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Before Black Lives Matter: Black Action Defence Committee

John Bell

February 27, 2022
In Ontario, if you were at all involved in politics in the 1980s you immediately encountered three catalytic organizations. 
There was the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics (OCAC) formed in 1982 from the ongoing struggles of women to access safe, legal abortion services.
There was Pride Toronto, formed in 1981 in response to LGTBQ+ oppression, and in particular regular police harassment and violence. This peaked in 1981 when over 300 people were arrested in one night during a sweep of popular Toronto bathhouses.
And there was the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC), founded in 1988.
BADC was certainly not the first anti-racism organization in Toronto, or in Canada. But it – as did the other 2 organizations mentioned above – mobilized large public rallies and marches in addition to education, lobbying and legal tactics. All 3 organizations began in response to violence from the police, judiciary and government.
With the wave of immigration during the 1970s from the Caribbean and Africa, came the criminalizationof Black Canadians. In 2014 Blacks accounted for 3.5% of the population, but almost 9% of prison inmates. During the decade 2003-2013 Black incarceration increased by 90%.
This was a result of systemic racism within the courts and policing. Often, Black defendants were given longer, harsher sentences. And racial profilingtargeting young Black men was standard police policy. 
It also resulted in a long list of Blacks, mostly men, many with mental health issues, shot and killed by police. In Toronto, the high profile cases of Buddy Evans (1978) and Albert Johnson (1979) brought protesters to the streets. Then in 1988 Lester Donaldson was shot and killed by police while sitting on his boarding room bed. The victim had a long history of hospitalization and mental health issues, and according to reports produced a small paring knife to defend himself from the 5 TPS officers in his room.
This shooting was far from the last, but it was the catalyst the led to the creation of BADC, dedicated to exposing and opposing racist police violence. The founding members were 4 civil rights activists with deep roots in Black communities: Dudley Laws, Charles Roach, Sherona Hall and Lennox Farrell. There were many other long-time members, including well-known community and union activist Owen Sankara Leach.
BADC organized public protests which drew thousands into the street behind two central demands: an end to racist police procedures like “carding”; and creation of an independent, civilian oversight body to make police accountable.
A few months later BADC was mobilizing again, this time after the shooting death of Michael Wade Lawson, an unarmed 17-year-old car thief. Months of organizing and public pressure forced the Ontario government of Liberal David Petersen to create an inquiry into racism and policing. One of the results was the creation of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) in 1990. Although history has exposed the SIU as being toothless, unable to compel officers under investigation to cooperate, and biased in favour of police, at the time it was seen as a positive reform.
In 1992, the unprovoked racist beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers sparked solidarity rallies all over North America. In Toronto, BADC organized a rally and march of several thousand Black community members and allies. When the angry march headed for the upscale Yorkville commercial district, police quickly blocked the march and used violence to stop it. The result was a few broken store windows on Yonge Street, and a long, loud day of protest. Police and media called it a riot – if it was, it was incited by police over-reaction.
One the first initiatives of the Mike Harris Tories, in 1996, was to roll back police reform in the name of “cutting red tape”. It introduced Bill 105, drafted after consultation with police organizations but no community groups, which undermined any civilian oversight. BADC lobbied hard against it, arguing "Bill 105 totally destroys the principles of police accountability, accessibility, fairness and impartiality." To no avail. 
Although struggles against racist cops and courts was central to BADC, they were also rooted in community and cultural work. It launched the Freedom Cipher, which concentrated on creating employment and education opportunities for youth in underserved, predominantly Black neighbourhoods like Jane/Finch. These initiatives showed real promise but lacked the resources to make a big difference.
In 1989 the Royal Ontario Museum exposed its racist, colonialist roots with a major exhibition called “Out of Africa”. It was mostly comprised of artifacts taken from African nations by several generations of Anglo missionaries and soldiers. The show was organized without any consultation or input from African scholars or African-Canadian communities, and BADC led a series of high-profile information pickets and protests at the museum. The public stayed away in droves and in 2016, the ROM issued a belated, retroactive apology for the exhibit, and for the tone deaf way it met criticism from the Black community.
BADC was also notable for always showing up in solidarity with communities subjected to legal prejudice and police harassment. 
Because of its significant successes mobilizing against police, BADC leaders and activists were subjected to a decades long series of surveillance and harassment. Millions were spent spying on them, secretly tapping their homes and phones. There was an attempt to frame Charles Roach, an immigration lawyer, in an illegal immigration setup, but it was too clumsy, and Roach was too canny, and it was easily exposed and discredited.
In subsequent years BADC gave up its focus on organizing in the streets, and focused on lobbying and legal actions. But disproportionate police violence against Blacks continued, disproportionate incarceration of Blacks continued, racial profiling against Black youth continues. 
Stepping into the vacuum left by BADC, inspired by towering figures like Dudley Laws and Sherona Hall, and the activism it achieved at its peak, is a new generation of anti-racist activists to put the police on notice. Groups like Black Lives Matter have moved beyond calling for civilian oversight – they demand “Defund the Police”.
This article is dedicated to the memory of our friend and comrade, Owen Leach (1935-2022)
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