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by Sid Ryan

What did Councillor Michael Thompson not understand about the impact of racial profiling on law abiding citizens? The Scarborough Centre councillor suggested recently that police should target young black men in high crime areas for questioning and body searches.  Thompson — a black man himself — calls it “thinking outside the box.” Did it not occur to him that such random actions could destroy the delicate but improving relationship between police and the black community?

An approach like Thompson’s may appease those who see the gun violence as a strict law and order issue. It does nothing, however, to get at the much deeper societal problems of disaffected black youth, lack of job opportunities and cutbacks in anti-poverty programs.

In the summer of 1975, as a young immigrant to Canada, I was fortunate to meet three black men in the East York factory where we all worked. Each of those men instilled in me a set of values I carry to this day. They opened up the full potential of this country to a new immigrant. They taught me how to be tolerant in the face of adversity, how to approach the most miserable and meaningless job assignments with grace and humour, and how to organize to fight social injustice.

But most importantly, they opened their homes and welcomed a young Irish immigrant to taste the hospitality of loving black families. I will be forever grateful to Ozzie Smith, David Brown and Herman Stewart for demonstrating to me what it takes to become a contributing member of society.

I mention these three pillars of the black community because I believe Councillor Thompson’s comments must have cut through their hearts like a dagger. Subjecting black youth to body searches simply for being black should strike terror into the hearts of any one of us who holds a modicum of respect for civil rights and liberties.

It is time we stopped looking for simple solutions to complex problems. There is no one simple fix to violence on Toronto’s streets. Part of the solution rests in research like a study about to be conducted in St. Jamestown, home to a high number of new immigrants.  The Ryerson School of Social Work and local advocacy group Low Income Families Together will look at the factors other than medicare that affect the well-being of a family. No doubt poverty and lack of job opportunities will play a role when 70% of the families in the study have incomes below $40,000.

Guns streaming across our borders from the US are also part of the problem. In 1996, Canada’s border guards seized about 1,500 firearms annually. As resources dwindled, that number dropped to about 1,000 in 2004. However, this number is only a fraction of the guns actually making it into criminal hands. How’s this for a frightening statistic: the border guards’ union says they are able to catch only one in 20 guns.

Yet, no matter how much effort we put into solving these societal and border problems, success will depend on good relations between the community and the police. The 1980s riots in Manchester and Brixton drove this lesson home in England. Young black men took to the streets for days, demanding job opportunities and an end to “police harassment.” Scotland Yard moved to dramatically improve relations by focussing on winning the trust and co-operation of the black community.

What a contrast to Councillor Thompson’s recipe for new conflict and civil unrest.