The police violence inflicted on Black lives, the killing of Black people, in the Canadian context has received much less public attention, scrutiny, and response than in the United States. The everyday reality of police surveillance, harassment, intimidation, confinement, and brutality against Black people, Black communities, gives the lie to Canadian mythologies of tolerance, openness, equality, diversity. It also undermines assumptions of social peace within Canadian liberal democracy, showing the reality of a social war carried out against racialized, as well as poor, migrant, working class communities. Many across Canada are unaware of the violence routinely inflicted on Somali Canadian communities in cities like Ottawa and Toronto, for instance.
On Sunday, July 24, 2016, Ottawa police beat Abdirahman Abdi, a 37 year-old Somali Canadian man, so severely that he had to be placed on life support. On Monday, July 25, Abdi died of the injuries inflicted by officers.
Abdi was well known and liked among residents in his Hilda Street neighborhood, in Ottawa’s Hintonburg. He was described by neighbors as “peaceful” and “beautiful.” A familiar face to many in the area, Abdi was subjected to a vicious beating by police as they arrested him according to numerous witnesses (Ritchie and Jackson 2016). He was taken to Ottawa Civic Hospital and was on life support for more than 24 hours. According to a family spokesperson the hospital told them Abdi had already been dead for 45 minutes before arriving in the hospital’s care (CBC News 2016).
In a situation rare in the Canadian context, the two Ottawa police officers under investigation for Abdi’s death were identified within a day of his death. Unlike the situation in the United States, the names of officers involved in killings of civilians are rarely released unless there are formal charges laid and rarely are the officers named so soon after a killing. In his case the two officers have been identified as Constable Daniel Montsion and Constable Dave Weir. Weir is a patrol officer but Montsion, is a member of the direct action response team (DART) usually deployed against supposed gang members (Jay 2016). In video posted online Weir is the officer seen kneeling on the bleeding victim’s head.
The police killing of Abdirahman Abdi puts a spotlight on racist state violence in Canada. It makes clear, emphasizes, structures of cultural imperialism, social war, pacification. As numerous cases documented by killercopscanada it shows the everyday, regular, normalized character of police violence particularly as it is deployed against Black and Indigenous communities in the Canadian context (and this includes detention, incarceration, etc., the full extent of the criminal justice system). This is not an aberration or lapse or malfunction. It is the policing system doing as it was designed to do.
One thing that is changing, significantly, is the response to the police extinguishment of Black lives. The response to the police killing of Abdirahman Abdi has shown forcefully the growing community strength and mobilization of collective strength to oppose police violence. The actions of Black Lives Matter and #JusticeforAbdirahman have ensured that this killing will not be treated in the way that so many before it have been. The police, and more importantly the society, cannot “simply move on.” This is telling as it openly exposes the reality of police violence as well as organizing and acting to stop it. Even more it raises prospects for alternatives to policing as an institution itself and shows the community resources, connection, care that would be required to build alternatives. The community care, love and compassion, in Abdi’s neighborhood, expressed even in attempts to get the cops to stop their assault provides a striking counter-example to the invasive, angry, repressive, punitive approach of the Ottawa police.
The Police Killing of Abdirahman Abdi
Police supposedly were responding to a 911 call from the nearby Bridgehead coffee shop at 9:30 AM. The call apparently suggested a man was causing a disturbance and touching a woman at the café (Ritchie and Jackson 2016). There is no suggestion that Abdi was the person referred to in the call but according to witnesses he became frightened by the arrival of police and fled the coffee shop for his apartment, the building in which the Somali migrant had lived since landing in Ottawa in 2009 ( Ritchie and Jackson 2016). There are terrible histories of police violence against racialized immigrants in the Canadian context. In major cities like Toronto and Ottawa Somali migrants have been subjected to racial profiling, targeted policing, intimidation, and violence.
