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How did Gordon Cressy, a white man, help end a racist practice in days that years of black community work had failed to?
A few days before the memorable press conference convened by Concerned Citizens to End Carding, a colleague and I were invited to lunch at an unremarkable little restaurant on King. The purpose of the lunch was to hear Gordon Cressy’s plan to end carding, the police practice of street checks targeting mostly young black and brown men.
What I knew about Cressy was scant: he once led my college’s foundation he was a Toronto city councillor from 1978 to 82 his son Joe is a councillor. That was all.
We arrived to find Cressy and two associates already into their meal. Cressy wore a slightly rumpled blue sports jacket and a pale shirt opened wide at the neck. He has the bronzed skin of a man who spends a fair amount of time outdoors. Across from him sat a bookish woman, her hair in rows of neat plaits. I took a seat opposite a soft-faced gentleman seated beside Cressy.
Cressy, a natural raconteur, spoke animatedly, his fingers dancing lightly along the table’s edge. Everyone listened as he regaled us with colourful stories about his time working in Trinidad and Tobago. He seemed to have intimate knowledge of the country, offering a mouthful of lyrics from an obscure calypso.
I was growing restless I’d come to talk carding. Then Cressy leaned in. “We need to put an end to this thing,” he said.
It took me a few seconds to gather that this “thing” was carding. I nodded. Only then did it register that everyone at the lunch was black or brown-skinned except Cressy.
“We’ve reached a tipping point,” he continued, playing with his lightly dressed salad.
I wasn’t sure about his assessment.
I’d been working on the issue for close to a year. Last summer I was hired by the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB) to conduct a community-based survey in the broader Jane-Finch area.
The Community Assessment of Police Practices (CAPP) survey found, not surprisingly, that rampant carding was causing people to despise the police. They shared stories about police harassment and being hauled off the street and questioned for no apparent reason. As a result, many said they didn’t trust the police and wouldn’t bother to call them, even in an emergency.
The response to our report from then police Chief Bill Blair was swift and ruthless – “suspect” was the word he used to describe our methodology.
More than 400 people shared their experience of carding, but the chief wasn’t at all interested. A solution to the issue seemed elusive. The more heated and heartfelt the community outcry, the more convoluted and vacuous the official response.
The TPSB seemed embarrassingly powerless.
When new mayor John Tory join ed the board, its reaction was to acquiesce in the face of the chief’s obstinacy. In April they passed a watered-down policy that in many ways was worse than the original.
The community was dumbfounded. As one gentleman who gave a deputation at the April meeting observed, “It was like being handed feces with perfume on it.”
Things rolled on. Chief Blair retired and Mark Saunders, a black man, took his place. For those who wanted carding obliterated, there was a sickening and exhausting feeling of being right back where the struggle had begun.
I wasn’t sure how much Cressy knew about our fight.
He seemed genuinely affronted by the practice. He told us it was Desmond Cole’s brilliant essay in Toronto Life in May that moved him to speak out. I was expecting Cressy to offer some suggestion about how to build on all our previous efforts. I wasn’t expecting the brutal simplicity of what he had to say.
“We just need to call around and get some people to agree that it’s time to end this thing,” he said.
I was stunned.
What made him think a few phone calls could achieve what thousands of angry voices hadn’t? A hush fell over the table.
Not knowing how else to break the silence, the other guests and I started coughing up the names of people who might speak out. Cressy listened and smiled patiently. “We need people who haven’t been speaking out on this yet,” he said, his eyes narrowing with what I thought was delight. “Remember, I’m the guy with the Rolodex.”
The phrase transported me back to a time when important political decisions were hatched in dimly lit, smoke-filled rooms by the old boys’ network. The woman beside me hmm’d. The soft-faced man chuckled.
It was clear that Cressy wasn’t talking about the people I knew, but the people he knew – people with power.
“People are saying the black community is fighting this alone,” he said. “That’s not right.” He thumped the table with his fist, scattering some cutlery.
The lunch wasn’t a discussion at all – it was a prelude to something more. My head was buzzing with that odd sensation you feel after experiencing something momentous.
Cressy did exactly what he told us he would do. He formed Concerned Citizens to End Carding and called a press conference at City Hall.
I arrived just as the speakers were filing into the space arranged outside the mayor’s office. Reporters and photographers were already crushed up against the podium.
There they were, Toronto’s power elite, summoned by one of their own in less time than it takes to buy a used car. I had never seen so many influential people in one place. The atmosphere was lively. They laughed and chatted with an air of cozy familiarity. Coming together to make things happen is what they do.
Cressy took the podium.
“We do not want a new generation of youth, particularly black and brown youth, to have to go through this experience,” he boomed.
People applauded and whooped.
One by one they took turns speaking to the cameras ringed around them. Heads nodded. The applause grew louder. My chest was taut with emotion.
