Opinion: #JusticeForRegis - Allyship, the failures of Canadian media and the end of respectability politics

Arun Srinivasan
·11-min read
TORONTO, ON- MAY 30  -  Activists and protesters angry over allegations of police involvement in the death of 29-year-old Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who fell from the 24th-floor balcony of a High Park apartment building on Wednesday, have  a protest and march to Police Headquarters on in honour of the young Black woman.  in Toronto. May 30, 2020.        (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON- MAY 30 - Activists and protesters angry over allegations of police involvement in the death of 29-year-old Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who fell from the 24th-floor balcony of a High Park apartment building on Wednesday, have a protest and march to Police Headquarters on in honour of the young Black woman. in Toronto. May 30, 2020. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year-old black woman, died on May 27 after police were called to her apartment in the High Park neighbourhood of Toronto. Korchinski-Paquet’s family called the police to request to take her to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and minutes later, she fell to her death from her 24th-floor balcony.

Korchinski-Paquet’s family stated that the police pushed her off the balcony and killed her. Since media — particularly Canadian media — are instructed to take the word of police at face value, the testimony of Korchinski-Paquet’s family was initially unfairly reported by national outlets as unsubstantiated allegations. This thread below by Sadiya Ansari, co-founder of the Canadian Journalists of Colour, outlines the failings of Canadian media as they initially covered Korchinski-Paquet’s death.

As the week went on, protests emerged in several cities across America after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for over eight minutes. Floyd said he couldn’t breathe, a far-too-common refrain that has found its way into public lexicon, only to be ignored when the latest injustice against black people that’s captivated global attention eventually fades out of the news cycle.

Not Another Black Life, a political organization, organized a protest on Saturday, with the support and attendance of Korchinski-Paquet’s family, starting at Toronto’s Christie Pits. It’s of paramount importance that Canadians overcome the notion that they’re not part of a racist country and the idea that racism against black people is only prevalent in the United States. “Meanwhile in Canada” is only self-serving and only obfuscates the clear violence applied constantly by the aggressor, the police.

If you live on the internet, you’re probably familiar with the concept of being an ally to black people. But what does that look like? Days went by after Korchinski-Paquet’s death and colleagues in Canadian media - sports, news, or otherwise - largely remained silent, waiting for their cues from their black friends, or in the absence of black friends, athletes, or celebrities. Many journalists remain silent out of a sense of impartiality that’s conducive to their jobs, but now isn’t the time to be silent.

Your black friends are tired. The idea that black people getting murdered by the police is a uniquely Black issue is an untenable position. Black people are exhausted and now more than ever, it’s on white or any non-black person for that matter, to amplify voices, listen, genuinely educate yourself about police brutality and systemic oppression, donate money if you can, and continue to do so when protests across the world are no longer the focus of the 24-hour news cycle.

This isn’t the time for white fragility, either. A prevailing sentiment among white people, along with some non-black people of colour who consume black culture, or more to the point, make an income off black culture and consumer trends, is that they don’t know what to say, or don’t know where to start. You don’t need to be well-versed in black literature to express sorrow about the constant trauma they’re subject to by a police system that purportedly is supposed to protect them. Expressing empathy, without making yourself the protagonist, still appears to be a difficult task for even some well-intentioned white people and non-black people of colour.

The latter part is less excusable. If your daily life consists of being on the internet, surely you’ve seen links on where to donate money, or how to spread awareness, or how to engage in anti-racist behaviour. It’s the act of being wilfully obtuse from some of the brightest people, people who are able to constantly express their wit, humour and analysis with such clarity about sports or entertainment in normal times.

It’s been a reckoning for many well-intentioned journalists to realize their silence makes them complicit. If the phrase ‘white silence is white violence’ makes you recoil, imagine the real effects that state violence has on its victims.

Before heading to the protest, I consulted “How to Protest Safely During a Pandemic” by VICE’s Katie Way, and mostly adhered to the guidelines - I wore a black t-shirt as outlined, but didn’t realize before it was too late that it was clearly my Raptors shirt. Meeting up with a friend - someone who is far more experienced at protesting, it became very readily apparent that this would be a peaceful protest. But it must be clear that non-violence, in and of itself, is not an automatically superior option to violence, when the police are applying violence against black people.

