‘Project Traveller’ and the struggle to defend our communities
By: Kabir Joshi-Vijayan
Rob Ford might be the most (in)famous politician in Canadian history. Every other week a new intoxicated blunder is revealed while the entire local political establishment tries to force his resignation.
Despite the hundreds of hours of sensational reporting, the story is actually unimpressive: a ‘public’ official abusing drugs and alcohol, threatening personal rivals and flaunting his racist and homophobic views is pretty normal.
The tale of a crack smoking Mayor pales in comparison with another municipal controversy, a scandal which has faded from headlines since Rob’s escapades began to dominate.
This involves a force that has committed the most blatant violations of human rights, one that has paid over $27 million in civil lawsuits since 2000 and is now facing two new litigations totalling $65.4 million. This is a force the entire city watched taze the lifeless body of a frightened 18-year old after they shot him nine times – the latest in dozens of killings of largely Black, Brown or mentally-ill victims.
The force being described is of course the Toronto Police Service.
The incident that should have drawn the most outrage in relation to the Ford scandal was the heavily armed attack on the neighbourhood of Dixon and Kipling in June 2013. Over 100 officers with bullet proof vests, flash grenades, battering rams and automatic weapons stormed into three buildings at 5am to arrest 19 men and women.
Doors were broken down, apartments were torn apart and mothers, grandmothers and youth were terrorized and assaulted, including a 67-year-old woman kicked in the face, told by officers to die, and forced to watch as police tried to handcuff her 96-year old mother who had fallen violently out of bed.
This paramilitary operation was called ‘Project Traveller’ and it was targeted primarily against the Somali community. The raid was praised and lauded as having cleaned the neighbourhood of supposed gang members. Police announced to several residents they were there because of Rob Ford, and the Police Chief later revealed that a videotape of the Mayor had been found during the operation.
This is only the latest in dozens of similar operations conducted by Toronto Police, every one of them directed at working-class, racialized communities and arresting primarily young Black men and women. In most cases it is later revealed that well over half of those arrested are completely innocent, (as in ‘Project Flicker’ in Ardwick in 2005, or ‘Project Kryptic’ in Driftwood in 2007). These raids have proven to do nothing to end violence, and in the case of Driftwood, police were back four years later (Dec 2011) to lock up a new generation of youth.
These projects allow police to pose for photo ops in front of seized weapons, drugs and money and attempt to prove to city residents that their $1 billion annual budget isn’t going to waste.
Cops grab any cash they find in raided units without any proof of their illegal origin. Communities which face high levels of poverty, such as Somalis, Jamaicans and South Asians, often keep quantities of money at home. Thousands of dollars are taken – by the police. In ‘Project Traveller’ over $575,000 was looted.
The Rob Ford scandal is also a perfect example of the hypocrisy associated with policing in this city. Although police used incriminating evidence to humiliate Ford and try and force his resignation, they made not one move to charge him.
In Dixon meanwhile, the basis for violently rounding up many of the accused, some of whom are still languishing in jails, was nothing more than them having supposed criminals as relatives, friends or contacts in their phones: this includes senior-aged parents arrested and charged for not knowing that their children were allegedly keeping illegal items in the house.
The Mayor brazenly bought and used packages of drugs in public parking lots and washrooms, spoke for hours on the phone about his criminal activities, and yet police claim they did not have the grounds to arrest, search or even make him answer questions.
In working-class communities like Dixon, even outside of raids, youth are stopped and searched for simply being outside too late or being in too large a group. They are arrested and assaulted for having small amounts of marijuana or for trespassing violations.
From a larger perspective, the same Canadian state that is now spending $12 billion over the next 4 years to build new prisons (such as the new $540 million South Toronto Detention Center), to lock up people at the lowest levels of the drug trade, is the same country where local politicians are charged with actively collaborating with the mob. It is the same country that props up narco states like Colombia through ‘free-trade’ deals and cozy diplomatic relations; the same country that helped build Afghanistan into the largest producer of opium and heroin in the world.
The fact is the Toronto Police are not a group unto themselves. The physical attacks such as the raids, brutality and daily harassment, go hand-in-hand with social and economic attacks on these same communities from other branches of the system. In Dixon economic warfare means imposed conditions of chronic unemployment, low paying jobs and criminalizing industries such as Khat (a mild stimulant plant leaf no more harmful than coffee or shisha, but widely used among East Africans).
The sitcom/crime drama which City Hall has become over the past year has left us misinformed and distracted from the real issues at hand. Many working people have developed a liking for the slow-witted millionaire in the Mayor’s office, thinking the political establishment’s opposition to him is proof that he is somehow on our side. Bill Blair has been able to look like the poised and honest chief after the public outrage following the G20 and the killing of Sammy Yatim.
It is clear that neither side in this conflict are on our side! We as oppressed and working people shouldn’t have to rely on the Fords of the world bribing us to get us funding and social programs. We must also recognize that violations like the June 13 attack on Dixon are only able to happen because we are disorganized and divided.
It is time to build real mass movements in our neighbourhoods and communities to solve our own problems, raise and educate our children and oppose state violence. Police raids, carding, harassment, violence and mass incarceration will not end by suing, begging or reforming that structure but will only be the result of a strong, united and organized community prepared to defend itself.