On Nov. 19, 2020, the New West Record ran a story entitled “New Westminster Taking on Racism and Diversity,” wherein it was reported that the city would begin the implementation of a new “diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism (DEIAR) framework” for which it hired a private consulting firm.
This consulting firm promises that the inclusion of the term “anti-racism” sets New Westminster apart from other organizations, and perhaps suggests that major changes are afoot in our fair city.
In theory, this is cause for great optimism, given that city staff has seconded the drive behind the new framework by asserting in a report that this will “support the city” in developing hiring practices to build a “balanced, diverse and inclusive workforce,” and that this will make city government a “healthier, productive, and innovative organization.” The Record cites the framework’s goals to include offering “equitable employment” so the city can attract a workforce that “reflects” “diverse residents.”
In addition to this, the framework also lists “inclusive decision-making” which will produce “diverse, inclusive, and anti-racist policies, plans, practices and measures.” To this effect, the article also quotes Mayor Jonathan Cote, who stressed the importance of ensuring that “really important conversations” don’t only “happen in isolation, in a bubble.”
In that spirit, I have decided to offer an important critique of the new framework, as well as the immediate fear by some in the community, evinced by the reaction of Coun. Chinu Das, who reacted negatively, (referring) to it as a “deficit-based approach,” which Das describes as being defined by focusing on “gaps and problems.” Das is quoted as saying that what should be followed instead would be an “asset-based approach,” which will produce a “workforce” which will “deliver our work better.”
Sadly, all of these statements sorely miss the point of anti-racism, which is to eliminate racism. Racism is not a bad thing simply because it is currently defined as being against the prevailing morality of the day; rather, it is immoral and anti-social in nature because it proclaims according to arbitrary quasi-biological criteria that one “race” is superior to all others, and, usually, that this means some herrenvolk is deigned to be worthy of greater rights and privileges than others in society. By corollary, it also strongly states or powerfully implies that groups that are not in the chosen elect are deserving of lesser rights and privileges, and that when their rights are violated, there is a legitimate excuse for that owing to their lesser status. In a fascist state or a totalitarianism, like Nazi Germany or the Confederate States of America, or its successor regime of the Jim Crow Southern United States, racism makes perfect sense – indeed, the entire basis of these societies was to elevate the master race at the expense of others, by design. In a democratic and multicultural state like Canada, the United States, or India, the circulation of racism, or, in India, its ancient antecedent, casteism, is fatal to the operations of the body politic and the government, as social trust that evolves through faith in the rule of law is fatally undermined in practice, rendering the peace that it can provide a mere fiction to large segments of society which are not conformist to the majoritarian project of whiteness in North America, or Brahmanical Hinduism in the Indian subcontinent.
In all these contexts, of race, of caste, and of class, there emerges a social ideology of supremacism which castigates the affects and behaviours of subordinated groups for permanent judgment by the ruling group. In India, “lower caste” persons are considered unclean and “upper caste” persons will not share food with them, or enter their abodes; in Nazi Germany, Jews were considered “dirty” persons whose very being was a disease to the health of society; and in the United States and Canada, and the broader Anglo-global worlds which share a common culture with the North American giants, a variety of racial tropes circulate which define Black, Indigenous, Latinx, South Asian, East Asian, African, Arab, Persian, Turkish, and a variety of Others in light of “orientalist” discourses which were created in the colonial political economy of the British empire and have been transformed into a universal English by Hollywood and American dominance of global culture for the last several decades. These include, among others, the racist notion that Muslims are “terrorists,” that persons from Colombia and Mexico are involved in the illegal drug trade, that the persons of the noble First Nations are not industrious enough to adapt to capitalism, and that all (racialized) persons are potential physical threats to the safety of all (non-racialized) persons more generally. The figure of the criminal, the vagabond, the highwayman, the car-jacker, the pick-pocket, and even the rapist is a figure associated in the racist imagination of white supremacy with the degeneracy and uncivilizability of (racialized) persons. There are other variations of this theme of essentialized, unchangeable difference reflected across social groups – the ascription of wild sexuality to women and to the queer, for example – which lead to concrete differences in how groups are treated by persons responsive to those tropes. Sadly, this is often a majority of persons, or what seems like a majority of persons, and in Anglo countries has informed the formation of laws and law enforcement practices, and expectations of social enforcement on the parts of dominant groups.
What this all boils down to, in a practical sense, is that (racialized) persons are seen by (non-racialized) persons to be a threat to the social order, especially so if they are not interested in conforming to the social norms of (non-racialized) persons. As such, Black men, bearded men, women who dress in physically revealing ways, gay people who are flamboyant and expressive, and the very existence of transgendered persons are all policed with hyper vigilance, whilst (non-racialized) persons, especially (non-racialized) men, are permitted to move about freely and without appearing conspicuous.
These calculations take place in encounters that occur innumerable times every day, and everyone knows it. On the day of July 27, 2020, I was spotted by an officer of the New Westminster Police Department, as I was leaving my building near the heart of downtown. That morning, I was meeting my friend and co-worker of Douglas College, who resided about a block away from me at that time, and we were going to go have a socially-distanced walk and a coffee on the pier. As I rounded the corner to head to the church courtyard, I heard a voice shout “hey you.” As I was minding my own business I felt it was appropriate to ignore this command voice – perhaps it was intended for someone else. Again, the voice bellowed “hey you,” in a sharper tone.
I turned around and noticed two officers coming down the hill at me, walking at a deliberate pace.
I pointed at myself and said “who, me?”
To which officers responded, “yeah, you.”
At that point, as a (racialized) man who has been racially-profiled for my appearance many times in Canada and in the United States (where I am from), I elected to stop, wait, and seek to deescalate the situation with these seemingly aggressive officers.
As they approached me, one officer asked me if I was an individual named “Abdul.” I responded in the negative, but that was met with a repeat of the same question, “are you Abdul?” At some point I began to giggle because this was simply stupid.
“No,” I responded again. This time, however, the officer responded by saying “c’mon man, you look exactly like him.” Now this began to feel threatening. However, as a scholar of political science trained by the finest minds at the University of California in that field and in Black studies, I felt courage and I stood my ground.
I said to the officer “I don’t know what to tell you.”
At that point I was asked for ID, which I did not have on my person as it was summer and I was wearing surfer shorts and out for a quick neighbourhood walk, with the capacity to pay for purchases with my smartwatch. I informed officers I was out for a walk and that I resided in the building down the block, to which I pointed. At that point, the officers muttered, “it’s not him,” and turned to go back up the hill. No apology was provided and no explanation, either. So I stood there, at the bottom of the hill, watching officers leave. Indeed, at that point their conduct had alarmed me immensely and I was incapable of looking away from them as they left the scene of their police criminality; and sensing I was watching them, the officer turned to face me once more.
“What?” he said to me, shouting from a small distance. To this I responded simply “what?” and threw my arms up in exasperation. The officer said “what?” again, and this time I responded by informing both the officer and his partner (whose name has never been provided to me) that I was “shocked by what just happened.” At that point the officer’s side partner appeared to convince him to leave the scene of police criminality with him and allow me to continue my day. At no point was I informed this was a street check which I could voluntarily leave, nor that it was an investigative detention which would preclude me from leaving the encounter. This distinction becomes important later when Mayor Cote attempts to retroactively classify the incident as an “investigative detention,” but which he characterizes as “brief in nature” in his correspondence with me, which would justify, according to his “reasoning,” that officers never informed me of my charter rights or the nature of the stop I was being forced to be subjected to arbitrarily.
By failing to provide clear instructions and simply accosting me on the street on a phenotypic hunch, officers racially profiled me and also created a dangerous situation that if I did interpret it as a street check which I was free to leave, that they could have attacked me and seen me as uncooperative and necessitating physical restraint. That grey area creates immense mistrust and difficulty for (racialized) persons, since our being subject to this form of arbitrary authority can always be explained by how we fit the description of a violent person.
Indeed, on July 27, the officer indicated that I “looked exactly like” a dangerous criminal named Abdul. Later that morning, I called the New Westminster Police Department and arranged a call back from the shift commander who deployed the coppers that morning. I asked the officer for a picture of “Abdul” at that time and he informed me that there was in fact “no picture” that the officer was operating from that morning. This was shocking to me, since I was not aware I could appear to look “exactly like” someone for whom there was no photo. He promised me to look into it. Later than day I got in touch with the officer in charge of provincial standards at the NWPD, who subsequently emailed me a written description of “Abdul” which described him significantly as a “middle eastern male” with other similar features to myself, such as “medium complexion,” and a similar height.
