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Disability and Police Violence in Pandemic Times

Melissa Graham

June 22, 2020

At time of writing this article at least three people have died in during a police interaction over the course of the pandemic within Canada. The first person I heard about was a 29-year-old Black woman who died after falling off of a balcony in Toronto. Her name was Regis Korchinski-Paquet. While the circumstances of her death are still unclear, we know that she passed away while Toronto Police were called to her home to escort her to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). This was on May 27th.

Then on June 4th, Chantel Moore, a 26 year-old Indigenous mother, was murdered by RCMP in New Brunswick during a wellness check. Eight days later, they killed Rodney Levi, a 48 year-old Indigenous man. When interviewed for Global News, Chief Bill Ward of the Metepenagiag Mi’kmaq Nation gave a particularly chilling quote, “He wasn’t a violent person, so basically to me what it says is that if you’re mentally ill and you have a bad day, the cops can kill you for it.”

I don’t normally get personal in Socialist Worker, but these situations affected me in a profoundly personal way. My partner passed away just under a year ago. He self-identified as part of the Mad community. Early on in our relationship he made me promise never to call the police on him for a wellness check. This was so profoundly important to him that even when I was fairly certain he had passed away I was still reluctant to call the police on the off chance he might be alive. 

I’m also a social worker, and I understand that many social workers rely on police in situations like this. They have authority and power to bring people to hospital that social workers do not currently possess. Like many professional bodies, social work as a whole is still struggling with systemic racism and ableism, but I can’t stop asking myself how many more people have to die before something changes.

This pandemic is affecting disabled and Mad people in many ways. We’re collectively left out of most emergency plans, and social assistance rates are frighteningly low compared to CERB. It’s laying bare the inequities of poverty, and the lack of appreciation that’s been paid to Personal Support Workers, who still haven’t received the $4 per hour Pandemic Pay that the Ontario government promised back in April. On more than one occasion I’ve looked up the number of an MPP when someone with a disability was denied access to a support person while in hospital.

 All of these things are awful, and when you consider that many disabled people are more vulnerable to COVID-19, there is a justifiable level of fear in the disability community. The level of organization happening within the community to confront that fear is amazing. From grassroots efforts to meet the needs of food and cleaning supplies for disabled people in Hamilton through Disability Justice Ontario, to the multitude of disability organization fighting for legislative change, the efficiency and passion behind these efforts is truly amazing.

It's not surprising though. The mainstream disability community has honed its energy for decades on getting politicians to spend money and change legislation to create more accessibility. What we’re not so great at, is confronting systemic inequity. As this pandemic continues to strain the mental health of our community, we cannot continue to overlook police killings and use COVID-19 as our excuse for inaction. Privilege has allowed some of us to look away for far too long.

While it is critically important to protect the lives of disabled people and the systems we rely on with our advocacy efforts, the lives of the dead matter too. Regis’s life mattered. Chantel’s life mattered. Rodney’s life mattered. Police violence kills faster than COVID-19.

(Editor’s note: days after this was written Ejaz Choudhary, a 62-year-old father of four was shot dead in his home by Peel Regional Police. The Mississauga man had mental health issues and his family had requested a wellness check. Peel police responded by mobilizing their militarized tactical squad and K9 unit. Police are currently investigating themselves.)

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