The unofficial theme of an event last Sunday in honour of community icon, Dudley Laws, might as well have been “Dudley Laws Speaks for Me!” as speaker after speaker mouthed the infamous words.
This harks back to a number of years ago when efforts to marginalize this forthright, uncompromising community leader by the powers that be – especially the police supported by many in the mainstream media – had some Black folks in this city clamouring to distance themselves from the stridency of Laws and his Black Action Defense Committee (BADC) with the words “Dudley Laws does not speak for me”.
The effort, of course, was a resounding failure, as many of his supporters and those who recognized the value this man has added to the lives of so many of us – all of us, if truth be told – resulted in what we might recall now as the “Dudley Laws Speaks for Me” momentum. Instead of marginalizing him, it woke us up to the importance of his presence among us.
As a young reporter covering the community for another newspaper some 38 years ago, I attended the rallies, the meetings, the demonstrations and the marches through the streets of the city as Dudley Laws and his supporters ignored the police and anyone else who would silence their voices as they forcefully spoke to the issues that affected Black people in Toronto.
But, Dudley’s involvement was more than the rallies and speeches. It has been said that he would leave his home in the middle of the night if needed and go to the airport to assist someone who was having difficulties or to attend on a family who had a problem, especially with the police. I have been told that there were people who worked at the airport who would give out his phone number to newly arrived people from the Caribbean.
Three weeks after I started Share in my apartment in a fourth-story walk-up on Eglinton Avenue West a fire destroyed everything. In the midst of my confusion and fear I answered a knock on the door to find Dudley standing there. He was the first person to come up those stairs to see how I was doing and to empathize with me. That was almost 33 years ago.
I have not always agreed with him but I always trusted his motives. I always believed that he had the very best interests of our community at heart.
A few years ago, when Dudley found himself in trouble with the police, a fellow who is well known in the community for his own work on behalf of the less fortunate, called me to discuss Dudley’s situation. He, however, seemed more interested in criticizing.
“People like us,” he said, meaning he and I, “wouldn’t find ourselves in such a position.” My response to him was simply that if I had to choose between him and Dudley Laws, it would be Dudley Laws hands down.
But, that was how some people reacted to Dudley Laws. Those who understood what he was about supported him unconditionally. Those who didn’t get it; those who were embarrassed by his pronouncements – especially about the police – rushed to denounce and distance themselves from him at every opportunity.
One of the speakers I was extremely pleased to hear from on Sunday was retired Toronto police deputy chief, Keith Forde.
Forde recalled how he came to know of Dudley Laws and how, instead of listening to those of his colleagues – including Black police officers – who advised that he should distance himself from Laws, made a point of getting to know him and to understand what he was about. He said that he came to realize that both he and Dudley had the same goals of social justice.
But, to me, Forde’s acceptance of Dudley Laws meant a lot more than that.
Here was a police officer on the way up in the department whose career could have potentially been jeopardized by his association with someone who had been known as a fierce critic of the police. Yet, he chose to follow his conscience. He even attended on several occasions the annual Dudley Laws Day which celebrates Laws’ birthday in early May.
Instead of hurting his career, the Barbados-born Forde became the first Black deputy chief in the city’s history.
Which just goes to show that – in this country and especially in this city – people in power respect you when you stand on principle. What you say might make them uncomfortable but they will respect you more than they would those who ‘go along to get along’. That is a lesson more of our would-be leaders – and our young people – need to learn.
Dudley Laws spoke for all of us, even if we didn’t realize it or didn’t acknowledge it. When he spoke out against biased police behaviour towards Black people, the changes that resulted benefited all of us, not just Black people living in certain areas of the city. When he and others with him spoke out against racism, positive changes that resulted benefited all of us.
And there have been a lot of changes. For a period last year, there were two Black deputy police chiefs in Toronto – Forde, before he retired, and Jamaican-born Peter Sloly. Just recently Sloly acted as chief in the absence of Chief Bill Blair.
There have been so many other positive outcomes for Black people in this city. Every week in Share there are stories of Black success whether by young people forging ahead in academia or Black lawyers making it on Bay Street. There was a time that these advances would have been nothing more than a distant dream. And I sincerely believe that we have a much better police service in this city today because of the work of Dudley Laws and BADC.
Recently, my wife and I visited Dudley at Humber Hospital (Church Street site) where he has been for a while now. At the time of our visit he was hooked up to a dialysis machine. After warmly greeting us, his very first words were of concern for our young people who are destroying themselves and each other. It must break his heart.
Those who organized the tribute to him on Sunday – and who must be commended for a wonderful event – said that Dudley, surrounded by his family, watched the proceedings from his hospital bed, thanks to modern technology. I am glad he was able to see and hear the respect and admiration that was expressed. I can only hope that he truly knows how much he is appreciated.
Thank you Dudley Laws for speaking for me – and for all of us.