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Racially Profiled for "Walking While Black"

02/24/2014 05:09 EST | Updated 04/26/2014 05:59 EDT

How long does it take a new immigrant to be profiled in Montreal? Before you hazard a guess, place "black male" in front of immigrant and "racially" in front of profiled. In the wake of the "shopping while black" incidents at Macy's and Barneys (USA), a similarly mundane, egregious, and potentially lethal practice of racial profiling, "walking while black," afflicts Montreal, as it surely does other cities in Canada and elsewhere.

My tale is about "Bob," a recent immigrant to Canada, and his first unhappy encounter with the Montreal Police. On the afternoon of February 19, 2014, Bob walked along St. Catherine Street in the heart of downtown. He had emigrated from the Dominican Republic to be reunited with his Canadian wife. He must have set a record for securing work (two days), taking a position in a restaurant -- one of those jobs that the majority of established Canadians won't take -- that was far below his education, intellect, and experience in order to contribute to his household.

Indeed, Bob is extraordinarily overqualified for his new job. Back home, Bob had once been a senior employee of a five-star resort, a masseuse, a professional baseball player (a pitcher with a 98 miles per hour fastball), and a fireman who specialized in dangerous water rescues and recoveries. Put bluntly, Bob is a hero whose work experience includes saving lives.

Back on St. Catherine Street, Bob crossed an intersection beside two white pedestrians. Singled out by a white, French-speaking police officer, Bob was asked to produce his identification without an explanation of his "offense." By the way, the two white pedestrians with whom Bob crossed the intersection were not stopped and interrogated.

A Spanish-speaker and recent immigrant to Quebec, Bob does not yet speak any French. His English is quite good however, given his previous exposure to tourists in his country. But Bob's pleas (in English) for information and an explanation for the encounter fell on deaf ears, or ears deliberately un-attuned to any language but French. Instead, the policeman insisted that he would only speak French and demanded that Bob do the same. It is hard to comprehend the level of arrogance, malevolence, and insensitivity that motivated such a callous response on the part of a civil servant whose role it is to "serve and protect." Bob did not expect the officer to communicate in Spanish, but he assumed that he was owed an explanation (in either of Canada's two official languages) for the reason for the encounter.

While Bob asked repeatedly, to no avail, for an explanation, the white officer began to write a jay-walking ticket. Seeing Bob's distress, a concerned Latina stopped to intervene, advising Bob to remain calm because, as she stated, "these things happen to us all the time." Upon handing Bob the ticket, the officer commanded him to "speak French." The idea that the acquisition of French could be issued as an on-the-spot directive with immediate results is ludicrous.

If this was the case, surely all of the Canadian-born citizens of Quebec who speak little or no English could simply watch some American television and become fluent English speakers overnight. As the exchange concluded, Bob who was forced to disclose his address asked the officer in English to aid him in making his way home. The departing response? "Speak French!"

Although Bob's lack of French, accented English, and Spanish fluency surely alerted the white officer to the fact that he was most likely dealing with an immigrant, a tourist, or a visitor (all common in cosmopolitan Montreal), the officer's repudiation of respectful dialogue, his unwillingness to adapt to the communicative ability of the citizen with whom he instigated contact and the adamant refusal to provide assistance to a non-French speaker (precisely the type of person who might most require police assistance!) indexes a deep-seated disdain for black populations which when coupled with linguistic bias, results in heightened surveillance, hyper-criminalization, and over-policing; a disastrous recipe with potentially lethal outcomes.

Bob's deliberate segregation from the two white pedestrians, the instantaneously combative engagement of the white officer, and the deliberate refusal of respectful communication and assistance speak to a population of poorly trained, anti-social, racist police officers who contaminate the otherwise exemplary Montreal Police force. Such officers -- armed as they are more often with guns than with Tasers -- actually fabricate probable cause by criminalizing black men as always already "suspicious." But if Bob's black body was misread as "criminal" at three o'clock on a weekday afternoon in a bustling shopping area, in the eyes of racist white officers, how much more would his 6 foot 3 inch, athletic build signal "danger" on a secluded street at night?

Full disclosure -- "Bob" is my husband. He is tall, strong, and athletically built as one waiting to be rescued would hope any firefighter would be. He has a sweet, kind spirit, a wicked sense of humour and a powerful intellect. When he exited the airport in Montreal in the dead of winter I imagined that he was pondering if his love for me was enough to suffer the inexplicably insufferable Montreal cold.

The same night that he was accosted, my husband and I attended an official function at the residence of the U.S. consul general to honour various black Montrealers for their contributions to the city. As a laureate, my husband and I were embraced by the gathering of politicians, dignitaries, celebrities and members of the press. This is our world, a world to which the white police officer, with his impaired racist vision, could not have fathomed that my husband belonged.

As someone who studies race for a living, I had warned my husband that his many good encounters with friendly, happy, white Canadian tourists in his country would not always parallel his experiences with Canadian whiteness in Montreal. As a black man from a majority black nation he is perfectly aware of his talents and abilities. Growing up he saw himself reflected in the fabric of his nation, in a diversity of roles, including the country's highest offices. However, my husband has sadly had an immediate orientation in the burden of blackness for minority populations in western nations where the legacy of slavery and anti-black racism is alive and well in discriminatory practices like racist policing.

Returning to the beginning, the answer to how long it takes for a black male immigrant to be racially profiled by the Montreal police is: one week. I pray that my happy reunion with my husband does not become for him a lethal mistake and that a preponderance of positive experiences going forward will overshadow this initial negative event.

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