By Furqan Mohamed
Top Magazine writer Furqan Mohamed interviewed Canadian author and activist Robyn Maynard about policing and social justice in Canada.
To learn more about Robyn visit https://robynmaynard.com/
What got you started in activism? Any leaders you draw inspiration from?
I think about activism as a part of a broad spectrum of resistance, from helping people out with their kids and building safe, healthy and resistant communities all the way to organizing to blocking off the streets, when necessary, to address injustice. I got involved in activism when I was in my late teens, working with other youth to address racial profiling in N.D.G. in Montreal. It's something that has stayed with me all my adult life, and I've drawn inspiration, across time, from so many freedom fighters famous and not: Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, but also the great folks of Black Lives Matter (in Canada and abroad). Around the time I was writing Policing Black Lives, BLM-Toronto spend almost two weeks camped outside of police headquarters after the death of Andrew Loku; and more recently, they've succeeded in winning, for now, the removal of police (SRO's) out of the Canada's largest school board. This has been incredibly inspiring for my activism as well as my writing. Also recent Indigenous activists like Idle No More, Bridget Tolley, Colleen Cardinal, and other Indigenous women who've been at the forefront of important grassroots struggles.
Many find police relations with the Black community to be a controversial topic. When your book “Policing While Black” came out, did you receive any backlash? If so, how did you deal with it?
When my book came out, I was surprised at the reception: not only did I assume that it would get ignored, but I thought there would be a significant backlash. I've been so humbled at the beautiful response its gotten in the press and across the country, I couldn't believe it when I found out we were re-printing after only a few months. While I've received my fair share of hate mail and trolls, overall, I've been glad to be touring the book across Canada and the U.S.; and I've had the great fortune of connecting with brilliant community organizers of all ages as I've been doing it.
What did you find most difficult when writing your book?
I wrote this book largely on maternity leave with my infant son, Lamar. As a result, it was really difficult to be working with so much often-violent or deeply upsetting material, then going back to taking care of a young baby when he awoke from his naps. But that also guided and drove the work forward in many ways: focusing in the generations to come helps prevent that feeling of futility that can overtake us when we focus, so much on issues like state violence.
Do you find yourself in conflict with other activists because of intersectionality and the way that makes activism complex?
There will always be regressive elements within social movements, who would prefer to see only male leadership, who would prefer to sideline issues of gender, ability, or sexuality for example. But that time is done. In order for us to truly create a world that looks closer to freedom, we need to see the multiple intersecting ways that racism intersects with other forms of marginalization. Otherwise our movements will always be narrow and continue to leave other community members behind.
Are there any days where you feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle? What makes you keep going?
I find it helpful, when things feel rough, to remind myself what our enslaved ancestors had to go through - thinking about the hardships that Sojourner Truth, for example, overcame to bring us to the place that we are today.
Many praise Canada for being a diverse and tolerant country, relative to the USA. What challenges come with being a Black Canadian? What’s similar to the experience of African Americans? What’s different?
Canada has excellent public relations - but despite being praised internationally for being diverse and tolerant, it's important to remember this is, still, a country where Black people are in jails and prisons at rates about three times higher than our rate in the population; we face significant rates of police violence, there are Black people for whom profiling is a daily reality; and many lives have been lost at the hands of the police. Canada has a significantly smaller Black population than the U.S.; but we remains incarcerated at similar rates, even if the numbers are smaller.
Canada and the U.S. are different countries with different histories, but there are many similarities. Both nations are settler-colonies, with histories of genocide and slavery. Both are nominally committed to "freedom" while still relegating Black communities to heightened rates of structural and and state violence. I don't think it is helpful to pretend that they are identical or that the Black experience is identical; but still, Black people in both countries face grossly disproportionate incarceration, police stops, police killings, child welfare removal, deportation, and the school push-out in both countries. Something that is different, in some ways, is where we hail from. Most Black folks in the U.S. are the descendants of enslaved Black Africans brought to the U.S. centuries ago. For Black folks in Canada, while there are Black communities that have ancestry back centuries, particularly in Ontario and Nova Scotia, who were enslaved by white Canadians, many of us, too, are part of the broader Black diaspora. That's to say, our families are relatively recent to Canada; most often descendants of enslaved folks in the Caribbean. There are also significant numbers of Black communities from the African continent. This means, as well, that Black communities are not only subject to high rates of police stops and arrests, but often facing deportation to countries they hardly know. While this is also true for Black immigrants in the U.S.; the rate of Black migrants in Canada is much higher. That means that fighting criminalization often intersects, too, with the immigration system.
The American prison system has a genesis rooted in slavery and oppression, because of this it changes the way Americans and others talk about policing and the justice system. Where has Canada failed Black (and other POC) in terms of the law, and is there anywhere specific we can trace it back to?
An important part of Policing Black Lives is tracing the legacy of racial injustices seen today in incarceration, policing, heightened school discipline rates, back to the history of slavery in Canada. While slavery was not as central to Canada's economy, it nonetheless created ways of understanding Blackness, and of treating Black people, that have carried forward into the present. While slavery was one form of racial surveillance and punishment, today that remains an integral aspect of Black life in Canada, from disproportionate rates of police-stops in Lethbridge, Ottawa, Edmonton, Halifax, Toronto and Montreal, to the high rates of Black men and women behind bars, and beyond.
In your opinion, are the fates of African Americans and Black Canadians intertwined? Are we fighting the same fight?
Anti-Blackness is a global reality. Whether we live in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Brazil, South Africa: anywhere that Black people are present, we are treated as if we are disposable, less than human, represented as criminal: this is an international reality, which also means that our struggles, too, are global. Black activists in the U.S. and Canada have worked across the border at many times throughout history, from the Underground Railroad to the present day.
Is there more that governments in North America can be doing when it comes to solid legislation protecting citizens from those who are supposed to protect them?
I think that despite requiring some life-changing legislative changes - like more support for Black families, for example, instead of separating Black parents and children in the child welfare system. At the same time; we need to stay focused on broader, and more transformative forms of justice, thinking, always, toward abolition. That is, we need to keep imagining, and believing, that we could build a world that one day didn't rely on police and prisons, that conceived of safety in a non-carceral way.
How does being a Black feminist change the way you approach issues with police?
I come from a long background of harm-reduction frontline community work, mostly with women involved in the sex trade or other street-based economies, often Black and Indigenous women. Because of this, I've seen firsthand the often extremely abusive ways that Black, Indigenous and other racialized women are treated by law enforcement, in the courts, and by social and child welfare workers. . This meant that for me, while I've always been involved in addressing racial profiling and police violence, I've never had that gap, so common in Canada and the U.S., that makes many people assume that policing is only harmful for men. Black women, and in particular Black trans women, too-often get left out of the equation when we address racism in policing, and it was important for me, as a feminist, not to contribute to this erasure.
Has anything changed in the way you work since you’ve began? What have you learned over the course of your career?
It's important not only to fight broader systems of oppression, but to take care of ourselves, forgive ourselves and others, and remember that we are all learning as we go. I think young people, in particular, can be incredibly hard on ourselves and those around us, and we need to make sure we're always grounded, still, in loving and respecting those around us.
What’s your advice to young people encouraged to stand up against police brutality and injustice? Anything for them to keep in mind?
In the words of Angela Y. Davis: “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”