By Carmen Warner
Imagine that you are shopping in Walmart with your two young children in a stroller. Imagine you buy $90 worth of electronics from the electronics department. The cashier then tells you that you must check out your produce items at a different check out because they have to be weighed. No problem.
You place the produce in your stroller to bring up to the front. Imagine on the way to the checkout you stop in the toy aisle to pick out a doll for your child. Imagine you are doing this everyday activity, sharing excitement with your daughter about a new toy, when suddenly three floor walkers and two police officers approach you out of nowhere and accuse you of stealing. In front of your two small children.
Imagine the embarrassment you might feel. Imagine this is not the first time you have been accused of stealing when you had done absolutely nothing wrong. And imagine how their demeanor toward you might make you feel. You have done nothing wrong so you tell the police officers to check your receipt and to search your bags and stroller. They disregard you. They do not believe you. Instead, they continue to accuse you of being a thief. When you become upset in response to their questioning, instead of de-escalating the situation as all HRP officers are trained to do, the police officers attempt to arrest you for causing a disturbance. Then call in three more police officers for back up against you, a mom out with her two kids, who was just doing some shopping.
When you protest your innocence because you are innocent, the police escalate the situation even more, grabbing at your daughter and attempting to pull her away from you. Flinging out your arm to protect your daughter from being grabbed at, you scratch the police officer’s face. Now you are charged with assaulting an officer. The officers then tackle you to the ground to arrest you, leaving you with a concussion, lacerations, and a broken wrist. While putting the cuffs on too tightly, an officer says, “she’s a feisty fucking bitch, this one.”
Maybe you cannot imagine being accused of stealing when you had not left the store with items yet. Maybe you cannot imagine the police not believing you when you tell them you are on the way to the checkout with your head of lettuce, grapefruit and two lemons. Maybe it seems absurd to you that someone would be accused of stealing a few dollars’ worth of produce after spending $90 on electronics.
But, Black people all over Nova Scotia can very easily imagine this happening to them because this kind of thing does happen to them. It happens to them and their Black friends and family and colleagues all of the time. And it is exactly what happened to Santina Rao who now faces charges for causing a disturbance, assaulting a police officer, and resisting arrest. Charges that could have been easily avoided if she had not been racially profile, or had the police not been called on her, which they shouldn’t have been. Charges that would never had been laid if the police had checked her receipt and apologized, or, at the very least, practiced de-escalation against an unarmed Black woman with two children, rather than calling in back-up and forcefully arresting her.
You need only to read the testimonies from Black Nova Scotians in the 2019 Halifax Street Check Report to see how often Black people who have done absolutely nothing wrong are accused of crimes, treated horrendously, and met with violence by police when they very rightly question their actions. Just try to imagine how frustrated and agitated you would be if over and over again you and the people you love are wrongfully assumed to have committed a crime. Accused by people with power who carry a gun and quite often, as the street check report indicates, approach you, an innocent person just living your life, with their hand on their weapon. Imagine how scared and frustrated and tired you might be. This is much bigger than “a few bad apples” in the police force. It is a problem with policing as such. It’s a problem with Nova Scotia.
If you read about Santina Rao at the beginning of the year and thought or commented on a news story that “she must have deserved it” because “cops just don’t accuse you of stealing when you aren’t” or “she should have just followed the cop’s orders,” then you don’t understand the problem. If you think, as many of the white participants in the Street Check Report did, that police are “just doing their jobs” and “are nice until they can’t be nice anymore,” then you aren’t listening. If you don’t understand that police are not a calming sight of protection for many Black Nova Scotians, but are the very source of their suffering every single day, then you are not paying attention. If you are unwilling to consider what defunding the police means in the Canadian context or take seriously the many recommendations Black Nova Scotians made in the Street Check Report about how to better use these public funds, then you are not an ally. You do not stand with this cause.
Santina Rao is still facing charges for causing a disturbance, assaulting a peace officer, and resisting arrest. You can email Justice Minister Mark Furey at JUSTMIN@novascotia.ca and Halifax Police Chief Dan Kinsella at email@example.com and demand that all charges against Santina Rao be dropped. I’ve written a letter you can use and fill your name in, which can be found here. This letter would not have been possible without Santina Rao who did the brave and exhausting work of coming forward, and for El Jones and Halifax Examiner for their relentless pursuit of social justice through critical, hard-hitting journalism. You can subscribe to Halifax Examiner here.
If you read this letter and agree but are unwilling to get involved, then you are not an ally. It is not enough to post memes about white privilege. You have to actually use it.
Carmen Warner is a PhD student in Communication at Carleton University. Her work explores
relationships between culture, media, and the usage of space in Nova Scotia, where she is from.