t has been reported that “In Toronto, 10 per cent of all police contacts, some 360,000 interactions, are with people experiencing homelessness.” It is also estimated that, “On any given day over 8,500 people in Toronto” are without housing. This means that, in a city with almost 3 million residents, a very major portion of an enormous budget for ‘police services,’ now well beyond $1 billion a year, is being devoted to an effective crackdown on a few thousand visibly destitute people, concentrated in the central urban area.
The dominant political agenda in Canada over the last several decades has produced social cutbacks, a growth of low wage precarious work and a relentless pursuit of upscale redevelopment. The ‘neoliberal city’ that has resulted is a place where some enjoy luxury housing, while others struggle to put food on the table and remain housed. Such a city generates enormous social tensions and a brand of police activity that is intended to keep the lid on them.
For 28 years, I was an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). In that capacity, I had a very ample opportunity to see the ‘law enforcement’ side of the war on the poor in operation. One day, I intervened in a situation where a cop was giving a ticket to a homeless man in a public park. The ‘offence’ he was accused of was that of camping in a park without a permit. Yet, he had been simply sitting on the grass with a closed bag beside him.
The cop had issued the ticket, he freely acknowledged, because local businesses didn’t want homeless people gathering at that location. This is exactly how the ‘complaint driven’ forms of police activity unfold. Local business and residents’ groups communicate their concerns to the police, who then act as armed agents of gentrification. The process is dubious, in terms of any adherence to law, but the kind of ‘order’ that is being established and whose interests it serves are very clear to see. The massive police operations to clear out homeless camps that followed the end of the pandemic lockdown period were only a larger scale pursuit of the same objectives.
If we go back to the roots of policing in history, we will readily understand that the repressive activity being unleashed today, in the context of austerity, inequality and an extreme commodification of housing, is really in line with the essential function that the police have always discharged. We may consider the formation of the Metropolitan Police Force in London, England, in 1829, with its mandate to impose order on the impoverished working class communities thrown up by the Industrial Revolution. We can also consider the creation of the forerunner of the RCMP, in 1873, as a paramilitary means of clearing Indigenous people from their traditional territories. Policing has always been about imposing social control on potentially restive populations in the interests of those with economic and political power.
Exploitation, economic disadvantage and social abandonment play out in this society along lines that are deeply and fundamentally racist. That police activity in Toronto reflects this harsh reality, and that it is itself notoriously racist, is anything but surprising. As of 2020, Black people made up 8.8 per cent of the city’s population but were the object of almost a third of the charges laid by police. It has also been determined, quite appallingly, that “between 2013 and 2017, a Black person in Toronto was 20 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than a white person.”
Defunding for Safety
The demand to defund the police, that took on such a pressing nature in the period after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, had an impact right here in Toronto. As I write this, a municipal election is underway that sadly has involved very little challenge to the massive and costly deployment of police power in Toronto. The new City Council will operate with that vast institution of enforcement intact and the social and economic injustices it upholds undiminished.
Despite this, far from having lost its significance, the demand to defund the police still points the way forward for communities in these harsh and uncertain times. We face an enormous cost of living crisis, the threat of a major economic downturn and the prospect of further rounds of austerity and social cutbacks. To continue to pour the resources needed to respond to these challenges into buttressing the repressive power of the police is indefensible. The incoming City Council must face relentless community pressure to address this livid question.
The police were not created to keep poor and racialized working class communities safe. When OCAP was involved in a campaign to get a basketball court constructed in a neighbourhood where many Somali people lived, parents told us that they wanted this for their children because, if they had to travel any distance for recreation, they would be at risk from the police. There was no sense among these families of being served or protected by the cops. On the contrary, they saw the police as a threat and a danger and, in this, they were entirely correct.
The huge outlay of resources that goes into the persecution and harassment of poor and racialized communities in this city by the police would, indeed, be put to much better use if it were diverted into services that actually conform to valid and important social needs. Law and order advocates and centrist apologists may be aghast at such a contention but, if we want our communities to be safe, the demand to defund the police makes an enormous amount of sense.