Shocking the system

26 Nov 2005

Councillor Michael Thompson Sets the Record Straight with AfroToronto.com''s Eloi Minka

"Part of the rationale,” Michael Thompson said on the phone from his City Hall office, was to “shock the system” out of its comfort on the issue of gun violence. The rookie Toronto city councillor for Scarborough Centre caused both consternation and rage last week when he suggested that police target young black males in high-crime areas as a way of curbing the rising gun-crimes in the city.

Many in the political circles quickly distanced themselves from the remarks. Mayor David Miller stated through a spokesman that “it is not a crime in this city to be a young black man” and Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty said "I don''t think it is sound public policy." On the streets of Toronto, many community leaders, activists and citizens were fuming. Deputy Police Chief Keith Forde who is Black called the idea “a giant leap backward.”

So how could the only Black councilor at City Hall, an educated man with a background similar to many of the youth affected both by the gun violence and the poverty that almost always underlies it advocate such a policy?

“The need to keep this issue [gun violence] front and centre was critical in my view.” Thompson said in a tone surprisingly conciliatory.

“There was a lot of talk” and very little in terms of concrete actions. And given the rising number of deaths and the seeming inability of the police to propose or implement clear solutions, something had to be done in Thompson’s view.

“So it was in closing to reporters that I said maybe we ought to target young black males,” he added putting a particular emphasis on the “ought to”.

Related Links:

Michael Thompson''s City Hall bio

"A repugnant divisive suggestion" by The Toronto Star''s Royson James

But what about the legality of the proposal? After all, Article 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms clearly states that: “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.” And Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair also recognizing that fact indicated that his force was not “going to engage in what I believe to be the totally inappropriate, unjust and illegal practice of targeting young men on the basis of their race.”

“I have not looked at Article 15 of the Charter,” Thompson responded this time sounding irritated by the question. “Ideas are such. They are ideas. I just put something out there for people.” The answer in addition to revealing a lack of understanding of the legal underpinnings of the Canadian federation (won after many decades of battles and compromises) also displays a propensity for sensationalism.

But part of the difficulty in understanding the reasons that prompted Michael Thompson’s ludicrous proposal lies in his very ordinary background.

Thompson was born in Jamaica and came to Canada at the age of 11. His first ten years in this country were spent in subsidized housing in Scarborough. Thompson went on to earn a degree in economics at Concordia University in Montreal and joined Corporate Canada. He later started various businesses before winning the city councillor post in November 2003. In his days at City Hall he has taken many vigorous positions on crime, even challenging Mayor David Miller in a strongly worded letter in July that among other things stated that “whatever steps have been taken on your watch either do not work or are too timid.” He concluded the letter with the question “when are you going to take this situation [rising gun violence] seriously?”

His positions up to that point won him many friends within the community groups that wanted to highlight the issues of gun violence and Black-on-Black crime. Some still continue to view his comments as a one-time lapse in judgment from an otherwise well-intentioned official. Toronto Police inspector David McLeod for one was quoted as saying "He made an ill-advised, ill-conceived and perhaps an idiotic comment, but he''s not an idiot."

But when one examines both his personal ambitions highlighted by those who know him best (including his former-boss Liberal MP Lorenzo Berardinetti) and the sensational issues he’s been associated with (such as the keep-the-chief campaign of former police chief Julian Fantino and his demands for a “rodent hotline”) one is forced to conclude that there are perhaps ulterior motives behind these remarks. Many both in the media and within the municipal circles have started to openly speculate about Thompson’s ambition to become Mayor, to which he responds: “that has never come from my office or my mouth. There are groups of individuals here at City Hall that have been spewing that.”

Whatever the reasons, Michael Thompson recanted his statement late last week but was still not calling it a recant, choosing instead to use the euphemistic phrase: “This is not something [his proposal] that is workable.” One would expect him to perform that workability analysis in the confines of his office before uttering the next set of nonsensical propositions.

Ultimately what many in the Black communities of Toronto and Canada at large will remember are the words of one of their sons who, perhaps guided by blatant individualism or blinded by naked ambition chose to advocate policies that brought back painful memories of a not too distant past and in the words of Royson James of the Toronto Star, turned him into a “poster boy for the right-wing, tough-on-crime, stop-Jamaican-immigration, sterilize-young-black-women, castrate-black-men brigade.”

The Black Business and Professional Association is organizing a discussion on the subject of gun violence and community safety at Metro Hall (55 John Street) on September 14th, 2005. Asked about his attendance, Michael Thompson now sounding clearly infuriated responded: “I have talked to many people at the BBPA and I have told them [that I’ll be there], if time permits!”

Eloi Minka is one of the founders of AfroToronto.com.

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