Keosha Love, a writer, creator and wellness educator, began Saturday’s protest with a powerful speech that set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Love asked for collective outrage and action, and made it clear that it’s not the forum for non-black people to comment on how black people react to how white people and the police abuse their systemic power against them. It was a moving speech and it was clear that the organizers and Korchinski-Paquet’s family wanted Saturday to be a peaceful march.

The protest was indeed peaceful - to the best of my understanding. It was a successful protest because it met its intended aims. But you cannot apply value judgment on non-violence alone, independent of the desired aim of the protest. If the police were to attack the protesters, as they’ve done across America throughout all of last week, and the protesters tried to defend themselves or fight back, it would be an equally valid response.

Canadian media is inclined to uphold respectability politics at all costs. In one instance, as readers noted, CBC made the New York protesters appear to be the aggressor, when the police drove a van into traffic against the protesters.

Respectability politics no longer have a place in Canadian media discourse. It’s either that you and your organization value black lives and their form of political protest against a state that has failed them, or you don’t value black lives at all.

Although I’ve written about where the NHL fails in its diversity initiatives, where Ron MacLean didn’t do enough when Don Cherry was ultimately fired, and how the culture of hockey failed Akim Aliu, it’s not enough for me to write a few pieces about racism in hockey over the span of 10 months and call it a day.

I’m a sports writer on loan to news for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, so sports often informs my world view. Even if it doesn’t inform yours, the Raptors were the talk of the town from April 2019 and after a season in which they posted a 46-18 record despite losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency, have remained the pride of the city, creating a new class of Raptors fans that aren’t beset by years of disappointment.

It’s troubling to see that many people who wouldn’t think twice about celebrating the Raptors, going to the parade, buying Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry jerseys and spending money on the tickets to see the now-unaffordable champions, would celebrate aspects of black culture so fervently one summer, then refuse to engage with real issues in the black community the next. This is often a connection some fail to make. In media, especially if you cover the MLB, NBA, NFL, WNBA or any league that predominantly consists of black athletes and you can make an income off of it, you have an obligation to care about black culture beyond the parameters of sports, entertainment or other aspects of consumerism.

The Toronto Maple Leafs - my boyhood club, a team that I still find myself rooting for despite ostensibly having to be impartial to cover the NHL - released a statement that received praise, largely from other white sports writers on social media, for the mere task of acknowledging that George Floyd was murdered, as opposed to being killed by some mysterious entity that several of these other statements tried to imply.

Take another look. The Leafs, well-intentioned as they are, were among the organizations that came closest to getting it, and yet they still didn’t acknowledge the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet in their own backyard, or that people were protesting her death mere kilometres away from their own arena, a day before. If you can’t acknowledge that the police are inflicting state violence against black people in your hometown, how much of this well-crafted statement is just another performing act?

Participating in the protest was a powerful experience. A non-black friend of mine went as far to call it cathartic, but I don’t necessarily agree. There’s still more work to be done and I’m still angry, while doing my best to hold space for black anger, grief and empathy. No justice, no peace, no racist police. The broken police system needs to be defunded.

CBC reported in March 2019 that 23.2 percent of a sample $3,020 property tax bill would go to the police services and board, receiving the largest sum by far, roughly five times more than community housing. The Toronto Police Services Board approved a $1.07 billion budget for the 2020 calendar year, a 3.9 percent increase since 2019. All of this funding feels purposely antagonistic toward black people, who are often targeted by the criminal justice system.

Mayor John Tory authored a boilerplate statement on Sunday, a day after the protest, and eight days after he galavanted through Trinity Bellwoods Park, but his words certainly aren’t rooted in policy.

Walking through the streets of Toronto to protest a police force that far too often fails its black citizens is a start. When the energy briefly lulled as the crowd approached its final destination, the police headquarters outside College and Bay Street, protesters were quick to remind those not in good faith that “this is a protest, not a parade” that this wasn’t a mere frivolity or reason to be outside amid a pandemic. It’s quite literally a matter of life and death.

There’s more work to be done. I certainly have a ton to learn from the black community, have more reading to do, and will continue to do my best to amplify black voices, support black businesses and read black literature.

I hope the black community can take some time to rest this week. It’s on the rest of us to pick up our black friends when they are calling for our help. I urge you to do the same.