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We Have To Talk About How Police Target Native Americans

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An armed police officer stands watch over as a march for Indigenous rights and against the upcoming G8 and G20 Summits, moves through the streets of Toronto. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Walter Scott are just three names of the many that police have killed recently. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot in a police drive-by because he had a toy gun. No questions asked. Eric Garner was choked to death for breaking up a fight and Walter Scott was shot in the back while running away and posing absolutely no threat to the police officer behind the trigger.

No matter what you feel about the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the point is that they have a legitimate message which often gets lost in arguing, emotion or rationalizing what is just wrong. Blacks are killed by police at three times the rate of white people and of those killings over half of them were unarmed or non-violent. A recent study by the Center for Policing Equity found that police are more likely to use physical force on blacks.

There is a clear problem: hundreds of people of specific populations are killed every year in police interactions. Black Lives Matter is not saying that only their lives matter; they are saying that, historically, their lives have not mattered.

I know first-hand how Natives can be profiled.

They haven't mattered much, nor have Native American lives. What isn't really reported in the media is the fact that Native Americans are killed at nearly identical rates to blacks in police interactions.

The residential schools are but one example of Natives being targets of the state. Now I could go on about the sterilizations, collection and selling of body parts, lynchings, raping and a hundred other atrocities that led up to the residential school system, but that's been documented better than I can do and this is specifically about the police and racialized people.

And the point is that the targeting is systemic by those in positions of power and control. One incident in Ontario that comes to mind is the OPP shooting and murder of the unarmed Native protester Dudley George which came hours after the former Premier of Ontario, Mike Harris allegedly said, "I want the f****** Indians out of the park." during a high level meeting about the Ipperwash occupation.

I know first-hand how Natives can be profiled. Not too long ago I was pulled over in my paid-for Mercedes by the OPP, presumably because they thought I looked suspicious in the neighbourhood. And it was based solely on what they saw rather than any wrongdoing or action on my part. They saw a Native guy with visible tattoos in an expensive car, in a nice neighbourhood and that was enough to "justify" a stop and approach my vehicle with their hands on their sidearms, make me get out of the car and place me in handcuffs until they "verified" I owned the vehicle. As opposed to stole it, I guess. I would have thought the insurance, ownership and license I handed them did that. And it likely would have for a non-native or non-black male.

Then there was the time a Toronto Police officer terrified my fiancé by calling me a faggot through my window and said he should punch me in the face because I dared to ask why I was pulled over before producing my licence as I had done nothing wrong. After four more police cruisers arrived and a half-hour wait, sure enough, I was allowed to leave. Probably because I did nothing wrong.

Do you see what I mean about it being systemic? Our society and our systems create criminals.

I know I am complaining. It is personal and offensive. But when I get past that, what bothers me the most is that unlike myself, the vast majority can't afford to defend themselves. And so they end up charged more often, found guilty more often, given jail time more often. They are caught in a cycle of disruption in their communities, conform to institutionalized behaviour in jail, have criminal records and are not able to find employment as a result. Do you see what I mean about it being systemic? Our society and our systems create criminals.

Individual police officers may not even be intentionally racist, but there is a lot to be considered about the system that recruits, trains, supervises and provides them with direction. What are the messages to them about black and native men, in particular? What happens to new recruits in training, on-the-job experience and exposure to values and beliefs of police officers who do denigrate certain populations and abuse their position of power?

When I do think of police officers as individuals, I have some empathy. They are people. They often face incredibly difficult situations and their own weaknesses and fears will impact their actions.

Understandably in some areas if I was a police officer I may be quick to pull a trigger, but that is why I would not make a good police officer or try to be one. I don't have the patience to do the job properly and if you can't do a job correctly, don't sign up for it.

Be clear that my message is not to take action or an eye-for-an-eye approach against police; that's not the answer and you can never beat the police in a power struggle in the street. Keep your eye on the issues in our systems and how they need to change. Whether you chose to acknowledge or admit it, black and native people are not just complaining. Their lives really do matter.

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