The police shooting that led to the death of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim, which was captured on video, has outraged the public. The Black community is all too familiar with this kind of outrage, yet rarely does the police shooting of a Black youth generate such broad based public reaction.
We understand that the skin colour of the person shot will play into the level and tone of public reaction.
There has been tremendous outpouring of emotion for Yatim, originally from Syria, and questions about police tactics, even from at least one municipal politician.
The incident, in the early hours of Sunday morning, involved one police officer firing nine times at Yatim, who was apparently holding a knife and standing alone in a streetcar on Dundas St. West, near Trinity Bellwoods Park. There were 22 other Toronto police officers at the scene.
People who don’t know the now deceased youth reacted immediately. Remarks from the public in the comments section below a Toronto Sun report of the fatal shooting were almost entirely critical of the actions of the police. This is in a city that once had such grassroots support for our police that many would wear ‘Toronto cops are tops’ t-shirts or buttons. How things have changed.
By Monday, hundreds participated in a protest march along Dundas St. leading to the site of the shooting. The protest march was followed by a vigil. Man-in-the-street news interviews found people saying that after this incident they do not trust the police and no longer feel safe when they are around.
People on social media made comparisons to the murder of African American teen Trayvon Martin. Seventeen-year-old Martin was on his way home in a gated Florida community, coming from a convenience store where he’d purchased candy and pop, when he was pursued then shot and killed by self-styled neighbourhood watchman, George Zimmerman. Zimmerman claimed he was attacked by Martin and shot him to death in self defence.
While we are also shocked by the show of force in this incident and understand the grief of a family’s sudden, tragic loss, we must also ask where citywide outrage was when in March 1997 Hugh Dawson was shot nine times by a police officer who had previously shot and killed another Black man? Dawson was sitting in his car and wearing his seatbelt when he was shot and killed.
Where was the broad-based protest march after the June 1996 police killing of 24-year-old Seneca College student, Wayne Rick Williams, shot dead in the driveway of his home? Williams had been diagnosed with depression and schizophrenia. Like Yatim, Williams was apparently holding a knife when he was killed.
In fact, 1996 was the year in which police also shot and killed Andrew Bramwell, 24, and Tony Barnett, 22, also Black.
Certainly there has been outrage from the Black community. Certainly the late Dudley Laws and the Black Action Defence Committee were leading voices calling for changes to the way police respond in these crisis situations. But, beyond this community, there was no groundswell of public grief and concern.
In all of these shooting deaths, the officers walked free after review of the incidents by the Special Investigation Unit (SIU). The SIU is mandated to investigate anytime there is a fatality involving a police officer or the discharge of a police weapon.
Police Chief Bill Blair says he will cooperate fully with the SIU. That’s good to hear. His force does not have a great record of cooperation with the SIU. And the SIU itself does not have a great record of holding police accountable for their actions. We will see how this goes but we don’t hold out much hope. We expect that despite the public outrage in this incident the outcome of the SIU investigation will mirror other such cases.
One other thing: Now that just about everyone is walking around with mobile phones that have cameras, incidents like the one in which Yatim lost his life are now being recorded by everyday people. This may be the only way to put pressure on the police to develop better strategies for handling these kinds of standoffs.