The Week's Conversations: Police Street Checks, Ahmed Hussen, Get Out, Cultural Expressions of Gender and Sexuality, Names

A weekly conversation between friends.

Police Street Checks in Canada, and How They're Designed to Withstand Public and Charter Scrutiny

Police agencies across Canada frequently engage in street checks, which allow police officers to stop and interrogate individuals that they consider to be suspicious. These stops are distinct from situations where police officers have actual grounds to detain or arrest someone. Rather, street checks are part of a “pro-active” policing model, where police officers question any individual they find suspicious, even if no crime is being investigated. These practices are frequently used in high crime areas, and have been shown to disproportionately target racialized Canadians.

In recent years, racialized communities and rights advocates have pushed back against the use of street checks, including carding, arguing that its discriminant application reflects an inherent bias in police agencies towards Indigenous, African/Black, and other marginalized communities in Canada. In addition to violating Charter rights that prohibit arbitrary detainment or imprisonment, and to equal protection before and under the law, the policies undermine the human dignity of those subject to such practices and further marginalize historically disenfranchised communities.

Sustained grassroots activism in Ontario resulted in the banning of street checks in the province. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for random police street checks in Alberta, where police agencies maintain that the practice is legitimate and have crafted policies to insulate them from constitutional challenge. The Edmonton Police Service (EPS) is perhaps the most tone-deaf on how street checks demean racialized individuals and communities, including those racialized communities that the EPS acknowledges that it must build better relationships with.

For years, Indigenous and African/Black leaders and community organizations in Edmonton have called on the EPS to stop its practice of random street checks (interestingly, the most vocal critic of carding and street checks in the Alberta Legislature is Progressive Conservative MLA and former police officer Mike Ellis, demonstrating that criticisms of the practice run across party and ideological lines). The EPS has responded by saying that random police checks are invaluable for crime prevention, and that stops are not motivated by race. However, the EPS refuses to provide statistics on the race or ethnicity of those who are subject to random street checks. This prevents the public from scrutinizing the EPS’s street check policy, and determining whether it is consistent with how the practice is used by other policing agencies in Canada: disproportionately against racialized minorities.

The basis of EPS’s refusal to provide such information is that it does not record the race or ethnicity of persons stopped during street checks — a basis that is either extremely convenient or deliberate. I am inclined to view it as the latter, largely because of how the EPS devised its most recent street check policy.

In August 2016, the EPS revised its street check policy in response to complaints by community members (read the policy in full here). The EPS was quick to address criticisms related to the opaqueness of records, ensuring that stops were for a policing purpose, and that police officers took steps to minimize or eradicate any biases that may inform a stop. EPS officers conducting street checks are now required to prepare reports that record the factual basis for each stop, which provides a limited basis to review individual street checks.

However, the EPS decided not to require records of the race or ethnicity of a person stopped in for the street check reports. Without information on the race or ethnicity of those stopped, it would be almost impossible for the public to scrutinize whether stops are racially motivated and challenge the practice’s legality on these grounds.

Not recording information in order to avoid public scrutiny and legal challenges is nothing new for governments in Canada. It happens frequently, and reflects the immense disparity in the access and ability to collect information between the state and individuals. In the context of the EPS’s street check policy, the EPS is the only actor that is able to record reliable aggregate information on the race or ethnicity of those stopped. Instead of examining the data itself, the public is left to take the EPS at its word, without objective proof verifying its claim that street checks aren’t racially motivated, and despite anecdotal and statistical evidence from other jurisdictions establishing significant racial bias in street checks.

Unfortunately, there is no basis in law to require the EPS to record information on the race and ethnicity of those stopped during street checks. However, the province is currently engaged in an extensive consultation process to revise the practice province-wide. The province has the authority to ban police agencies from engaging in street checks, or to require the EPS to record information on the race and ethnicity of those stopped. The province should ban street checks, or at the very least, record race-based information on those stopped so that the public can better understand and assess the scope of street checks in Edmonton, and hold the EPS accountable if in fact the practices are disproportionately used against racialized minorities. These are reasonable demands for transparency and accountability in a democracy, and there is no defendable justification for the EPS or the province to refuse.


Getting to Know Ahmed Hussen, Canada's Newest Minister of Immigration

Last week, the Globe published an in-depth profile on Ahmed Hussen — an immigration lawyer, a community organizer, the head of the Canadian Somali Congress, and Canada’s newest Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship.

