By Dr. AJAMU NANGWAYA
Why everyting weh gwaan a foreign, a di Yardie (Jamaicans) get di blame
As yuh quint di Yankee (Americans) dem call nuff Yardie name
If a bank get lik (robbed), dem say di Yardie do it
Woman get raped, Yardie life at stake
If dem find a man dead, a Yardie buss him head
Dem seh, Yardman deh a foreign a run di place red
“Yardie” – Buju Banton
Buju Banton’s lamentation about the “Yardie” getting the blame for all sorts of crime is something that Caribana (now the Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival) can identify with at the gut level. This street festival has been wrongly associated with criminality. It has much to do with the fact that Afrikan bodies are linked to this event.
According to Stephen Weir, an organizer of the festival:
“Two years ago there was a young boy at a church party in Pickering and he was (killed) on Sunday night, and police called it a pre-Caribana party. Two years before that, a man was killed at Dundas Square a day after our parade. (Local media) called it a Caribana killing… This heightened awareness or concern about our event is based on a racist linking of events involving Black people.”
This fear of Afrikans by the political authority and its armed guardians when this group is in the street playing mas is not of recent vintage. According to University of the West Indies expert on carnival culture Dr. Keith Nurse, carnival in Notting Hill (London), Brooklyn (New York) and Toronto (Canada) were seen as exotic affairs up to the mid-1970s.
However, as these festivals grew into massive gatherings of Afrikans, the status quo thought they had become “more menacing and policing escalated, resulting in a backlash from the immigrant Caribbean community”.
The spectre of the “Black horde” invading the White-controlled territory of Toronto to unleash its destructive inclination became an exaggerated fear among an “innocent” White citizenry. In the mind of the White imagination, carnival would only let loose the primal and uncontrolled sexual urges of Afrikans, and their inherent criminality and dangerous tendencies.
Given the above perceived reality, the forces of law and order would be the way to control “these people”. However, the police in Toronto were already regulating the behaviour of Afrikans outside of the Caribana parade.
In 1971, the Black Student Union at the University of Toronto wrote in Contrast newspaper that Caribana ignored social issues such as “Canadian racism in all forms of discrimination in housing, lack of jobs, racism in education and police harassment” and the Black petite bourgeoisie were only interested in putting “on their show for White people”.
It is clear that police violence was an issue in the early years of the 1970s. The killing of Andrew “Buddy” Evans in August 1978 and that of Albert Johnson in 1979 by the police in Toronto inspired the Afrikan community to organize massive protest actions in the streets. It was certainly logical for the cops to fear Caribana could be used as a site of protest in spite of its tendency to be a place for cultural celebration and bacchanal.
Lyndon Phillip, a researcher, says: “It would be unfair to begin a story about the violence (associated with community-police relations) at Caribana during the 1980s. It ignores the minimal quarrels, beefs and disturbances that occurred during the previous decade.”
An August 6, 1984 incident that happened after the Caribana parade led the police and the media to become alarmist or sensational in their framing of the festival as an event that fosters or attracts violent elements. A fight broke out between a White youth and his Afrikan counterpart. A call for assistance to the police was made at 9 p.m. but they arrived on the scene at 12:45 a.m. The cops claimed to have been met by about 100 youth who threw bottles at them.
The interesting issue was the claim that the police prevented “a near riot and second that it was a Caribana related event involving revellers” according to Phillip. Usually in situations involving Afrikans and the cops, the latter’s overreaction in the use of force or their bullying presence actually tend to trigger the outburst of defensive violence by community members.
A case in point was a 1985 stabbing of police officer Quinton Johnson when he sought to apprehend an Afrikan man who he believed was in possession of marijuana. This incident happened after the official ending of Caribana’s picnic on Toronto’s Olympic Island. Johnson aggressively pushed the man from behind and it led to him being knifed.
The 300 cops went on a rampage against the patrons, which injured dozens of people. In the words of eyewitness Peter Deboran, “the bulk of the problem lies with the police for their belligerent behaviour towards the concert goers”.
This incident was used to justify a 33 per cent increase in the number of cops, reduction of the parade’s length by eliminating its lower Jarvis Street section and put an end to the beer party at the 1986 Caribana.
The British academic Peter Jackson points to the differential treatment of Caribana and the “White” Blue Jays games. He says: “There were fewer problems (at Caribana) than at most Blue Jays baseball games where 60 officers police crowds of 40,000-50,000 spectators.”
The Toronto Star, in its August 7, 1990 edition, characterized the police’s Caribana presence as an “army of Metro officers”. That framing is awfully close to our experience of the cops as an occupation army.
The Afrikan body is seen as a marker of danger and chaos. Therefore it comes as no surprise that Caribana is treated like a threat to national security.
Bob Marley sums up the feelings of the community in his song “I Shot the Sheriff”:
Sheriff John Brown always hated me,
For what, I don’t know,
Every time I plant a seed,
He said kill it before it grow
Ajamu Nangwaya, PhD, is an organizer, educator and writer. He is an organizer with the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence.