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Ottawa’s George Floyd: Abdirahman Abdi

By: 
Chantal Sundaram

July 26, 2020

“His death caused an awakening.”

No death at the hands of the racist police should ever be forgotten. But some accidentally do hit a mass political nerve. Awakening a long known truth, awakening the courage to double-down on what we already knew.

This is true of George Floyd’s death, and it has found an echo in the deaths of others around the world, in circumstances that are both different and the same. From Minneapolis to Germany to Korea, an international consensus to defund the police and challenge systemic racism as raised by BLM has been awakened.

The quote above is from an annual protest to mark the racist police murder of an Ottawa resident of Somali origin with mental health issues four years ago, Abdirahman Abdi. Every year on July 24 since, residents of the Ottawa neighbourhood community of Hintonburg, where Abdi was slain, the Somali community and allies from across Ottawa have gathered to mark the date of his murder.

This has been the work of the Coalition Justice for Abdirahman, which has strong links to the Abdi family but also well beyond. And this year as previously there was a strong turnout from the neighbourhood, mostly young and white.

Two factors make this year’s commemoration different. The first is clearly the BLM movement, that has shone a spotlight on systemic racism locally, and this was the focus of a follow-up to Ottawa’s enormous BLM rally on Parliament Hill (where Trudeau took a knee) to one at Ottawa City Hall on June 20 to focus on the crimes of Ottawa police, most notably the killing of Abdi.

The other factor was that the manslaughter trial of Constable Daniel Montsion, delayed by COVID, was relaunched the same week as the anniversary of Abdi’s murder. Montsion entered court in February 2019 and pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter, aggravated assault, and assault with a weapon. 

Closing arguments from high-powered police lawyers reiterated a “probable doubt” defense about supposed “de-escalation” according to “training” despite the fact that Abdi remained without medical treatment for 11 minutes after repeated body blows at the hands of Montsion.

The verdict in the trial was deliberately postponed from this “hot” moment to October, in an attempt to dampen the community response. But the gathering in Hintonburg this July 24 affirmed that there will be a truly hot response to a verdict of “not guilty” when it comes down.

But more than that, a long view of how to challenge systemic racism was the message of this otherwise tragic day.

Systemic responses

On previous occasions, the marking of Abdi’s death has served to commemorate it without necessarily raising larger systemic demands: to place a plaque in front of his home, near to where the police killed him, and to launch a scholarship fund, the Abdirahman Abdi Scholarship for Social Justice, which will provide $2,500 each year to a student from the black community who is active in the fight for social justice and pursuing post-secondary education.

This year, the commemoration not only saw the usual support, despite COVID conditions (with excellent health precautions by organizers) but also three new developments. One was testimony from family members, who have clearly been retraumatized by this week’s resumption of the cop trial, but who are standing strong and do not wish to see the public campaign back down. 

The two new systemic responses are a motion at Ottawa City Council that attempts at a partial defunding of the police, and a statement by small businesses in the area about routine contacting of police. This last is significant because what led to the police presence responsible for Abdi’s death was that a local coffee shop called them. Here is an excerpt from a statement by a number of local small business owners from Hintonburg:

     "We are a collective of business owners in Ottawa who wish to state our strong support for the work of the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition.    Additionally, we wish to echo their calls for the reallocation of a significant portion of the Ottawa Police Services budget toward anti-racist and de-colonial mental health supports, along with the prioritization of a holistic model of community safety and well-being.

     "Business interests are often used as a justification for increased police presence. As business owners, we want to be very clear: we are not interested in more police. We do not want more police in our neighbourhoods. We do not want an increased police budget, and we do not think meaningful change will happen by giving the police even more resources.

     "What we do want are better community support services. As business owners, we, along with our staff, are often interacting with community members in crisis. Sometimes we are able to be present with someone and offer what they need, and other times, people need more support than we are realistically able to give.

     "However, even in the most difficult situations, we avoid calling the police. We do not believe that it would be safe. We have regularly witnessed Ottawa police harassing community members, particularly those who are Black, Indigenous, street-involved, and/or actively experiencing mental illness. We know that calling the police can result in significant harm for our neighbours and community. And we know that in the worst case scenarios, it can result in our community members being murdered, as was the case in 2016 when Abdirahman Abdi was tragically killed by the police.

     "For this reason, we are in the process of organizing de-escalation training for customer service workers in Ottawa. We hope to better equip business owners and customer service staff with the skills to intervene in these situations, so that we can collectively divest from police. Frankly, it is unfair to ask customer service workers to also be mental health workers, and we are aware that this is a band-aid solution. However, we believe it to be necessary because our elected officials refuse to hear calls for transformative action and change. As we move forward with this initiative, we will continue to urge all levels of government to take immediate action to defund the police and to prioritize community-led health and safety initiatives.

     "As small business owners, we know that our stores and restaurants are more than just places to buy things. We all share a strong sense of commitment to our communities, and believe we have a responsibility to be accountable to them. We reject the idea that we need police to protect us from our own neighbours, and we will not allow anti-Black racism, police brutality or any systemic discrimination to be perpetuated in our names. We call on all Ottawa business owners to speak out and do the same."

And here are excerpts from the Ottawa City Council motion, which makes reference to other similar municipal motions. The full motion can be read here. 

 THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED That City Council direct the City Manager, in consultation with the Ottawa Police Services Board and Community and Protective Services, to develop alternative models of community safety response that would: a. Involve the creation of non-police led response to calls which do not involve weapons or violence, such as those involving individuals experiencing mental health crises and where a police response is not necessary; b. Reflect the City’s commitment to reconciliation; c. Involve extensive community consultation on a proposed response model; and d. Detail the likely reductions to the Ottawa Police Services budget that would result from these changes; 

and BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED That City Council request the Province of Ontario to amend the Police Services Act, 1990 to allow for Ottawa City Council to have control over the Ottawa Police Services Budget by creating a clause in Section 39 that exempts the City of Ottawa from the following restriction: a. 39 (4) In establishing an overall budget for the board, the council does not have the authority to approve or disapprove specific items in the estimates; 

and BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED That City Council request the Government of Ontario to eliminate all appeal powers for the Ottawa Police Services Board as set out in the Police Services Act, 1990 for the Ontario Civilian Police Commission to overturn Ottawa City Council decisions pertaining to Police Budget matters including requests for reduction, abolition, creation or amalgamation of Police services

Next steps

This is the provincial riding of left NDP-er Joel Harden and the municipal constituency of Jeff Lieper, a progressive, NDP-friendly councillor. The two have been acknowledged by the family, the coalition, and the community, as giving a political lead. But both they and the coalition have acknowledged that it is the strength of the community, both before and since George Floyd, that have kept this campaign going. And the coalition is respecting a very personal focus on Abdirahman, and his loss as a person, with raising the general issue posed by his death.

On this July 24, there was a beautiful balance between celebration and anger. The message from Abdi’s family to supporters was: stay united, stay strong. Spread love not hate. Stay together, and carry on.

The Justice for Abdirahman coalition is seeking support in various forms, and can be found here

 

    

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