I provided this information to local media and the story was covered on CBC and CTV, however both of those outlets did not investigate beyond the first layer of claims and public relations obfuscations by the police department (for example, they later claimed there was a picture provided, but have remained tight lipped on the details and have not released the photo).
In late August, I had a Zoom call with the mayor, in which the mayor seemed to be quite taken aback by the lack of procedure in the way that the officers behaved with me, but, like a politician, he attempted to placate me with half-measures and smiles. However, that doesn’t mean that the mayor is willing to take responsibility or hold the police department accountable for these practices, and perhaps is indicative of a wider pattern of co-optation and half-reforms bandied about as “anti-racism” that are now part and parcel of inauthentic proponents of popular activism culture. The most visible proponents of these political maneuvers are semi-liberal closet-conservative politicians like Cote who say one thing to one audience and another thing to another.
Subsequent to that Zoom call with the mayor, in October, the New Westminster Police Board met to discuss my service and policy complaint, which they then dismissed, all the while citing the lack of a public trust complaint against individual officer actions in the case. This was quite uninformed of the board, as I indeed myself initially opted to not go after the individual officer as an element of working class solidarity and in recognition that the officer’s professional failure was mostly the fault of his substandard training, supervision, and bad policy on the part of the city which on the face seem to severely restrict racial profiling, but which in practice can be retroactively justified by mayoral and police board fiat.
In their dismissal letter, the Police Board never once described the incident as I have described it here nor how an officer wrote it up in initial reports made available for the board, and whose veracity was never challenged by the police or the mayor.
Following receipt of that letter, I responded to the mayor by challenging his failure to include crucial details in the police board letter which he authored, and I called him out for his visceral reaction to the description of officers’ lack of adherence to procedure when I described the incident to him in the Zoom call, but his failure to properly represent that sentiment to the board or in the board’s letter.
In response to that, the mayor responded with another letter on Nov. 13, wherein he once again referred to me as a “male” and not as a “middle eastern male” – which covers up how I was profiled in the first instance as admitted by all officers in question – and he also claimed that I was not subjected to a street check, but that the investigative detention to which I was subjected was in fact “brief in nature” and so I didn’t need to have my Charter rights read to me. He also indicated that he was proud that his police department has only done 6 street checks since January of 2020, down from about 380 the previous year. It is highly problematic that the mayor consistently refers to the police department and himself with the collective “we” more than once in the police board letter and in his subsequent correspondence, as this undermines any semblance of independence, which the board is supposed to strictly maintain, from the police force, as per the BC Police Act governing procedures for local municipalities in British Columbia with their own police forces. An identical scandal is currently besetting our neighbours in Vancouver, and is also under investigation by the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner.
Is it possible that street checks are simply being reclassified as investigative detentions, and that those themselves as all too brief to warrant being recorded? That would certainly appear to be more than likely.
I share this story with the community to inform everyone of the fact that these police procedures are dangerous, unprofessional, do not lead to arrests, and produce potentially dangerous situations. In addition to that, they are utterly humiliating.
Since Nov. 13, when I received the mayor’s last correspondence, I have suffered non-stop anxiety related to being a (racialized) person in a white supremacist country that historically and currently favours and normalized the lifestyles and behaviours of (non-racialized) persons. Whenever I leave my apartment, (non-racialized) persons in some small number stare at me as though I am a dangerous looking person who could do them harm. That, coupled with the official culture of denial of systemic racism in the police force and the government, and a culture of cover ups, all point in the direction of the need for an actual anti-racism education program for the entire city that focuses on rooting out the instinct, the venal, sniveling instinct, the shameful instinct that racists hide because they know they should be ashamed of themselves, to group people on the basis of stereotype threat. That move, culturally-rooted or otherwise, is fundamentally at odds with a democratic and equal society, and allows the subterranean meekness of bad faith actors to poison the social fabric by undermining collective commitments to equality and justice with low-minded cynicism and manipulation of the fears of ignorant people.