A few days later, Tory called his own press conference to announce that he’d changed his mind. Carding couldn’t be reformed or massaged into respectability after all. That would not be enough. It needed to be exorcised. One side of the city’s establishment had sent the message, and the other side received it.
Cressy is a good man. I will always be thankful for what he did that day. There are people in our society who have just as much privilege and choose to remain silent on the issue. Then again, that’s what privilege is: having choices. You can choose to act or not. You can choose to care or not. Either way, that privilege continues unimpeded.
While I’m elated that Cressy’s decisive action was the impetus that finally cut carding down, I’m perplexed at how often society seems to rely on elites to make change happen. Here was a white man in his twilight years using the influence he still had to end a racist practice. Years and years of community work had failed to do what he did in days. Why?
The experience left me wondering about the meaning of citizenship and belonging. It caused me to reassess my values as someone who believes wholeheartedly in working on community issues from the ground up. It made me accept that we live in a city where people have different kinds of citizenship – where some people are able to make social change almost on a whim.
Questions tumbled around in my head.
Can the grassroots effect change without the help of elites, or do elites need to be activated by the grassroots before they can act?
When I teach social activism, I often tell the Depression-era story about the White House meeting attended by U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt and A. Philip Randolph, the iconic black labour leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
As the story goes, the meeting was upbeat and amicable. FDR listened intently as Randolph expressed his dissatisfaction with legislation that in his view had done very little to assist black unionized workers.
Just before the group said their goodbyes, FDR pulled the labour leader aside.
“Randolph, you’ve convinced me of your cause. I agree with you entirely,” he said. Then, almost in a whisper, he continued. “I want to help you on this. But here’s what you have to do. I need you to go out and make me do it!”
Being the shrewd politician he was, FDR knew he couldn’t help black labourers in pre-civil rights America without mass pressure from below.
Randolph understood this, too. He proceeded to organize the March on Washington Movement that eventually gave FDR the push he needed to ban discrimination in the defence industry in 1941. That movement was the precursor of the historic March on Washington some 23 years later.
There’s a flip side to this story.
In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. found himself in a Birmingham jail. Outside his cell window, his fellow protesters against racial segregation braved Eugene “Bull” Connor’s German shepherds and firehoses that tore the clothes off their backs.
King was worried that the movement he led had met its match in Connor. Spirits were flagging. The media were losing interest in the daily protests. It seemed like a doomed campaign.
One day King was called out of his cell and handed a phone. It was his wife, Coretta. She told him that President John F. Kennedy had called her to ask how she was holding up without her husband. King was thrilled.
“Is the media carrying it?” he asked excitedly. “Make sure that gets out!”
Get out it did. Over several weeks, the Kennedys’ statements highlighting the horrors of the Birmingham campaign helped bring the movement to national attention.
I used to mock this story. Kennedy’s phone call seemed such a pathetic and cynical gesture, and King was all too willing to seize upon it. But I’ve come to see it differently over the years.
King was a savvy and complex leader. He had seen both abject poverty and elite privilege, and he understood the political potency of JFK’s involvement. Most importantly, he knew that sometimes courage is not enough.
Perhaps the masses and the elites do need each other. Maybe it’s a symbiotic relationship that community activists like me find hard to acknowledge because to do so is to undermine so much of what we’ve convinced ourselves is true.
Seldom does one hear an activist admit that social change is complicated and nuanced, that so-called progress is a long game. We like the simpler narratives. We’re okay with good-versus-bad, the weak triumphing over the mighty, revolution over evolution, and so on. Just don’t tell us that our chances of making a better world are interdependent and interconnected with those we’ve spent most of our lives naming as oppressors.
Societies are tenuous things. They either thrive or implode. As John Ralston Saul reminds us, they “either roll on blindly to disaster or they find the inner strength to stop themselves long enough to find ways to reform from within.”
James Baldwin made the same point when he wrote, “The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”
They offer cautions that we ought to heed.
Think about the recent rebellions in Ferguson and Baltimore. These are tremors. They tell us that the centre cannot hold if this delicate balance is not tended to. Ever present is the threat of violent rupture, a date with a corrective social reckoning that neither the elites nor the rest of us will survive. That’s our miserable twinned fate.
In the fall I’ll return to the classroom, and I’ll share the story of my lunch with Gordon Cressy. I’ll talk about power and privilege, but I’ll also talk honestly about the costs of a life dedicated to community organizing and protest.
I’ll remind my students that an activist always runs the risk of working to no avail that failing to accomplish your dream of social change in your lifetime is more probable than possible. I’ll tell them that working from the bottom up is a faith challenge. And that the only thing that keeps you moving along the road to meaningful change is hope.
Gordon Cressy did not kill carding. That credit rightfully belongs to the countless number of people who for decades have fought ceaselessly against excessive policing in Toronto. But the honest truth is, I’m sure as heck glad he dusted off his Rolodex.
Neil Price is executive director of LogicalOutcomes, a non-profit consultancy in Toronto. He is a member of the Tommy Douglas Institute at George Brown College.
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