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March protests criminalization of black youth

This story first appeared in The Coast on June 25, 2009:

In the wake of police action at the Auburn Drive high School, Black Independence Network Nova Scotia and other groups stage a march through Halifax.
By Chris Benjamin

About 50 protesters against the criminalization of black youth marched from the Halifax Common to George Dixon Centre last Saturday. They were led by two of the youth involved in altercations with police at Auburn Drive High School in May. The two held a large banner reading “Education Not Incarceration.”

According to one of the youths, the police intervention was an overblown response to a minor argument between two students during a fire drill. “It was worked out by the time the police started swinging bats and spraying pepper spray,” he said. He is awaiting a potential hearing in July on charges including breaching the peace and assaulting a police officer.

Flyers were also handed out saying that police targeted black students during the incident, “insulting cultural hairstyles” and yelling, “Get the fuck back; look at that little bitch with his ugly braids.”

Co-organizer Isaac Saney, a member of the newly formed Black Independence Network Nova Scotia, stressed unity and inclusion. He said the march was in solidarity with the youth of Auburn, but also about seeking “new forms of organizing the community and unifying it.” He said all youth are being criminalized, especially black youth.

Protesters were concerned by the vicious cycle of connections they see between Nova Scotia’s racist social, education, economic and justice systems. “Fifteen years after the Black Learners Report, the conditions of black learners are worse than ever,” Saney said. The Black Learners Advisory Committee report was an analytic effort by prominent African Nova Scotian educators to address systemic racism in education.

Saney said that the racism students are facing is rooted in a long history. “The so-called democracy of Democracy 250 is built on the genocide of the Mi’kmaq people,” he said. “It is also built on slavery, which Canada refuses to acknowledge its dirty involvement in.”

Participants in the march gave passers-by handouts outlining violence by police against black youth, and noting that 14 black youth were arrested at Auburn High, some of them dragged from bathrooms and classrooms. Four were eventually charged. They argue that “schools are becoming more like prisons: metal detectors; security guards; enclosing students in during the day,” and that black youth are disproportionately victims of such zero tolerance policies.

According to BINNS literature, black people are three times more likely to live in poverty, four times more likely to be murdered, seven times more likely to experience an unfair stop by police and have disproportionately high dropout rates. Such racial targeting, organizers say, is shutting black youth out of economic and social opportunities and driving them into the hands of the justice system.

The protesters grew in numbers as they marched east across the Common and Rainnie Drive and turned north onto Gottingen. Before the HRM police department headquarters, spoken word artist and coorganizer El Jones recited her poem, “Justice.” Some in the crowd responded, “Speak the truth!”

After her poem, Jones called for support for HRM Police Sergeant Robin Atwell, a black policewoman who has filed a human rights complaint against the police department. “Not only are they mistreating youth, they are mistreating their own staff based on race,” Jones said. “We can’t leave Robin Atwell out hanging, and we can’t leave these youth out hanging by themselves.”

As the marchers continued up Gottingen, onlookers waved and cheered. When they encountered a solstice fair in front of the George Dixon Centre, a cheer and laughter arose as a pagan organizer shouted, “Thank you for supporting paganism!”

During closing remarks, David Sparks, founder of the Martin Luther King Project Association of Nova Scotia, implored that the march be the beginning of a new movement for social change. “The NDP government provides a new opportunity,” he said. “We must challenge Darrell Dexter to eradicate racism and hold legislature accountable.”

Sparks also urged a value shift away from things and toward people, and direct non-violent action to support those values.

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