Several neighbors, including friends and family of the victim, witnessed the brutal police arrest. Shockingly they suggested that Abdi was beaten after being handcuffed and restrained. Zeinab Abdallah, an older Somali woman who lives in the building where the killing took place described the situation in horrific detail. She was leaving the building as Abdi arrived pursued by police. The frightened Abdi called to her in Somali: “Sister, protect me from them. Zeinab, help me. Zeinab, help me” (quoted in Jay 2016).
Her terrifying account continues in detail of the awful assault:
“As I looked one side, I was shocked, since my looking to that direction coincided with the policeman hitting him with a stick, the very moment he held the door trying to get inside. He was fleeing the policeman and was trying to go inside the building. Having received the blow, he turned back and grabbed the policeman, they grabbed each other, two strong men, the policeman tackled him and threw him to the ground, hitting him repeatedly. And there was this cut here and his blood run on the ground. Then he started beating him hard with the object he was carrying, and when he did so, I pleaded with him to stop the assault, informing him that the man was mentally ill.” (quoted in Jay 2016)
In the view of Abdallah the police wanted their victim dead. Nothing less. They would not listen to her pleas that they stop. As she explains:
“I pleaded with him, ‘Please don’t beat him, please, he can’t listen, he don’t care.’ The other policeman joined him, they did whatever they wanted with him until he became incapacitated. I have never seen anything similar to the way they beat him with such malice, animosity and hostility. They simply didn’t want him alive, they wanted him dead.” (quoted in Jay 2016)
Another witness Ross McGhie described an officer in a DART vest (now identified as Montsion) delivering a number of very heavy blows to the victim’s head and face (Jay 2016). Witnesses suggest the DART officer, the second officer arriving, began hitting Abdi immediately upon his arrival on the scene.
One witness, Shukri Samater, reported that people were calling out to inform officers about Abdi’s health issues and language barriers as he was being handcuffed and struck by officers on the stone steps right outside the entrance to the building (Ritchie and Jackson 2016). According to Samater: “That was the most disturbing part of it all, what happened after he was handcuffed. “He was bleeding from the back of his head. He didn’t have a weapon, he wasn’t violent” (quoted in Ritchie and Jackson 2016).
Samater reported seeing officers kneeling on the back of Abdi’s head. She said police deployed a substance she believed to be pepper spray before hitting the helpless man with a baton (Jackson 2016). According to Samater police told bystanders not to call paramedics for assistance (Lofaro 2016).
Abdi’s brother Abdirizaq Abdi described the scene of the assault by police after being alerted by a neighbor. In his words:
“I heard the screaming, and then I come out and I see my brother lying down, police hitting so badly. Like, I’ve never seen something like that in my life. All of them, they were on top of him. He was under [them] … they were hitting like [he was] an enemy. I’ve never seen something like that.” (quoted in CBC News 2016)
According to family friend Nimao Ali who recorded the aftermath of the assault: “It was devastating to see that he was bleeding, and as I looked at him he actually stopped moving. So I could see he stopped breathing. And it took a long time for the ambulance to come, and it’s really sad to see that” (quoted in Nease 2016a). The video she took shows the violence of the scene.
The words used to describe Abdirahman Abdi by neighbors are “pleasant,” “gentle,” and “non-violent.” Neighbors note that Abdi struggled with mental health issues and noted that language barriers may have kept him from understanding what police were saying to him. Residents alerted police to Abdi’s mental health issues and told them of the language barrier in an attempt to stop the assault, to no avail. According to Samater: “The community knows he’s not well. We try to protect him” (quoted in Jackson 2016). They maintained those efforts to look out for their neighbor in the face of unfolding police brutalization.
Family friend Nimao Ali described Abdi as a “beautiful soul” (quoted in Ritchie and Jackson 2016). According to Ali: “He is a beautiful person. He was not 100 per cent healthy like us, he had a mental illness. He was the kind of man that when you walk into the elevator he will hold the door for you, always had a smile on his face” (quoted in Ritchie and Jackson 2016).
