Look: I know I’m no authority on American politics. I’m a seventeen-year-old Canadian girl who’s never studied politics nor followed them closely. I don’t spend much time thinking about them, either. The truth is that the socio-political climate in the United States of America will never affect me directly, and my opinion might be easy to discount.
However, a few days ago my family and I heard glass breaking, and a few minutes later four police cruisers showed up on our street.
The gist of it was this: the estranged husband of one of my neighbors broke into his old house. From what I’ve gathered after the fact, he had bipolar disorder and was off his medication at the time and had been so for a while. Somehow—luckily—his estranged wife had gotten out of the house, but he was still in the kitchen, smashing everything he could find, when the police arrived.
When they took him out on a stretcher—still alive—some time later, we learned he’d rushed at police with a knife, and from his unconscious-but-visibly-unharmed appearance, we thought he’d been Tasered.
Here’s the thing: if it had happened in the States, there’s a good chance this man would be dead. Because he had three strikes against him: he was mentally unstable; a Muslim man; and he threatened police with a weapon.
I’m not trying to say he should have zero responsibility for his actions that day. But I don’t think anyone should have to pay with their lives for what—while terrifying for their family—is essentially a medical issue. It’s not that deadly force shouldn’t be an option; it just shouldn’t be the first or only option.
I’m not going to pretend I knew this man well, because my family was never close to his. I can’t tell what he was like behind closed doors. But before he went off his meds, he seemed to be a kind man. I would see him and his wife sometimes as I walked home from school, and we would smile at each other. I’ve watched him play with his young child, laughing and happy. I’ve seen him work tirelessly on the cars in his garage despite having a disability. Last Christmas, they sent us a Christmas card despite belonging to a different faith. In all the years that we’ve known each other, my family and I have never had any problems with him.
This is not about Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, or Brown Lives Matter. It’s not about the Second Amendment or Islamaphobia or racism. I did not write this to score any political points. But the fact is that at the time of this writing, 633 people have been killed by police in 2016. In 2015, one person was killed by firearms every 17 minutes. Based off a May 2015 study by the Washington Post, African-Americans were found to be three times as likely to get killed by police as white people are, and people with mental illnesses made up a quarter of all people shot by police. And worst of all, 97% of cases where an officer shot and killed someone did not end in the officer being charged, let alone convicted.
And when you get into it, police brutality does affect me. It affects me because I know good cops here who are horrified by what’s happening in the US. It bothers me because I’m half-Latina and my mother has the same skin color as Antonio Zambrano-Montes and Ricardo Diaz Zeferino. It bothers me because I have black friends and brown friends and Muslim friends and American friends and they are all horrified by what’s happening.
This is not just a gun problem, a white problem, or a police problem. It is a systemic and dangerous ideology that tells people to shoot first, ask questions later. It gives people the excuse to use lethal force if they “felt threatened” and say they were scared for their lives.
You are allowed to be afraid. It’s okay. It’s normal. Hell, I’m willing to bet the cops who came to my street were scared too. But your fear must be justified. Just being scared is not an excuse to use deadly force. There are other ways to de-escalate a situation than to kill the person making you afraid.
Look, Canada isn’t perfect. I’m not going to pretend that we don’t have problems. We do. Saying that we don’t have police brutality, that the deaths of Sammy Yatim and Abdirahman Abdi never happened, would be a lie. Saying we can’t be racist would be a lie too. But the difference is that here, we’re willing to admit our mistakes so we can learn from them. The officer in the Sammy Yatim case was charged and then convicted of attempted murder, and an inquest was held into his death. In response, the Toronto Police Department made changes to their training programs—including adding three weeks of de-escalation training. And while we’ve been just as racist towards First Nations as Americans have been towards African-Americans, we created the Truth and Reconciliation Committee to help acknowledge our past. Our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has apologized publically for residential schools, and their existence has been incorporated into our history curriculum so we can learn from what happened. Again, we are not perfect. But it’s a start.
We need to recognize that there’s a problem and deal with it before it’s too late.