The title and subtitle pretty much sum up what this book is about: being black and facing systemic racism in two police organizations in a 36-year career. Calvin Lawrence was born in 1949 in Yarmouth and raised in Halifax. His parents (he was actually raised by his Uncle and Aunt) were a mixed-race couple living in Halifax. His father worked as a porter for the railway, one of the few respectable jobs available to blacks at the time. As there were no black police on the Halifax force, Mr. Lawrence wanted to be a policeman figuring that it’s better to be a black cop than have racist white cops police black neighbourhoods. This resulted in him being ostracized by both blacks and whites. Over time, aided by his boxing as an amateur (and he was good at it), he built up a thick skin. The hiring of blacks as Halifax police recruits was a knee-jerk reaction to The Black Panthers visiting that city in the late 1960s.
When I look back and ask myself whether the police department would have hired black officers when they did if there hadn’t been political unrest in the community, my answer is hell no. Not a chance. Over the years, different people on the force have told me that there had been previous qualified black applicants who’d put in for police jobs. Before the Panthers showed up, the standard procedure for dealing with a black applicant was to thank him, then throw his application in the wastebasket and laugh at him once he walked out the door.
There was no softening of the rotten core of white supremacy. Rather, the hiring of black officers was a panicked reaction of the white power structure to the suddenly real threat of black radicalism in Halifax. We black officers were hired because the government was scared shitless and was looking to put black faces in the right places. I call this the “colour connection.” We were tokens. And tokens by definition replace the real thing. Tokenism only benefits the individual token, not the masses. Back then though, I was totally unaware that the opportunity I had just been handed was so politically loaded. The way I saw it, no other job was going to give me, a black teenager, a uniform a salary and the perception of a meaningful career. Given my lack of career options, I thought I’d try being a cop.
So begins his long career in both the Halifax force and later in the RCMP where he found white supremacy facing him down at every opportunity he had for advancement. He did undercover work, VIP detail (such as protecting visiting dignitaries and Prime ministers, etc) and even training other officers in Regina. Still, he would be passed over for promotions or for requests for relocation or reassignment.
Mr. Lawrence, true to his training as a boxer, pulls no punches. this is obvious from the start. He comes across as “this is who I am, take it or leave it.” The N-word appears numerous times in the text, often he is called this to his face, other times anonymous notes and defaced pictures appear in the workplace. He keeps files and photocopies of all the injustices, and under the Access to Information Act, obtains official emails that prove he was being blackballed and held back from any responsible position, no matter how well-trained he was for the job. Toward the end of his career, it all begins to take a toll on him.
I come from people who come from people who come from very strong places. If life gets hard, then you work harder. And that’s what my parents taught me. At night, as I conjured their memories, I knew I could not let these people down. I will say this, though, I was stretched as far as I could be, emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically.
Black Cop is an enlightening and persuasive read. Mr. Lawrence’s account needs to be heard; perhaps today’s young men and women who desire to have a career in law enforcement will be the ones to enact some small change in the existing power structure of organizations such as the RCMP. However, as he notes, it will always be run by white males. Mr. Lawrence also includes an appendix of other cases of racism allegations that have been brought against different policing units across the country, thus confirming that his experience is not an isolated incident.
I’m putting Black Cop on the 2020 long list for “The Very Best!” Book Awards in the Non-Fiction category. 5-stars.
Black Cop: My 36 years in police work, and my career ending experiences with official racism by Calvin Lawrence, With Miles Howe
James Lorimer & Company, Ltd.
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