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Community Soapbox: Racism and policing in Kingston’s recent past

Signs collected in a makeshift memorial after the vigil in solidarity with Black Lives Matter in McBurney Park on Tuesday, Jun. 2, 2020. Photo by Tori Stafford.

Editorial note: The following is a submitted op/ed piece by Steven Maynard and does not necessarily reflect the views and beliefs of Kingstonist.

This past Tuesday, I joined hundreds of other Kingstonians in McBurney Park for a Black Lives Matter demonstration. The vigil was part of the global outrage over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Just a few hours before the gathering, members of the Kingston Police, including Chief Antje McNeely, issued a letter to the community.

The letter states in part: “Time and again in our world we see violent and racist behaviours, both overt and subtle, demonstrated towards persons of colour and Indigenous peoples by those who hold power and privilege, including some in law enforcement. These behaviours have no place in our society; they are not condoned in our community; and they have no place in law enforcement.”

It’s an appropriately forceful message, one that strikes many of the right notes. Missing, however, from the letter is any reference to the Kingston Police’s own long and troubled history with the city’s Black community. As a historian and white resident of Kingston, I’ve been struck by our lack of memory about police racism in Kingston’s recent past. I suspect many Black Kingstonians remember it all too well.

Beginning in 2001, as you can read in local media reports from the time, Kingston witnessed several highly-charged incidents, in which Black youth were subject to police take-downs, including police drawing their weapons on and the use of police dogs against the unarmed youth. In each case, the young Black men, targeted for “looking suspicious,” were found to have done nothing wrong and released at the scene.

Another example. Black activist and journalist Desmond Cole, at the forefront of the current response to police racism in Canada, was an undergrad at Queen’s in the early 2000s. Cole recalls repeated and unwarranted attention by Kingston police when he was walking or driving in the city.

In response to the public revelations of the police treatment of Black residents, then Kingston Police Chief, William Closs, ordered his force to cease racial profiling. He also called for a one-year investigation, in which, controversially and paradoxically, the police were instructed to keep race-based information on stops made by the police. The statistics were turned over to a third-party researcher for analysis.

Results of the 2005 Kingston Police data collection project made national headlines, and they confirmed what Black Kingstonians had long known: Black residents, particularly young Black men, were almost four times as likely to be stopped by police than white members of the community. The same report noted that an Indigenous person was more than one-and-a-half times more likely to be stopped than a white person.

In her 2011 graduate research on black youth in Kingston, Stephanie Simpson, a long-time anti-racist advocate and now Associate Vice-Principal (Human Rights, Equity and Inclusion) at Queen’s, argued that the 2005 report marked a “strange denouement.” While the chief of police was lauded for his visionary approach, the report, which should have been the beginning of a crucial conversation about policing and racial profiling in Kingston, served instead to shut it down. In the subsequent years, dialogue diminished.

One of the benefits of rallies like the one in McBurney Park is the opportunity they provide not only to express solidarity with those in struggle elsewhere, but also to think locally about the issues they highlight. In addition to Chief McNeely’s general statements against racism, it would be helpful to learn what concrete steps the Kingston Police have taken in the years since the 2005 report to address what, 15 years ago, the former chief apologized for and identified as the systemic racism within the force.

The recent community letter issued by the Kingston Police declares that they are “committed to a culture of change.” For this to be true, for real change to occur, it must start with acknowledging, not avoiding, the difficult histories of policing and racism, from Minneapolis to Kingston.

Steven Maynard teaches Canadian social history at Queen’s University.

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The Community Soapbox serves as Kingstonist's OpEd platform, providing guest contributors with a forum to freely share their opinions regarding local issues ranging from politics to the environment. Learn more about Kingstonist's Community Soapbox...

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