Ali questioned the quick resort to brutal force by police. In her clearly stated perspective:
“[T]here’s times people have to use their common sense, and there’s times people have to be sensitive to other people, and there’s times that police officers — or anybody with guns and weapons — have to really consider: Is this person OK? Are they mentally ill? Are they running away? Are they threatening me? All the blood that he lost could have been saved for a matter of just really taking this calmly. Because everybody in the [neighbourhood knows him] and we never felt threatened by him.” (quoted in CBC News 2016).
The aftermath of the police assault was recorded by an upstairs neighbor and a 27 minute video posted online. It shows a bleeding Abdi handcuffed and laying on the ground. Another neighbor claims to have taken a video but has not yet released it in respect to the family (Ritchie and Jackson 2016).
Leslie Emory, executive director of OCISO immigrant support services, of which Abdi was a client, recalls: “He is very much a very present figure on the street. He walked a lot” (quoted in Ritchie and Jackson 2016). He was known in his own neighborhood. And people cared for him. He was regularly encountered, a neighborhood presence. Now gone.
Nimao Ali stated the horror felt by many neighbors. In her words:
“I don’t know what to say. It’s devastating. We know him, the gentleman. He has a mental illness, a very peaceful guy. I have children in the building and he walks around, he’s good with the kids, he’s good with all the neighbours, never a problem. And all of a sudden, that he’s bleeding on the front steps of our building and dying, it was a devastating thing to see.” (quoted in Nease 2016a).
The victim of police violence was clearly someone who was recognized, valued, appreciated in the neighborhood. And none of this community knowledge was held by police who are typically an outside, occupying and invading, force that has little understanding of or care for specific neighborhoods and their experiences, needs, or interests. Police rarely seek to know any of this.
Residents of this Ottawa neighborhood also know first-hand and intimately about the convergence of police violence, brutality, lethal force, and racism. Ali was strong in stating that it was the first thing that came to mind in this case. And sadly it is a lesson taught to children at an early age. As a matter of survival. As she reflects:
“I had my six-year-old when I was recording and it broke my heart. I had to cover his eyes with one hand while I recorded, and I’m thinking, ‘OK, what’s going to happen to him when he grows up?’ So it is a fear and it is something that needs to be addressed and it’s something we need to speak out about.” (quoted in Nease 2016a)
This is the reality for racialized people and communities in the Canadian state context. It is a reality the police, politicians, media, dominant cultural expressions seek to cover up, ignore, or deny. It is the reality that Black Lives Matter has so courageously, honestly, consistently brought into focus as the truth of Canadian social life.
Black Lives Matter
Black Lives Matter supporter Hana Jama, as well a Somali Canadian with first-hand understanding of police treatment of the community, acknowledged the lack of complete details made public regarding the assault but rightly noted that “at the same time, we do know that the man who was beaten up by police was a black man, was a Muslim man, was a Somali man and was a mentally ill man” (quoted in CTV News 2016). These facts alone raise serious questions, in addition to concerns about the specific brutality exercised by police. According to Jama: “That should be enough to know that happened to him was messed up” (quoted in CTV News 2016).
Another community advocate Alicia LeJour, of the organization No Justice No Peace, questioned the attempt by police and some media to use passive terminology to present what was an active act of violence, an attack, by police. In her view it was “clear that this man was in good condition until he came into contact with police and he was suddenly bleeding and on the ground. I’m not too sure how they classify that as a medical emergency as opposed to police brutality” (quoted in CTV News 2016).
Not only community activists but lawyers have raised concerns about the police actions against Abdi. According to criminal defense lawyer Leo Russomanno this case looks to be another example, in a growing line, of police “resorting to excessive use of force” and “perhaps our frontline officers being inadequately able to deal with people with mental health issues” (quoted in CTV News 2016).
