians want police out of schools 

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 Gachi Issa and Koubra Haggar of De Caire Off Campus and HWDSB Kids Need Help
By Justin Chandler - Published on Jun 10, 2020
Hamilton organizers stand together on the McMaster University campus after repeating their demand that police be removed from the space. (Courtesy Gachi Issa)

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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, Gachi Issa and Koubra Haggar, both part of De Caire Off Campus and HWDSB Kids Need Help, groups that advocate for the removal of police from McMaster University and schools in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, respectively. 

TVO.org: You've worked together for four years. Why did you start organizing?

Gachi Issa: I think, as Black people, we can't not organize. And, of course, people do that in different forms: people communicate this through their art, through different modes of organizing, spreading a message. But I think, in the end, as Black people, in order to survive, we have to organize — and that's what Black people and Indigenous and racialized people have done forever. And so, we are inheriting this tradition of organizing; we organize because we have to.

Koubra Haggar: We both identify as Black Muslim women, and our very existence has been very politicized. Not just on the angle of being a Black person, but also the angle of being a woman, the angle of being Muslim women who observe the hijab, etc., etc. I feel like the fact that, when you live in an environment where your very existence is politicized or your very existence is debated or your demographic is just victims of so many different injustices, it's compulsory, almost, on you to do something and to work with other people to organize against these injustices. So that's really what's brought me here.

TVO.org: So, for people who are unfamiliar with the work that you're doing, can you share what the goals are for De Caire Off Campus and for HWDSB Kids Need Help?

Issa: So, for De Caire Off Campus, it's not only to demand for [former Hamilton police chief and current McMaster security director] Glenn De Caire to be removed from McMaster, but it's also to completely remove the special-constable program, because we know that this is possible. We've seen it at Ryerson [University, in Toronto]. And we've seen it in the University of Minnesota. We want them to cut all ties with the Hamilton police services and with Halton police services. We don't believe that there should be special constables or campus police. They don't protect us. And, of course, the issue with Glenn De Caire is that he was accused of a very racist carding practice in Hamilton. We want him out. 

Haggar: HWDSB Kids Need Help was created about three years ago and is generally just about, you know, what they call the police-liaison program that is in HWDSB schools. The issue is that the people at the head of the board believe that having police officers in schools and calling the police on students is actually an effective practice to de-escalate situations — when we've seen the complete opposite. And we know that, in schools, racialized students, they've spoken out about it so many times that they feel targeted when it comes to situations like this. And we've known in the past, the way that the police have handled students in schools is very inappropriate, and there have been examples of this. Just the idea of calling the police on students, high-school students, minors does not even make sense to me. I feel like staff and workers in our schools should be able to handle situations of fights in schools for, example. It should just go back to de-escalating the situation and making sure that they have the proper tools to prosper as students and prosper as young kids in our schools.

TVO.org: On June 8, the school board trustees voted to review but not abolish the police program. They also voted down an amendment to suspend it during the review. What are your thoughts on that?

Issa: The HWDSB Kids Need Help coalition has been very clear that we don't want a review. We don't want a suspension. We want a termination of this program. We've been asking to terminate this program for maybe two years. We've done data collection and talked to students who have experienced police violence in schools or just felt uncomfortable and terrorized. So, what we want is a termination. Collectively, we're really disappointed about what happened. Trustees said that they wanted facts. They said that they needed all the information to understand the nature of this program. And our question is, are our stories not facts? Are our stories not factual to you? Are they not important to the trustees? Also, they've done this before. They've suspended the Black youth mentorship program the day before a session was going to happen for an entire month while under review. It's also a symbolic act. There's no school happening, so there's no harm, in general, of ending the police program, but nothing would happen. It's simply a symbolic gesture to suspend the program while it's under review. And they still refuse to do that. We feel like it's a neglect of Black voices. And it's deeply discouraging — but we know that we will win, and we'll continue on this fight.

TVO:org: Have you heard anything from McMaster about the demands for that university?

Haggar: From the looks of what’s going on right now, McMaster hasn't been on our side. The De Caire campaign and the whole situation with special constables isn't a new problem. It hasn't just started to be addressed. It isn’t something that started two weeks ago or last week, or anything; it's been going on ever since De Caire was hired as the head of security at McMaster. It's an ongoing process. 

And we've just been disappointed by the response that we've been getting from McMaster University and their inaction in ensuring that students on campus feel safe. Students talk about encounters that they have with special constables on campus. We already know that the [Ontario] Human Rights Commission has described De Caire's way of policing as a textbook description of racial profiling — and how is that supposed to make racialized students on campus feel? 

There are petitions that have been circulating. I think, if you combine all the petitions, there have been a lot more than 10,000 signatures from students who demand that we get rid of De Caire and who are demanding that get rid of special constables. So it's important that McMaster takes into consideration the things that their students are telling them — the things that people who are part of the community are telling them — and terminate the program as soon as possible and get De Caire off of campus.

Issa: Although we've been getting a lot of support now, and it's really amazing — we wrote an email template, and thousands of students sent out emails to folks at McMaster — it's also important to recognize that, like Koubra said, this campaign started when De Caire was hired. It happened even before Koubra and I came to Mac four or five years ago. It's important to understand that we have to keep up this pressure. It can't just be had in the moment where a person loses his life. People lose their lives for us to realize, “Oh, this might be a bad idea.” Black people have been saying this for a very long time, and no one listens to us. And that's really discouraging, and I really encourage people to continue this fight, even when people are still alive.

TVO.org: Why do you think the deaths of George Floyd, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, and others have sparked such a strong reaction from people across North America?

Issa: I remember, in 2015, the same thing happened. It happened before with the Black Lives Matter movement. It happened before with Michael Brown, with Trayvon [Martin], with Sandra [Bland], with Abdirahman Abdi in Ottawa, with Andrew Loku, DeAndre Campbell. I'm not sure why this moment is important. I know that a lot of people are paying attention now. But there are people, there are organizers, there are families who have been going through this for years and still go through it. And to me, I'm afraid that we're just going to enter into these cycles, where allies show up and are really passionate about something for, like, a year — tops — and then they forget, and then organizers are left to do this work. Again, we've been trying to get the SRO program and De Caire off campus for a very long time. And it's really difficult work. It's challenging. It's hard. It's long-term. And to see the outpouring of support is really heartwarming, but I just want to ask people, “Where were you before? And will you stay once all of this passes?” 

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

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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