The Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) exercises control and pulls public support with the help of an inflated budget and gutless media. WPS made headlines multiple times last year, yet few headlines addressed the rampant harm and excessive use of force by police. The media give police a platform to publicly ridicule organizers and community members who are openly anti-racist, abolitionist and love their community. The media heavily censors messages and distorts information from people who question or criticize the Winnipeg Police Service while allowing police to say whatever they want. A lot of what we see on the news comes directly from WPS reports without further investigation, silencing community voices and perspectives and reinforcing pro-police propaganda or “copaganda.”
As an organizer with Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg (J4BLW), I and others within the group were approached quite often for interviews in the summer of 2020. The media incessantly attempted to contact me and other members of Justice 4 Black Lives. My phone rang day and night and my social media was inundated with requests for interviews. I agreed to do a few interviews regarding police brutality both local and international, targeted towards Black people. After reading the published versions of those interviews, I quickly realized that abolitionist perspectives were being censored in the media. Many reports minimized the murders of Black and Indigenous people by police. Some of the media went as far as justifying why the WPS got to be judge, jury and executioner.
One of the first interviews I did last summer was with the Winnipeg Free Press. The Winnipeg Free Press excluded crucial information about J4BLW such as how the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement too often excludes Black women, Black queer and Black non-binary folks. Information about the reality of police brutality in “Canada,” and abolitionist perspectives were completely censored. I was told the interview was exclusively about J4BLW and the work we set out to do. I was not told that I would be used as an introduction for police and other community members, and I was not told that the printed version of this article would include copaganda of police officers hugging protesters. We know that these photo-ops have all been followed up by police brutality: more murders, tear gassing, arrests, and violence. The Winnipeg Free Press is part of the growing media trend to use organizers’ voices to cover the ‘hype’ following a human rights movement while systemically suppressing their message. The media continues to raise police voices above the perspectives and voices of local community members who are critical of police.
A CBC article published in June 2020 questioning whether defunding police is a good or “safe” idea only quoted parties representing policing and people who had or currently have a personal stake in whether police funding increases or decreases. The quoted include Police Chief Danny Smyth, Previous Chair of the Police Board Kevin Klein (who stepped down from this position shortly after this article was released due to lack of open communication between the board and the WPS), and current Chair of the Police Board, Markus Chambers. The article uses pictures from a J4BLW rally, and mentions J4BLW a few times, but did not include any perspectives in favour of defunding police. The article does nothing to question the obvious half truths being told by police and politicians and instead ridicules people calling for abolition. For example, Kevin Klein says, "Defunding policing? You can bring that down, but you have to start improving the funding for the community programs.” That is the exact idea of defunding.
A simple read and reference of the J4BLW petition, would show that is exactly what people want right now. It should have been clearly and accurately shared as a contrasting perspective. No one is asking for funding to be ripped away just because the police are not well liked, or because this concept is gaining popularity in the US as Chief Smyth has speculated. We need abolition because our community on Treaty No. 1 territory deserves love, resources, and support instead of racist, deadly, and overall ineffective policing.
Public employees, like police, are supposed to serve the public. They should not be able to single out and harass community members or organizations advocating for the end of harmful and racist practices, like policing, based on decades of lived experience and supporting academic evidence. Calls for defunding and abolishing the police have become more widespread as police impunity reigns and more Black and Indigenous folks are being gunned down in the streets daily. These demands are not baseless: there are decades upon decades of Black femme studies and practices which prove that the only way safely forward for all is through abolition. Policing as an institution is racist. It was designed that way and it will always be that way.
Police are not accountable for the deaths they have caused. They often go to great lengths to protect their colleagues who murder yet will attempt to pin the death of an officer due to suicide on local abolitionist groups who are simply pointing out the harms police have caused. Abolitionists care about their community and protecting people from police brutality. Being Black is not a choice, yet as Black folks we are disproportionately affected by police violence. Police choose their profession and attempt to equate the risk of policing with the risk of being a racialized person in “Canada” and news outlets have supported the WPS in their assertion that they are somehow victims of unfair treatment. Chief Danny Smyth has publicly claimed that the WPS is a progressive service, and says that if people looked into the WPS, they would see that their actions do not fit within the abolitionist narrative. This is a flat out lie. The reason we know the police are horrible is because we have looked into them. Ourselves, our families, our communities continue to live through brutality at the hands of the WPS. Our lived experiences hold more value than a man protecting his job and image amongst his officers.
