When the first wave of COVID-19 in March 2020 set off emergency orders in Ontario, police departments were given increased powers to enforce public health measures that called for self-isolation and physical distancing. Neighbours were also encouraged to police each other through the use of “snitch-lines”, and an expanded state of surveillance was assumed as a new normal. This deepened pre-existing police presence and control in neighbourhoods where more poor, Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities live.
KW Article Club, a reading group and art collective based in Waterloo Region, informed by work from local and international Black activists and organizers, sought to address these structural inequities in March 2020 through a zine titled #PolicingThePandemic. The following feature is an adapted version of that zine that adds two pieces that delve into the impact policing has on Black people, making a case for why we continue to strive towards a future where we prioritize care instead of enforcement.
Fifteen armed officers were called to arrest Abdisalam Omer, a Black Somali man, on July 5, 2020. Witnesses on scene were initially worried that police were arriving to ticket them for breaching physical distancing protocols. Those witnesses likely saved Mr. Omer’s life by refusing to leave until he was safe. Witnesses questioned why he was being arrested, noting that Omer lives with mental illness but is nonviolent. According to cell phone footage, an officer claimed that Omer fired shots at their cruiser. Soon after, the police rushed Omer, who sat in his parked car. They broke his window, dragged him out, and held him down while one officer punched him repeatedly. He was also tasered, and left in an ambulance. No gun was found. On January 15, 2021, the Crown dropped all charges against Mr. Omer.
Niara van Gaalen is a writer, artist, activist, and architecture student. She sees design as a tool for social and environmental justice and is currently completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture. Niara is the founder of designwithcolour.org, a resource for Black design students, and you can find her on Instagram @justkidstm.
Yasmeen Nematt Alla is a visual artist and writer whose practice approaches alienated narratives from an interpreter’s perspective. As someone who lives between cultures, she deciphers the language barriers that are attached to alienation. She considers how art-making can bridge the gap between what we know and what we hope to understand.
Tomi A. writes from Kitchener, Canada, and is fascinated by hieroglyphs, literature, song lyrics, history and environmental engineering. He is currently working on his debut novel and writes at iamaworld.exposure.co and www.tomi-a.com.