November 7, 2013

Rob Ford & Racism: How Drugs Are Shaping Our World.

I live in Rob Ford’s Toronto.

Chances are you know about the city I live in because our mayor was effectively caught on tape in May smoking what appeared to be crack cocaine and saying some pretty racist and homophobic things. Since news of the alleged tape broke (first by Gawker and a day later by the Toronto Star), Ford has been denying its existence and denying that he was a drug user. If you have been following this story (or the story of our mayor) for any amount of time you might already be exhausted of it. You probably are, even if you haven’t been following it.

However, this week: we got a real shocker: He admitted to it.

Here is the video.

This is notable only because he has been categorically denying the existence of a tape or of the possibility of substance abuse problems, which makes this eventual admission a little bittersweet. The revelation of drug use itself is absolutely unsurprising, but what it will hopefully lead to is an honest discussion of the issue of racism and appropriation in this city and in the world in general.

It is no secret that I am not a fan of Mr. Ford’s politics or his “style of governance”. Toronto is an enormous city (fourth largest in North America as of March of this year) and with such a vast population, it might be in its best interests to have a leader who leads tries to open up the dialogue between the different factions of our city, rather than split it apart with contentious and dramatic statements.

Since being elected in October of 2010 on a platform of fiscal responsibility and tax cuts, he has consistently voted for tax cuts, arts cuts and housing cuts in order to “help” the budget —this is when he shows up to city council meetings, of course—and he has also become notorious for aggressive/inappropriate behavior: repeatedly calling 911 for no-real-reason-at-all, except to pull rank; reading while driving; binge-drinking in public; sexual impropriety.

We had problems with our mayor well before the current crack scandal existed.

He is pro-business and pro-development, pro-car and anti-crime. All of these things are greatly appreciated by a large part of the population of our city, but his stance also ignores and endangers specifically the people who are more dependent on social services. His voting record has eliminated program allowances and funds for shelter beds (at a time when unemployment and poverty is sky-rocketing, not only in the downtown core but in the general Greater Toronto Area); and as the gap between the services-needed and the services-provided widens, the lines along which Toronto is already cut are only going to get deeper.

It is kind of impossible to talk about Rob Ford without talking a little bit about Toronto.

 I am absolutely no expert on Toronto—although I dearly love my adopted city, it is my adopted city. Toronto, at least at this point in its history, is deeply divided on racial and economic, as well as geographic lines. There are vast suburbs you need a car to navigate, but with its cheaper rents it can be more affordable for families and people of lower income levels to live in.

The downtown core is characterized by its smaller, more expensive living quarters, business developments, choking traffic, one of the highest rates of homeless or displaced people in the Western world and a healthy drug trade.

People downtown are characterized as “hipster downtown elite” by the people who live in the suburbs, and people who live downtown would almost never trade the excitement of city life for the (more) affordability of the suburbs. I realize I am oversimplifying the situation by saying “we are divided this way and that way,” but if I don’t admit to the fact that those segregations exist and have got worse over the past few years, then I would not be being honest.

Back to the video: back in May, a writer for Gawker, John Cook, published an article that said he had been approached by someone trying to sell a phone video of the Mayor of Toronto smoking crack. Cook saw the video, verified its contents, but was unable to put together the price that the seller of the video was asking for. Over the next day, two reporters from the Toronto Star published a story that said they had seen the video, as well. Everyone in the world seemed to pick up on the story at that point and what had been a deeply embarrassing and divisive issue in our city suddenly became  international news.

Cue the long-winded set of denials from our mayor, (of the “Of course I didn’t!” variety, and which we’d seen him employ before during his many previous scandals) and a troubling pattern of violence and around the people associated with the video, and people begin to see just how twisted and problematic this situation is, and how it only has very little to do with crack itself.

When I think of this scandal breaking, I think of  the now infamous picture of the mayor with Anthony Smith and two other men taken on the driveway of the mayor’s high school friend’s house, and released by the Star. Ford is notorious for taking ill-advised photos with his “constituents” (for example, the photo taken of him and a neo-Nazi sympathizer in 2012) but this picture is significant for a few reasons.

The first is that the house, allegedly known in the neighbourhood as the “crack house”), is located down the street from the Dixon Road Apartments,which is now publicly known for its drugs and gang-related violence. It was also a subject of the “Project Traveller” raids.

The second is regardless that Ford once again blustered that the photo could have been taken anywhere, it did happen to be the house of his high school friend.

The third is that out of all the people in that photo, only the Mayor is currently out on the streets, walking around unharmed.

It is possible, I suppose, at this point to still say, “So what? Even if the mayor happens to be in a picture that is in front of a house known for drug use, he is just visiting his buddy! It’s all just circumstantial.” It becomes harder to defend the “it’s all circumstantial” position when one realizes that two months after the photo was taken, Smith had been (conveniently?) killed in a gunfight; shortly after, the other two men (one who had also been shot, during a different raid) had both arrested as part of the police investigation.

At this point, considering all the lies and obfuscation from the Mayor’s office, is it truly unfair to speculate exactly why so many people who seemed to be involved are now, for whatever reason, not able to speak for themselves?

There is an element to this story that I want to address publicly. Why is it that out of the four men in that photo the (white, well-to-do) mayor is the only one alive and not in jail? Why is it that a man who has built a large part of his platform saying that he is anti-crime and anti-gang,  thinks it’s okay to fraternize with alleged drug dealers?

Since the latest revelations, Ford has repeated that he “may have done [crack cocaine] in a drunken stupor”: the implication finally being that as long as he admits it, that he will be forgiven. That suggests that maybe, due to his family’s wealth and the privilege of his colour that he is used to serious charges being softened against him—which is completely unfair when one considers what happens to other young men who live in the areas that Mr. Ford is able to “casually frequent.”

It seems that, since Rob Ford got elected, his mayoralty has consisted of more and more absenteeism, “strange personal quirks” (to put it lightly), and more outrageous lies to cover his transgressions: this suggests to me that he is used to the stories he tells having the ability to get himself out of trouble. It doesn’t matter how shady or shaky the story, because Rob is who he is, nothing really bad can happen to him. This is why he is able to have someone take photos of him next to a Neo-Nazi, or alleged gang members. He is that brazen because he expects to have that amazing luck extended to his next outburst.

As he comes from an established, fairly well-to-do white family and has so far escaped most repercussions of his behaviour (he is still Mayor, for crying out loud), his assessment of the way the current judicial and social systems work seems to unfortunately be correct.

I have practiced yoga on and off for half my life, and these yoga teachings tell me I must be kind to everyone I meet, because no matter what they do, they are enacting their own story. Admittedly, even as a devotee of yoga, I do not want to extend compassion to Rob Ford—why would I, I wonder, he’s been given many opportunities to be honest and he has consistently chosen the most dishonest path:why would I keep extending that courtesy to him?

I do hope he gets the help he so obviously needs, but it is through the revelation of this scandal that I hope to reach, in compassion and awareness, the people who have been affected by his thoughtless presence.

To those people affected by the cuts to social programs, to affordable housing, to the raids happening on their houses —I hope that the admission that Rob Ford has used crack will be a light that will eventually shine on the racial and economic disparities that split this city like an apple and that we can actually begin to effectuate real dialogue towards resolution.

Toronto and by extension the rest of the world, could use an honest examination  regarding racial divides  that leads back to huge systemic inequalities in the way we treat people of a certain colour or economic privilege.

If we do not begin to address these inequalities, then no true change can come about and if no change comes about, then nothing will get better.

I refuse to accept that.


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Ed: Bryonie Wise

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