Mr. Hussen, who fled from civil war in Somalia in the early 90s, arrived as a refugee to Canada in 1993. He earned his political chops first as an activist and organizer for the urban poor in Toronto’s Regent Park, then as a staffer for Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty. His rise to the prominent post of immigration minister — a post recently held by the likes Chris Alexander (of “barbaric cultural practices tip line” fame) and Jason Kenney (the man behind the failed ‘niqab ban’, and other regressive policies*) — is impressive, and significant. At a time when Islamophobia has reached a fever pitch here in Canada, and as a new type of refugee crisis unfolds along the southern border (while the one overseas rages on), Mr. Hussen’s personal experience as an asylum seeker, and his ability to connect and empathize with immigrants and refugees, seems to provide a welcome source of optimism.

Of course, one cannot extrapolate from Mr. Hussen’s mere presence and personal identity the direction that the Liberals will take Canada’s immigration and refugee policy. Indeed, Canadians are increasingly polarized on these issues. Though, when contrasted with the current upheavals in the United States, his public representation of marginalized and disrupted communities is clearly important. As Erin Anderssen and Michelle Zilio write, in reference to Mr. Hussen’s recent meeting with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly:

“Mr. Hussen has a reputation for courteous diplomacy, for treading carefully into contentious issues, and for having learned, as he puts it, “to focus on goals, not noise.” But the two men – one, a Muslim refugee turned immigration lawyer who speaks of the importance of balancing security and compassion, and who understands firsthand the plight of asylum seekers; the other, a hard-talking military general who has floated the idea of separating mothers from their children at the U.S.-Mexican border – are telling symbols of the diverging paths of their respective countries.”

Suffice it to say, one can only cringe to imagine such a conversation between Kelly and Kenney.

* According to the profile, Kenney and Hussen are friends, or are on friendly terms, at least.


Get Out and the Racial Politics of Horror Movies

Believe the hype: Jordan Peele’s debut film, Get Out, is a highly entertaining and satisfying film — one that has connected with audiences and critics alike (it’s earned over $100 million at the box office so far, and currently holds a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes).

Get Out, which blurs the lines between horror, comedy, and satire, is a subversive exploration of racism in America — one that attempts to convey to audiences the fear and paranoia experienced by black men in hostile or intimidating environments, whether the groomed suburb, or the home of an upper-class white family. The film effectively skewers the subtle racism and microaggressions of the white liberal class, and provides non-black viewers with a glimpse into what W.E.B Du Bois refers to as the double consciousness that characterizes the African-American experience:

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

Get Out also subverts the ways in which race is represented in horror movies, a fascinating topic tackled in a recent episode of NPR’s Code Switch podcast, which features African-American filmmaker Ernest Dickerson, and horror movie scholar Robin Means Coleman. The episode charts the shifting representations of race throughout the history of the genre — from The Birth of a Nation, in which a black man is literally portrayed as a monster, to ‘jungle’ films about voodoo and zombies, to the blaxploitation horror films of the 70s, to the contemporary horror films that feature predominantly white characters in rural or suburban locales.*

The podcast also deconstructs a number of horror film tropes, like the notion of the ‘magical Negro’ that saves the day (see The Shining), and other scary movie cliches. For example, why do the black characters in horror movies always die first? Coleman explains:

“What is scarier than a great big murderous dinosaur is a big black man with a big black gun [...] That’s why you kill off the black man — and it’s important that it’s a man — early in the horror film. It establishes the superiority, the horribleness of the monster. The other thing that it does, is that if the monster is so bad that it even kills off brothers, than the white man who ultimately defeats the monster, has to be intellectually superior, racially superior — that’s sort of the hierarchy in horror films.”

Get Out not only subverts these traditional representations by reversing the classical horror film hierarchy — the protagonist is a black male, and the monsters are a white family — but it also makes a strong moral and political statement by suggesting that the appropriation of black culture by white people is not merely an innocuous trend in popular culture, but rather something more serious, something evil and depraved.

Writing in the New York Review of Books, J. Hoberman offers a particularly provocative interpretation of this concept, and the film’s broader message (potential spoiler alert):

“Among other instances of realistic paranoia and reasonable conspiracies concerning white intentions, the movie—almost subliminally—introduces the notion that the unflappable Barack Obama was a new sort of zombie, a white man occupying a black body.

Get Out articulates the fear that the Obama presidency was smoke and mirrors, a sham and an illusion. And while the filmmaker had likely not anticipated our current situation, it would seem that his film has materialized at the very moment that curtain rose and the real America was revealed.”

By way of defense of the 44th President, I would also recommend checking out Barry (on Netflix) — Vikram Gandhi’s film about Barack Obama’s life at Columbia University in the early ‘80s (or Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, on which the movie is largely based). The film, believe it or not, features basically the same premise as Get Out, and offers what I would consider a more nuanced exploration of racism and identity in United States.

*There has been a number of recent films that focus on and deconstruct the (often harmful and degrading) ways in which African-American are portrayed on television, in film, and in popular culture in general. These include Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13TH (on Netflix) and Raoul Peck’s documentary on James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro (in theatres).


