Opinion: 'Woke' and the over-policing of Black youth in Quebec
Published Friday, October 8, 2021 7:37AM EDT Last Updated Friday, October 8, 2021 7:38AM EDT
MONTREAL -- It seems that every week Quebec is whipped up into another controversy about racism.
While every controversy seems to open up a wide terrain of debate, the terrain is actually formatted in ways that eclipse the gravest effects of systemic racism, as well as the voices of those who experience these effects and the actions that would do the most to remedy them.
The most recent controversy began with a federal debate moderator’s question to Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, which suggested that two recent Quebec laws were discriminatory.
The response in Quebec included the usual claims about “Quebec bashing,” as well as Premier François Legault’s bizarre musings about the meaning of the term “woke.”
“For me,” he explained, “a ‘woke’ is someone who sees discrimination everywhere.”
His explanation brought into the National Assembly a position repeated ad nauseam in the pages of the Journal de Montréal and other Quebec media outlets in recent years, where various anti-oppression movements are described as expressions of a “woke-ism” that is destroying the nation.
In the face of this, the leader of the left-wing Québec Solidaire party, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, offered an eloquently mediocre defence of the “wokes.”
He claimed not to know “any clear or simple definition of this term,” while circulating images of himself over social media with a wok, the kitchen instrument.
For people who experience systemic racism or support effective measures to combat it, there is no space to occupy in this debate.
It’s an anti-debate, a political black hole.
The two actors in the drama scrupulously avoid recognizing the history of the term “woke” or the relationship between the latter and the current social conditions of the communities that invented it.
The term dates back decades in the African-American community and has circulated within Black communities around the world to designate awareness, resistance, and vigilance toward issues of racial justice.
Both white parties in the debate, then, contribute to the same outcome: robbing Black communities of a term of political analysis and ridiculing them in the process.
The “wokegate” controversy also eclipses the escalating campaign against Black youth in the northeast of Montreal.
On Sept. 24, Legault’s government announced a massive new investment of $90 million to combat guns and gangs, mostly in Montreal.
The money will fund a new operation called CENTAURE (half-man, half-horse), which will bring together 107 new police officers and other staff, as well as personnel from police forces in Montreal, the suburbs of Laval and Longueuil, and elsewhere – all under the direction of the provincial Sûreté Québec police force.
The aim of the operation, as Quebec Minister of Public Security Geneviève Guilbault explained, is to enact “an unprecedented strike.”
Speaking directly to criminalized groups, the minister declared, “whoever you are, wherever you are, you will find our police on your path.”
There is no question to whom she was speaking. The last year has witnessed an ever-expanding moral panic about guns and gangs in Montreal.
The panic parallels the spiralling anti-woke discourse in Quebec and that’s no surprise – they both draw from the same foundations.
In Montreal, the term “gang” has long been used to signify Black youth.
A racial category, the term is also incredibly expansive.
The scale of racial profiling effected by previous campaigns against street gangs in Montreal is well documented, with around 40 per cent of Black youth in targeted neighbourhoods being stopped by police in the last major offensive.
The police, in other words, has been “on the path” of Black youth for decades.
Like the controversy around the term woke, the operation against gangs also enfolds a profound attack on Black cultural expression.
Discussions of gang violence in the last year have frequently traced its source to “hip hop culture,” a cultural form that supposedly promotes gun violence.
This claim, as Philippe Némé-Nombré points out, collapses the distance between the fiction of rap lyrics and videos, which have featured images of guns and gun violence for decades, and the reality of rap artists and their communities.
In contrast, other cultural forms, including violent movies and TV series, are permitted the status of harmless fiction.
The perils of rap music, moreover, appear to infect Black youth alone.
In early September, the police ordered the cancellation of a three-day rap festival in the suburb of Laval over fears it would ignite gun violence.
Laval police chief Jean-François Rouselle explained that rap wasn’t necessarily bad.
In fact, “[his] own kids listen to rap music.”
White youth, then, are somehow able to consume an image without parroting it.
This vilification of Black youth and Black culture has profound consequences.
The new police operation, CENTAURE, will undoubtedly escalate racial profiling and send hundreds if not thousands of Black youth to prison for crimes that have nothing to do with guns and violence.
In the meantime, the community programs that are best able to prevent violence will remain underfunded or non-existent, while the people and groups most responsible for gun violence in the city will escape the new police campaign.
The July arrest of William Rainville, a white former bank employee, for trafficking 250 handguns reveals something important about the networks that supply guns to the city: they tend to be wealthier than any group of Black youth and lighter in complexion.
Rather than laying out policy proposals here, we’ll finish by speaking of the fallen.
There are indeed gun battles occurring in Montreal, and we lack the words to express the necessary level of respect toward the victims of these fratricidal wars.
To the tally of the dead, we need to add the people close to those killed or injured, as well as all the youth caught up in a decades-long cycle of underinvestment and state and interpersonal violence, a cycle that produces marginalization and social death when it does not kill physically.
For very often, the conflicts occur between people who know each other – thus, the term fratricidal war – and whose communities are well aware of non-police, community interventions needed to bring them to an end.
Their voices and knowledge, eclipsed from the limited and deadening controversies about racism in Quebec, need to be at the centre.