Similarly Ottawa lawyer Michael Spratt, who has experience in cases involving excessive police force (but is not directly involved with the current case) has expressed concern over what he has heard in early reports regarding this arrest. According to Spratt:
“There are often times injuries incurred trying to arrest someone in a dynamic situation, but the reports of gratuitous violence after handcuffs were placed on the individual [are] shocking and there can be no excuse for violence after the person is handcuffed and on the ground. The lack of immediate medical attention and the reports about the delays between when first aid was administered and when paramedics arrived is troubling as well. When a subject is detained and handcuffed and has been beaten into unconsciousness, there can be no reasonable reason why medical attention should be delayed.” (quoted in CTV News 2016)
On Tuesday, July 26, dozens of people attended Hintonburg’s Somerset Square to remember Abdi and celebrate his life (Aylward 2016). Messages were written in chalk on the pavement at the square proclaiming “Black Live Matter” and “#JusticeForAbdirahman.”
Community members expressed great anger at what they recognize to be an injustice carried out at the hands of police in their community (Aylward 2016). In the words of attendee Grace Main: “For me, this is a turning point in my trust in the police services. I have to change a lot of things about my understanding about what’s safe in my neighbourhood and this part of the world right now” (quoted in Aylward 2016).
This reflects an apparently growing shift in consciousness regarding police in the Canadian context a shift that is gaining public expression largely through the efforts of Black Lives Matter organizing. While police violence and lethal brutality are too often downplayed in Canada, or given less attention and sustained response than cases in the United States, racialized communities which are disproportionately subjected to police targeting, are mobilizing effectively to raise awareness and challenge police actions in effective, material ways.
Investigating a Killer Force
The Special Investigations Unit (SIU), which examines cases of police violence against civilians, is investigating the killing. The SIU has assigned five investigators and one forensic investigator to the case. The two Ottawa police officers named are the subject officers. Five other officers will be interviewed as witnesses. Anyone expecting a semblance of justice, or even minimal accountability, from the SIU will be disappointed. Despite the fact that the unit is held up internationally as a model for police oversight and accountability there are real limitations and documented problems with the SIU. These are related in part to the fact that police, and police associations (they are not unions) regularly interfere with, obstruct, intimidate, and confound SIU investigators and investigations.
Even as the SIU was starting its investigation the head of the Ottawa police association was attempting to skew the interpretation of events, deflect attention from police actions, and diminish police force racism. Not surprisingly association head Matt Skof is offended that issues of racism and race are even being raised. He has attempted to pose racism and racist policing as American issues (again attempting to buttress the Canadian mythologies). In his words: “I’m worried that the conversation is even occurring, to be quite candid” (quoted in Nease 2016b). Once again police and their associations seek to silence critics or simply concerned citizens from even discussing the issues. And this is the aim of their media campaigns and intimidation efforts. For Skof, racism and racist policing are not real, but simply rhetorical. Again, in his words: “That’s unfortunate that we’re seeing the bleeding of that very difficult rhetoric into Canada now” (quoted in Nease 2016b). Skof also finds it “unfortunate” that “this has become a conversation around a specific community” (quoted in Nease 2016b). The association attempts to pose racism and racist policing as simply rhetoric and apparently un-Canadian rhetoric at that. This is a common ploy for police associations in such cases. Unfortunately, it seems to be an approach that infects all levels of governance in the Canadian state context. The silence from politicians, particularly supposedly progressive ones, is telling.
Skof’s provocative and insensitive comments have drawn justified criticism. Amran Ali, active with the Canadian Somali Mothers Association, said in an interview with CBC News Ottawa responded:
“I don’t understand why he felt the need to do that. He could have simply said, he doesn’t need to give an interview, there’s an SIU investigation going on. But he felt it was OK for him, and appropriate, to go on air, and talk to Canada about how Abdirahman deserved what happened to him. Up until then, I was holding it together. … A loss is a loss, an individual’s life was taken, but up until that interview, I’m not going to say I was OK, but I was able to hold it together.” (quoted in Nease 2016b)
Skof spoke, as association heads do, to impact the public view of the police and to send a message to the SIU and politicians. Any efforts to address police violence will, of necessity, have to openly and aggressively challenge the police associations which are in many ways the hard edge of policing in social war.
