The write time
Writer, broadcaster, journalist and activist — Toronto’s Desmond Cole has moved the debate forward with his intelligent writing and passionate commitment to his cause
Five years ago, Desmond Cole filed his first story on police carding. After a contentious battle, Toronto Police Service ended the practice of obtaining information on individuals (disproportionately young black men) obtained during random stops, but it has nonetheless kept the data. Cole took things into his own hands last month when he disrupted a Police Services Board meeting demanding the information be destroyed. It was another step in Cole’s remarkable journey from journalist to one of the city’s leading activists. So when he resigned from the Toronto Star, it represented the loss of one of the city’s most exciting young voices. So we tracked him down to see what happens next.
When might we be seeing your byline again soon?
I think this is a good time for me to reassess what I want to do in Canadian media and who I want to work with in Canadian media.
Was your act of protest at the Police Services Board meeting planned?
Yes, I planned to do it. I should say, I think that there are a lot of people who realize I took my life into my owns hands by walking into that police building and doing what I did. You don’t do something like that without planning, unless you’re foolish and you’re not concerned that the police can hurt you.
What do you mean?
I had to plan everything from whether I was going to sit or stand because I know that my mere presence as a disruptive force in that building is deemed to be a violent act, which is why they sent police in to escort me out, by the way. I know that, if I raise my hand, somebody in that room might try to suggest that I have something in my hand, so I have to open my hand while I raise it in the air before I make it into a fist, so it is very clear there is nothing in my hand. These are the little things I have to think about so I don’t get killed making a public protest at a police station. I say this to you because these are the same things we have to think about as black people everyday [in] this city.
You use the term “white supremacy” a lot. What does it mean to you?
People just make up the definition of white supremacy they would like. It’s not attached to an individual or group. It’s a force. It’s an ideology. It’s just a set of ideas. It doesn’t belong to anyone. When I talk about white supremacy, it’s a force like patriarchy, heteronormativity, capitalism, big picture forces that govern the way we live every day. There is nothing con- troversial about white supremacy being a force that, I think, is an overarching philosophy of what it means to be Canadian.
But isn’t the idea of using that term to make people feel uncomfortable, to challenge them?
I’m being accurate. It’s just the truth. It’s what we would call it if we were being honest.
It seems as though people are losing their jobs and being held to account over racism. Maybe the time of excuses is coming to an end?
I don’t believe that it’s ending. First of all, we need to acknowledge the reason the [ Write magazine] editor lost his job and the reason school board trustee Nancy Elgie resigned is that the people being attacked, black and indigenous people, put a tremendous amount of labour into disrupting, rebelling and fighting back. It is clear this would not have happened without them.
But at least the excuses weren’t enough.
We should never be having to fight these battles in the first place because the system should have our backs.
Do people treat you differently now?
Yeah, you know, I mentioned in my [Toronto Star] resignation letter, John Honderich told me that I’m writing about race too often. And I think that there are a lot of people, particularly in my professional world, who agree with that statement. I have a lot of people now much more wary of talking to me about certain issues. They are afraid of, you know, how we like to jump down people’s throats. That’s what people are always afraid of. People in my workplaces, the various places that I work, many of them have an open dislike for me because of the things I’ve chosen to advocate for.
What gives you hope?
Other black people do. Every day, when I leave my house and I ride the subway, walk around in public, I run into people who want to talk to me about my work and the vast majority of them are black.… I have faith in my community. I’m fighting with and for my black community and beyond.
What do you consider your greatest achievement so far?
The fact that I can still get out of bed in the morning.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
A world with no police.