For those plugged into the hip hop hoopla, the Toronto Hip Hop Cultural Arts Centre (THC) is a non-profit, volunteer-run community-centric organization known for its good works. The three-storey complex at Dundas and Keele (aka The Junction) offers computer access, homework assistance, general advice and job counselling in a community that certainly needs all the help it can get.
The centre also houses a theatre company (New Harlem Productions), a recording studio (On Cybertron) and an indy record label (Justus League Records).
Donna Michelle, New Harlem's creative director, even gives the locals challenging roles in plays - but only after they agree to "no getting high, no getting drunk and no doing violence" and enter into verbal contracts with her for at least the run of the production.
So why is the centre being watched by police? And why have cops reacted to four separate instances of vandalism at the centre since its move here in January - including one in which flying metal did $1,000 worth of damage to the storefront window - with seeming indifference?
There's no clear answer. The THC wears its radical politics proudly. So many different flyers and leaflets are on hand, you'd think this was the official printing house of all things black. Perhaps adding fuel to the fire is the fact that local rap outfit Dope Poet Society, the mainstay of THC's Justus League label, boasts a track called "Fuck Mike Harris!" among their poignant political observations.
But the tale that has been unfolding around the THC is truly disconcerting for what it says about the level of mistrust between police and the black community.
Vandals involved in the most recent attack on the THC, which involved paint balloons, rocks and, for good measure, "Fuck you niggers!" racial epithets, were chased down by THC staffer Michael Small on his bike.
"When [the vandals] circled back for more during the last attack," says Michelle, "we were actually on the phone with the cops, but they wouldn't come," even though the cop shop is just a block away. Staff Sergeant Fred Ellarby of 11 Division blames manpower shortages.
He says that while four attacks on the centre since January is "notable," some places in the area actually get hit more frequently.
"I'm at a loss as to how to patrol stuff any more," Ellarby laments. "My numbers are just so low right now, it's taking hours to respond to ordinary calls." Michelle says the issues go deeper than Ellarby's that's-just-the-neighbourhood take. She says some police who did show up at the THC "were extremely hostile (and) wouldn't give their names or badge numbers."
Officers who responded to one of the vandalism incidents didn't even bother getting out of their cruiser to investigate.
Ellarby explains away the appearance of indifference by saying that "a rock through a window or paint splattered on a building you can see pretty much from the car, (and) going over to it isn't going to tell you an awful lot."
Over the phone from 11 Division, a defensive PC Robert Licop, one of the investigating offices in question, seems insulted THC would have any quarrel with police's handling of their situation.
"Basically, I want nothing to do with them any more because they're not very respectful of police, to tell you the truth," he say, before threatening NOW with a lawsuit if any part of this story is "false."
Interestingly, the night of the last attack at THC was the first in recent memory when the police weren't camped out in front. "Ironically, it's that presence that makes it safe, but at the same time, why are they watching us all the time?" Michelle wonders. "Aren't they culturally aware enough to tell the difference between the THC and a blinging gang-banger headquarters?" A less charitable, though perhaps more accurate, word for that is profiling.
Ever in search of that elusive meeting in the middle, she posits, "It's also my responsibility to understand what assumptions I greet the police with." But then she trails off, "but I don't think I can, based on experience. "
As a case in point, she stuns me with the tale of cruising cops flashing cherries and wanting to know, "Who are you? When's the last time you were arrested?" while she was on her way to the coffee shop one afternoon.
The officers offered her some classic cop logic later by way of apology: "I'm sure you can understand why we thought you were a prostitute - you have very large breasts," she quotes the cops as saying before they departed with some crack about the thong she was allegedly wearing.
Staff Sergeant Ellarby is at a loss to explain that one, but he can't be held responsible for the conduct of all his charges.
The main point in all this, Ellarby says, "is trying to make sure people realize that communications are open. It's inevitable that conflicts will arise, because people often don't necessarily like what the law allows us to do."
A community forum, Focusing On Perceptions, Assumptions And Conflict Dissipation In Interactions Between Police And Civilians, is scheduled for July 8, 7 pm, at the THC (2482 Dundas West). Ellarby says he'll be there. Licop's attendance is doubtful.