The Ottawa police association has found it necessary to act to defend officers on several occasions recently. Numerous Ottawa Police officers have faced charges in the last few years. Two officers were charged with assault when a man was injured while in custody in May 2014. An officer was charged with dangerous driving following a high-speed car chase that put a suspect in hospital in February 2015. Three officers were charged with criminal negligence and breach of duty for seriously injuring three paramedics during a training exercise in June 2014 (Haley and Jackson 2016).
On Tuesday, following Abdi’s death, the National Council of Canadian Muslims released a statement calling for a thorough investigation of the violent arrest (Jay 2016). As NCCM spokesperson Amira Elghawaby put it: “The community we’re hearing from here in Ottawa — and across the country — want answers. So it’s really important that the SIU conducts the investigation thoroughly, transparently” (quoted in Jay 2016). Unfortunately the history of investigations of police killings of civilians in Ontario as elsewhere in Canada leaves little reason for optimism that the police involved will be held in any way accountable.
Already the response to the police killing of Abdirahman Abdi has a different sense than many acts of police violence in Canada recently. The mobilizations, including rallies, demonstrations, public gatherings, in the community and beyond show a rising movement against police violence. Calls that Black Lives Matter and #JusticeforAbdirahman galvanize opposition to police violence, and indeed policing more generally (as inherently violent institutions). The willingness of community members to speak openly and unflinchingly about police violence, particularly within a community subjected to and threatened by ongoing police violence shows the strength of solidarity and care. And this solidarity and care are based partly in the shared experiences of harassment, racism, brutality, and control directed by the state at Somali Canadian communities.
These mobilizations open real possibilities for opposition to state violence and for alternative, real, forms of community safety and security (which police do not provide, nor were they intended to provide, in any event). The neighborhood in which Abdirahmen Abdi lived shows the resources of care on which opposition and alternatives to police will be founded. A stark contrast to the repression and punitiveness of policing.
Aylward, Cassie. 2016. “‘This is the Hintonburg I Know’: Dozens Gather to Remember Ottawa Man Killed after Violent Arrest.” CFRA. July 27. http://www.cfra.com/news/2016/07/27/this-is-the-hintonburg-i-know-dozens-gather-to-remember-ottawa-man-killed-after-violent-arrest
CBC News. 2016. “Ottawa Man Critically Injured During Arrest Has Died.” CBC News. July 25. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/siu-investigate-hilda-street-arrest-hospital-1.3694114
CTV News. 2016. “Ottawa Man Dies after Arrest that Left Him in a ‘Pool of Blood.’” CTV News. July 26. http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/ottawa-man-dies-after-arrest-that-left-him-in-a-pool-of-blood-1.3000949
Jackson, Emma. 2016. “Witness ‘Shocked’ by Ottawa Police Arrest before Man’s Death.” Metro News. July 24. http://www.metronews.ca/news/ottawa/2016/07/24/witness-shocked-by-police-response-to-autistic-suspect.html
Jay, Paul Cote. 2016. “2 Officers Under Investigation in Death of Ottawa Man Identified.” CBC News. July 26. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/police-officer-in-abdi-death-identified-1.3695996
Lofaro, Joe. 2016. “Abdirahman Abdi, Man Critically Injured in Police Altercation, Has Died: SIU.” Metro News. July 25. http://www.metronews.ca/news/ottawa/2016/07/25/abdirahman-abdi-dies-following-police-altercation-on-hilda-.html
Nease, Kristie. 2016a. “Witness Who Recorded Arrest that Left Man Critically Hurt Describes Emotional Toll.” CBC News. July 26. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/hilda-street-arrest-nimao-ali-1.3693494
Nease, Kristie. 2016b. “Ottawa Police Union President Calls Racism Speculation in Fatal Arrest ‘Inappropriate.’” CBC News. July 26. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/matt-skof-abdirahman-abdi-amran-ali-1.3695349
Ritchie, Haley and Emma Jackson. 2016. “Neighbours Mourn Man Who Died after ‘Disturbing’ Arrest by Ottawa Police.” Metro News. July 25. http://www.metronews.ca/news/ottawa/2016/07/25/man-dies-in-hospital-after-hintonburg-arrest.html