By Matteo Cimellaro

A coalition of anti-black racism organizations have released a list of ten demands following a dangerous incident with Ottawa police that could have taken another racialized Ottawan.

Seven young black men were surrounded by police, held at gunpoint, then released without charges.

The Asilu Collective, the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project, the Justice For Abdirahman Abdi Coalition, Hit The Streets, Horizon Ottawa, and the Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition are among the groups that signed the demands. 

The list of demands includes a review of de-escalation training and data collection, a release of the 911 call or transcript, and a public apology.

Music video prop leads to militaristic display of force

On December 27, seven young men met up at St. Laurent Shopping Centre before a music video shoot. They were waiting for the last of their friends and discussing the video they were set to film about gun violence. On the car’s dashboard was a BB gun they planned to use as a prop. 

They heard a rush of sirens on the 417. In a harrowing op-ed in the Toronto Star, Chris Simba, an outspoken survivor of the incident, said they were all wondering what could require that level of police response.

“Curiously we watched from afar, wondering what was happening in our city today,” Simba wrote. “I remember thinking, ‘I hope everything is okay.’” Within minutes, they would be surrounded by 12 cruisers and handcuffed at gunpoint. 

Once rifles were pointed and police were shouting at them, Simba was aware a panicked response could lead to tragedy.

“I prayed that the other young men would also proceed with caution. One wrong move could result in grave consequences, ones we have witnessed and watched repetitively happen to other young Black men,” he wrote. 

Due to disproportionate rates of violence against racialized bodies, a 911 call can amount to a deadly threat.

They were detained for 30 minutes in a police cruiser, the men were released and never charged.

In a statement released to inquiring media, Ottawa Police said, “It’s important we build understanding on what prompted this police response,” and they had contacted the young men involved to “discuss the information received and how it led to our response.” 

The Leveller has been unable to confirm police followed up with Simba or the other arrestees.

The incident follows a significant year in the awareness of police brutality and violence against racialized bodies in the city. In the Fall of 2020, Constable Daniel Montsion was found not guilty in the 2016 killing of Abdirahman Abdi, a man who lived with mental illness. In August 2020, a “dynamic entry operation” (AKA no-knock search) by Ottawa Police led to the death of 23-year-old Anthony Aust. 

These are not isolated incidents. In fact, Ottawa Police have a long history of killing members of the public without real consequences — a disproportionate amount of them Black, Indigenous, and racialized.

This history reveals a pattern of police violence when de-escalation was needed.

Ottawa Police have a long history of police violence. Illustration: Crystal Yung

Weaponization and the lethal threat of 911 calls 

When detained in the back of the cruiser, Simba writes that he read on the police monitors that they were described as “five Black men in ski masks, armed.” 

In interviews, Simba says the young men were not in ski masks, nor were they carrying the prop gun.

In an interview with CBC Ottawa’s radio show “All in a Day,” Simba pleaded with the public to be more aware of how they describe a situation to police, particularly when racialized folks are involved. 

“Be careful with your words, because your words could be the difference between life and death of someone. In that instance, someone could have been easily injured or killed. And then our blood would have laid in the hands of the Ottawa Police and in the hands of the person who called,” he said.

Due to disproportionate rates of violence against racialized bodies, a 911 call can amount to a deadly threat.

Ottawa Police did not respond to The Leveller’s repeated questions, asking if they would release the 911 transcripts, as called for in the ten demands.

Vanessa Dorimain, an organizer for Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition, explained to The Leveller why it’s important for the police to release the 911 call. 

“It’s important to see how these encounters are triggered. Clearly what was written on the monitor wasn’t fact. Ottawa has Karens too, and so it is important to share how individual folk’s suspicion[s] based off a group of young men’s skin colour escalated to this,” Dorimain said. 

For those not up on their social media memes, a ‘Karen’ is an entitled white woman who weaponizes her privilege against others. Perhaps the most famous Karen of all, Canadian Amy Cooper, threatened to call the cops on a Black birdwatcher who asked her to leash her dog, as required in the part of New York City’s Central Park where they met. A May 25 video of the incident went viral and sparked widespread condemnation.

De-Escalation Training: “In reality, it’s a band-aid fix” 

According to a statement on their website, Ottawa Police are given a “holistic approach” to de-escalation training. 

The most specific and measurable of the “multi-faceted and diverse number of [de-escalation] techniques and procedures” that the statement is at pains to enumerate is 3.5 hours of communication and de-escalation training, as part of annual 10-hour use of force refresher training.

However, it’s unclear whether racially-sensitive de-escalation training has been integrated into any component of the OPS-run programs. 

The 2017 final report of an Outreach Liaison Team formed by OPS in the wake of the death of Abdi was released in 2019. The team spoke to over 1,000 community members about racially-biased policing. 

In a list of recommendations (with haphazard capitalization and punctuation, Leveller editors can’t resist pointing out), the Outreach Liason Team said the Ottawa Police should “Enhance training to deal with Excessive Use of Force” and “review and revamp its de-escalation training[;] take into account race, mental health, language barriers, and other potential vulnerabilities.”

The Ottawa Police Service has not responded to The Leveller’s repeated inquiries about the implementation of these recommendations, or whether OPS facilitates racially-sensitive de-escalation training.

“When we set these demands, of course we are looking for immediate actions to an even bigger problem, but in reality, it’s a band-aid fix — our bigger beast is systemic anti-Black racism,” Dorimain told The Leveller

Dorimain said that true de-escalation first necessitates that the person approaching you sees you as human, as someone sensible and worthy of dialogue before responding to a threat. She says the Ottawa Police often don’t approach racialized folks in this way. 

“Black folks are seen as both inhumane and a threat to police, so when we ask for de-escalation, we are demanding an anti-oppressive approach to interacting with vulnerable communities,” she continued. This is about “being compassionate and humane to all human beings regardless of the race.” 

“One wrong move could result in grave consequences, ones we have witnessed and watched repetitively happen to other young Black men” Illustration: Crystal Yung

Long-lasting Trauma

Dorimain, who was among the 12 activists who were arrested in a demonstration late last year, addressed the burden of surviving state violence.

As the ones being targeted, these young Black men “had to learn how to relax, shut up, and take it in those moments to come out of it alive,” Dorimain said.  “That is a very difficult thing to do, and those young men did that — and even though they are still alive today, their lives have changed forever.

“OPS robbed them of peace of mind, and once that’s taken from you, you have the hardest climb ahead to try and get that back. I know the feeling.”

At the end of his op-ed, Simba reflects on the weight of his trauma.  

“We were released and never charged with any wrongdoings. However, our trauma that day was never released,” he writes. “It remains within us.” 

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