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Masai Ujiri could not stay silent on police brutality — and neither can we

After the deaths of George Floyd and Regis Korchinski-Paquet, we must ask ourselves once again; what kind of world do we want to live in? And, as Ujiri implies, what are we willing to do to get there?

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2019 Toronto Raptors Victory Parade & Rally Photo by Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

Over the weekend, Raptors team president Masai Ujiri wrote an op-ed in the Globe and Mail to discuss racism. He felt compelled to do this because police in America spent the weekend doing the only thing police know how to do: use force. The cops were using force because people were protesting, and people were protesting because a cop used so much force he killed a man, George Floyd, in the street. It’s a turn of events that once again should get everyone up, even a man as wealthy and, in a sense, insulated as Masai Ujiri. In this, he knows the unfortunate truth: being Black in the world today, a world still shaped and ruled by white supremacy, means it is impossible to be entirely insulated or safe.

Ujiri is not the only major figure in the sports world who has spoken up on the extreme police violence that has occurred in the past week. Some players have been in the streets with protesters, some have announced their donations to various causes, and many have posted messages on social media in support. Ujiri is, however, one of the few (only?) high-ranking sports executives in North America who can attest to wanton police action as it relates to him personally. As he mentions in his column, Ujiri was accosted by a cop as he rushed the floor in the wake of the Raptors’ 2019 championship win. In what should have been a moment of pure elation, his crowning professional achievement, Ujiri was instead reminded that to some, even someone as unremarkable and useless as a cop, he was still a person to be questioned — someone somehow lesser or smaller than the white people in suits around him.

The outcome in Ujiri’s case was modest — even with a stupid lawsuit from the cop still pending. It was an ugly moment to be washed away in the gold of the Larry O’Brien trophy and the undying adulation of Toronto. But his experience speaks to the larger issue at hand, the one that had a knee on the neck of George Floyd until he couldn’t breathe, and the one that has thousands in the streets in defiance of vile police aggression and hasty municipal curfews devised to curtail dissent of injustice and overt white supremacy. What Ujiri is speaking on, what the images and video that have emerged over the weekend reveal, is something that has long been known. It’s so well known, in fact, it’s been distilled into a chant, a mantra of the dispossessed: the system isn’t broken, it was built this way.

Meanwhile in Toronto, we sit with our own problems. On Saturday, a rally was held for Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Black woman who mysteriously fell to her death from the balcony of her High Park apartment. The facts of her case appear to be all over the place — but what is clear is the police presence in her final moments and their collective obfuscation of what exactly happened. We’ve been assured by Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) that we’ll get the full story at some point. But we’ve heard that before. As has happened many times before in Toronto and across Canada, in cases of police violence against Black people, the cops always escape unscathed.

So, despite concerns about COVID-19, we marched on Saturday. Unlike the ongoing protests in America, it was a calm yet still powerful experience. The family of Korchinski-Paquet and the organizers of the rally, Not Another Black Life, wanted it as such — and so it went, socially distanced and loud, but non-violent. (Save for one asshole throwing water — mixed with bleach? — from their window onto protestors below.) There were police present, looming on the periphery of Christie Pits park and at major intersections along the march route across Bloor Street and down Bay Street to Toronto’s police headquarters, but they stayed out of it. From there, the crowd dispersed, the message sent, the voices heard. What happens next feels very much up to the SIU, Toronto’s police, and the local government — but will they listen?

On that last subject, we have something of an official response from the City of Toronto’s mayor, John Tory. On Saturday night, after the peaceful protest here had ended and the din in America continued to grow, Tory dispatched a series of tweets to announce what’s going on, what’s still to be done, and, in effect, to pat himself on the back.

In the thread, Tory acknowledges that Toronto has “North America’s first anti-Black racism unit,” already hard at work. He also mentions the expedited nature of the “independent”, “thorough”, and “transparent” investigation — which is to include frequent public updates — being undertaken by the SIU in this specific case. He extolls us all not to give up. Whatever your feelings are on Tory (I happen to think he’s a befuddled uncle slow to react on major issues when obvious solutions are already in front of him), he’s right in that last piece of advice. We must carry on.

But now we arrive at the tricky question: what do we — we people with a voice or a platform, we comfortable people, we white people — do next? In one sense, the answer here is not difficult to parse. If we aren’t already, we should listen to the voices of Black, and other marginalized communities, and believe what they’re telling us. We should participate in protests and follow the lead of organizations, like Black Lives Matter TO, that seek to achieve an equal and just society. We should donate our time and money to help those working on the frontlines of change. (I’ll repeat here for emphasis: we should donate our money.) We don’t necessarily have to be violent or prepare for violence — at least not yet — but we do have to be there.

The issue of mass violence hasn’t come up in Toronto so far, but we cannot be blind to what’s happening in the U.S. right now. When cops are attacking peaceful protestors and reporters with impunity — striking out with all sorts of weapons, including their cars — we cannot pretend it’s not happening. And while, as no less than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote, some bad faith actors will take advantage of the situation, and it is indeed hard to watch, we must see it for what it is. This is often the only way for the powerless and oppressed to be heard. My saying this should not be news because, well, it is not something new. It didn’t start with, for example, the election of Donald Trump as president, and it won’t end with his eventual removal from office. It is a continuing and ongoing struggle around the world.

As such, it’s worth noting again here that in almost all of the cases we’ve seen from over the past weekend, it’s been the police who have instigated the violence — and it’s been the police who often appear to welcome it. In this, they are acting as an unquestioning arm of the state, doing as they’ve done since before many of us were even alive. Remember: It’s not an accident that the police budget in Toronto takes up such a disproportionate amount of resources in this city, remaining untouchable despite whatever other shortfalls there are. Do not delude yourself into believing the police in Toronto, or Canada — or even under a different leader in America — can or will react any differently. At least not yet.

So then, moving forward, let’s remember the words of Ujiri. We must find opportunities to use our voices to call our leaders to account, to push them to respond in a manner that achieves actual results, justice, and reform. We must turn aside empty words and gestures and seek out bold and tangible action. We must think about who holds power and how they use it — and we must confront those who would misuse that power, against Black people and any other vulnerable peoples. We must have conversations, uncomfortable as they may be, with our friends and family, with our coworkers, with anyone who does not yet see the whole picture. This will not be easy, and it won’t always be successful in the moment either, but we must do what we can, together.

In all, despite the reasons for easy cynicism here, or maybe even our own presumed level of comfort, we must believe that a better world is possible.