Last week I sat in a meeting called by a councillor in one of Toronto’s “priority neighbourhoods,” populated by immigrants and working-class folks.
He talked about how the police run drop-in programs for youth so that they can get to know them, and keep an eye on them, so that they can easily question youth about other youth who they are running with and get them to snitch. When these youth grow up and maybe get into trouble, police will know who they are beforehand. The youths will be “known to police.”
“Known to police” is a phrase that gets tacked onto mainstream media reports about a lot of crime and violence. “Known to police” is supposed to mean that the persons involved were already suspicious, shady, irresponsible to begin with. Isn’t this what they said about Ahmed Hassan after he was shot dead at the Eaton Center on June 2, or Nixon Nirmalendran, who died of his wounds over a week later? Maligned, not mourned. What the media didn’t tell us was that one of the main reasons Nixon was known to police was for witnessing Alwy Al-Nadhir’s murder at the hands of police on the night of October 31, 2007.
For those of us who don’t live the daily reality of police terror in this city, Jane and Finch’s resident people’s theatre troupe, Nomanzland, offers us a glimpse into what it’s like to be “known to police”:
It’s about neighbourhoods that are systematically ignored, neglected and oppressed. It’s about youths who have no job options, even when they get university degrees, because of their race and class status in a system where there’s a lack of jobs overall. It’s about families trying to make ends meet and build community in difficult conditions. It’s about politicians and developers trying to make a quick buck off of the land on which poor people live through “revitalization.”
And it’s about treating children and youths as criminals or potential criminals — about dealing with problems through racist and oppressive policing rather than through building communities and providing opportunities to the people there.
‘Known to Police’ doesn’t try to hide any of the problems of the hood. It lays them out for us to see — it revolves around two beefing youth, Dante and Kelvin, who are involved in criminal activities. But it also shows us the lived realities of the peoples involved, and that the problems aren’t with individuals but with the system that they live in.
We meet a group of women who are organizing against politicians’ and developers’ attempts at “revitalizing” — that is, gentrifying — the neighbourhood. We meet an OG revolutionary who resolves the beefing and seeks to unify the hood to build a revolutionary movement. We meet mothers who are single-handedly raising their families and keeping their kids on the right track. We meet people who tried to escape the violence of their homelands (caused by Canada and other Western powers’ imperialism) only to find themselves facing violence in the hood.
We see the cops killing yet another youth in the hood, and getting away with it – a likely reference to Junior Manon’s murder on York University campus on May 5, 2010. We also meet an undercover cop entrapping youth in a web of violence by selling them the same guns that they’re banging out on each other.
All of this is put in the context of world revolution — the uprisings of working people in Egypt and Tunisia are our backdrop. Rhymes, raps and songs are dropped throughout the play — all of them written by the actors themselves. And the acting is amazing, it’s easy to forget that we’re watching a play. (No doubt, because so many of them are from the neighbourhood.)
The play was raw enough to provoke an older, white audience member to ask which parts of the play are based on actual events? “All of it. All of it” – answer a number of cast members, almost in sync.
In the end, the youth of Nomanzland tell us that there are no easy solutions to the problems — and that we certainly can’t rely on politicians of any party. Instead, just like the peoples of the Arab uprisings, communities have to organize to build self-reliant organizations and build their own power to take on the cops, the politicians and developers.
They tell us that we need a proper revolution.
Known to Police was performed at the Young People’s Theatre, June 15-17. Hit up Nomanzland and get them to perform the play in your hood.