The media is complicit in allowing the police to co-opt, misconstrue, publicly oppose and attempt to snuff out the powerful message of defunding and abolition. Articles are published with headlines claiming that the police are open to defunding, but when you read further, the actual police position boils down to ‘defunding can happen at some point but not now, because first more funding is needed.’ The media pacifies calls for defunding the police by running to police for comment anytime a story includes a slightly anti-police stance under the guise of ‘telling both sides of the story.’ If reporters treated everyone the way they treat abolitionists, they would never get interviews. The media consistently writes about the defunding movement while defending policing and redirecting the blame onto the organizers.
The media allows police to comment on individual organizing groups as if they somehow possess the same amount of power as police and policing which is simply untrue. For example, the CBC allowed police to blame local organizations and movements for the mental health struggles of police, adults who choose to be actors of a racist system. When the media places the blame for a harmful system on those pointing out the harms, it makes police seem justified in continuing to brutalize and cause harm.
Recent articles claimed multiple times that officers are unhappy with Chief Smyth, with “Black Lives Matter,” and other movements to defund the police. While they do not mention any groups by name, it is obvious they are referring to J4BLW and Winnipeg Police Cause Harm as two of the most prominent voices in the movement to defund the WPS. Unsurprisingly, no one from these groups was asked for comment. Claims that abolitionists are the cause of low morale were taken at face value with no criticism or analysis. There was no mention that it is the public’s job to criticize, question and hold public servants accountable, and no mention of how many have died by suicide due to trauma from their encounters with the WPS. The WPS got an entire article to invalidate the work of abolitionists. Meanwhile abolitionists have yet to receive an honest interview free from pro-police perspectives slithering in before publication.
The media has a responsibility to accurately represent local organizations, and their goals in pursuit of justice and dismantling racist systems. This means not relying on the police to craft the narrative around public safety. Police do not represent local interests. More often than not they do not even live in the communities they harass. Police act purely in self-interest of preserving their power and the status quo. They will justify their actions at all costs, demonize those who stand in opposition to their overarching authority, and say that to keep everyone safe, we must give them more money. Police should never be given a platform to call out, place blame, or ridicule businesses, community members, organizations or individuals calling for justice and real community safety. This only serves to justify further violence that may later ensue upon those mentioned.
To regain trust, community members need to see their opinions valued by the media without simply paying lip service to both sides. The media needs to genuinely amplify the perspectives of Black, Indigenous and POC communities. It is important to be transparent and honest about the direction of the intended piece when asking to interview community members. When reaching out to a Black person for a comment on racism for example, it is best if a media request comes from someone of the same racial background to ensure that the perspective is accurately portrayed through a shared lens. If other voices or points of view will be shared in the piece it is important to make that information known to the interviewee. For example, when reaching out to a community organizer who is critical of policing, knowing you will be including a police perspective or images of police in the article , it is important to let them know when you contact them. It is important to critically question blatant half truths that are told by those in power even when no oppositional comment is requested. It is important to always be on the side of the community otherwise it will become increasingly difficult to report the progress of local social movements.
Community members volunteer their time to speak to the media. Organizers put themselves in harms way by speaking to the media. Anti-racist organizing is more than doing interviews and speaking out about police brutality. Time spent on an unhelpful interview is time that could be better spent supporting the community. When reporting is done correctly, it can be extremely impactful, and help further the movement. When done incorrectly, the harmful impacts can be long lasting. Time spent on an interview that misrepresents our movement and community interests is counter productive to achieving justice. Deadlines are not an excuse to harass people for an interview. A reporter's failure to plan their interviews accordingly or build relationships with the community does not necessitate an emergency for the organizers. Being a reporter does not entitle you to our time. Calling multiple times at 3AM or calling without leaving a voicemail or any further information is disrespectful and unprofessional.
Public trust in the police is actively dwindling. The stories and articles published by local media need to reflect that, otherwise public trust in media will dwindle alongside the institution which needs abolishing.
This article was published with support from The Media Co-op as part of a collaboration.