That is the recipe for a populist fascism, or a white supremacist feudalism. But not modern Canada, and certainly not modern New Westminster, which will become more and more diverse in the coming years. Will this city be policed by subtle and intelligent persons? Or thugs and jump-out boys? And will we have a noble mayor who protects the community? Or a cowardly individual who says things to please whomever they have last spoken with, and then when they are faced with rational critiques they attempt to hide behind institutional gravitas and bureaucratic buck-passing?
We deserve better, and Mayor Cote must resign. In addition to that I call on the officers I dealt with to all immediately resign from the New Westminster police in order to provide a real framework for anti-racism, which can be led by actual anti-racists, instead of those with at best have a passing commitment to this democracy-saving work. I have filed human rights complaints for their role in the incident against one of the officers and Cote, and will be filing corroborated accusations against other persons as fit in the coming weeks. This case is also under review by the OPCC.
Jovian Radheshwar is a New Westminster resident.
Editor’s note: Mr. Radheshwar self-identifies as a "coloured" person. Since Mr. Radheshwar references the letter he received from New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Cote, on behalf of the local police board, we are attaching it below in full for readers to see.
“To Dr. Radheshwar,
Thank you for follow up email regarding your Service and Policy complaint involving the New Westminster Police Department. As I am sure you know, governance and oversight of the Police Department falls to a civilian Police Board made up of four community based individuals with myself as the Chairperson. While none of us on the Board have your lived experience, I want to acknowledge your obvious frustration over how this incident occurred and the resulting review involving the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC). I can only imagine that it would be quite unsettling to be detained by the police for any period of time, knowing full well you had done nothing wrong, certainly not something that any of us at the Police Department want to have happen.
The OPCC provides civilian oversight for municipal police agencies in British Columbia. Generally, complaints made to the OPCC are categorized into either Public Trust matters (allegations of police misconduct against specific officers) or Service and Policy (allegations regarding the general management or operations of the department, including staffing, training, standing orders, policies and procedures). Regarding your complaint, the OPCC determined it to be a Service and Policy matter, therefore indicating they did not believe either officer committed misconduct during the incident. Under the Police Act, the Police Board is responsible for dealing with Service and Policy Complaints and determining the next course of action, which could include such things investigating and reporting on the matter, initiating a study regarding the concerns, dismissing the complaint with reasons or take any other courses of action necessary. In the case at hand, based upon our review of the information provided by the NWPD Professional Standards Unit we did not feel that further investigation or changes were required.
The officers involved were following relevant NWPD policy on Investigative Detention and the policy itself was appropriate in its nature, scope and compliance with the current case law.
In the situation involving yourself, it appears our officers saw you from a distance and mistakenly believed you may have been a suspect whom they were actively looking for to arrest on serious matters. The officers did ask you to stop briefly but once they got closer and realized you were not the person they were looking for they allowed you to proceed. I think it is important to note, that this situation does not fall into the category of a Street Check, which would be a “voluntary” interaction between yourself and the officers. In this situation, it is clear the officers’ actions were in fact an “investigative detention” based on a reasonable suspicion you were the male they were looking for. While normally an “investigative detention” of any significant length would trigger a requirement for officers to inform you of your Charter Right to access a lawyer, in this situation the incident was so brief in nature that to have done so would have extended the detention unnecessarily and inappropriately. Again I say this not to minimize the impact it has had on yourself but to provide context on how the officers viewed the situation.
I would also like to acknowledge your passionate concerns about the nature of police Street Checks in general. Our Police Department has been very engaged with the Province on this issue after they introduced a new Provincial Policing Standard, which we adopted with our new policy on when and how Street Checks are to be conducted. To give you an idea on the impact this has had, in 2019 the NWPD conducted 381 Street Checks, while since the implementation of our new Policy in January we have only conducted six. In addition to this, the Police Board is working on a number of initiatives on police reform, at both the local and Provincial level, which can be found on the NWPD Website at https://www.nwpolice.org/wp-content/uploads/Open-Police-Board-Package-21-July-2020-1.pdf under Ongoing Business, 3.1 Police Motion.
Again I do want to apologize for any frustrations you have experienced over this incident and I hope some of this additional context assists you in understanding our decision. Under the Police Act the OPCC will also review our decision and you also have the opportunity to ask for additional review by the police complaint commissioner should you be dissatisfied.
Jonathan Cote, Mayor”