Cultural Expressions of Gender and Sexuality

“A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints” is a touring exhibition that illustrates what scholars refer to a third gender  —  adolescent males seen as the height of beauty in early modern Japan who were sexually available to both men and women. Known as wakashu, they are one of several examples in the show that reveal how elastic the ideas of gender were before Japan adopted Western sexual mores in the late 1800s.

As Susan Chira points out in the Times:

“[The show] arrives at a time of ferment about gender roles in the United States and abroad. Bathroom rights for transgender people have become a cultural flash point. The notion of “gender fluidity” — that it’s not necessary to identify as either male or female, that gender can be expressed as a continuum — is roiling traditional definitions.

… like other societies in the past and present — the hijra in India; the “two-spirit people” in some American indigenous cultures — the diversity in gender definitions and sexual practices in Edo Japan challenges modern notions that male and female are clear either-or identities.”

It is also important to note that the construct of gender and the unique cultural expressions it assumes has concrete implications that are often overlooked. For instance, one theread editor has represented gay men from Pakistan seeking refugee protection in Canada on the basis of their gender and sexuality. In a recent case, much of the arguments revolved around different cultural understandings of gender and sexuality in Pakistan and the Muslim world relative to the West.

The evidence of one of the experts on this topic provides meaningful insight on how the expression of gender and culture differ between the two cultures, which can help address concerns that a gay refugee claimant does not appear or act in accordance with our cultural “expectations” of how a gay man should act in Canada. Often, these refugee determinations hinge on whether you can prove someone’s gender and sexuality, which is more than just a claimant’s assurance that he belongs to a sexual minority group that face persecution, and requires additional evidence, in the form that appearances and actions conform with the cultural expression of their gender and sexuality.


The Argonauts

From Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts:

“How to explain—’trans’ may work well enough as shorthand, but the quickly developing mainstream narrative it evokes (‘born in the wrong body,’ necessitating an orthopedic pilgrimage between two fixed destinations) is useless for some—but partially, or even profoundly, useful for others? That for some, ‘transitioning’ may mean leaving one gender behind, while for others—like Harry, who is happy to identify as a butch on T—it doesn’t? I’m not on my way anywhere, Harry sometimes tells inquirers. How to explain, in a culture frantic for resolution, that sometimes the shit stays messy? I do not want the female gender that has been assigned to me at birth. Neither do I want the male gender that transsexual medicine can furnish and that the state will award me if I behave the right way. I don’t want any of it. How to explain that for some, or for some at some times, this irresolution is OK—desirable, even (e.g., ‘gender hackers’)—whereas for others, or for others at some times, it stays a source of conflict or grief? How does one get across the fact that the best way to find out how people feel about their gender or their sexuality—or anything else, really—is to listen to what they tell you, and to try to treat them accordingly, without shellacking over their version of reality with yours?”


Say My Name, Say My Name

People change their names or its pronunciation to to fit in and make others feel more comfortable. A short podcast from our very own Sahil Gupta explores this topic.


Links From This Week's Thread

Are Flute Samples the Latest Sound Trend in Rap Music? Yes, they are.

CBC: Out in the Open’s episode on policing in Canada in the wake of reforms that have resulted from high profile civilian deaths and harassment within police forces is an engaging, probing examination of a complex issue that deserves far greater scrutiny.

For the Frank Zappa fans out there (anyone?) — you do not want to miss Tom Power’s recent interview with Thundercat on Q, where the two nerd out about Zappa’s unparallelled musical brilliance, and his pioneering technique of combining highly technical instrumentation with absurd and provocative humor. In the words of Thundercat: “Zappa is a genuine solar flare. That guy is a beast monster… Zappa was the one, dude. [His music] is beyond classical, it’s transcended jazz. It’s gone to another place where it’s dancing around in a cosmic place.”

Now that he’s president, The Onion is having a hard time lampooning Trump.

The G.O.P.’s health-care bill is a disaster. “...why, you might ask, would the deficit be reduced by just three hundred and thirty-seven billion dollars over ten years when spending on Medicaid would fall by eight hundred and eighty billion dollars? The answer is that the bill would take most of the money that is saved from reducing Medicaid and hand it out to rich people in the form of tax cuts.”

Ezra Levant confident riled up, far-right mob won’t turn against Jews this time.

‘31 Women Writers On The Life-Changing Books They Read In Their 20s’

“Weaponization” works as a throwing up of the hands, and as a suggestion — or an admission, or a strategic claim — that the discourse has failed us. Or, more accurately, it suggests that the discourse has become something dangerous: no mere fight but a terminal conflict without decorum or limits.”

Amy Sanderson15/03/17