Andrew Loku was shot and killed by police on July 4. He’s black. A refugee from South Sudan where he’d survived 16 years of civil war, and then found sanctuary in Canada. He had recently graduated from a construction programme at George Brown College. He was the father of five whom he had left behind. And mentally ill. We know this because friends said so. Because a friend standing by him at the time of his death knew this. Loku was agitated at the time of his death. He couldn’t sleep. Noise from the upstairs neighbours disturbed him. This had been going on for months. Think about that. Noise and lack of sleep. He could no longer deal with the noise. He found shelter from the noise in the basement laundry room.
He’d finally had enough. So he “picked up a hammer. He walked up the stairs. He stood in the dim hallway and he started banging. He hit the walls. He hit the apartment door. He careened the hammerhead off the metal rails in the stairwell, forcing out a noise so loud it startled neighbours sleeping two floors below.” Loku was in the middle of a confrontation with two women,holding a raised hammer. A friend came to help, to pull him away. Police officers arrived and saw him with a raised hammer at the neighbour who told the police that Loku was threatening her and her daughter. According to the images from the video camera Loku walked toward the police with the hammer held up. He was told to drop the hammer. Three times. He didn’t. He was shot.
And the accusations began. He was killed because he is black. Black Lives Matter is planning a day of action July 27 because they say “Every single day, black bodies in this city face violence whether it’s carding, whether it’s surveillance, whether it’s physical violence, and whether it’s death. This is life and death for us.”
It’s life and death for all of us with mental illness.
Why was this a rush to race? I don’t know. I do know, based on our recent history regarding the care of the mentally ill, that this is another example of the failure of our community to care for our most vulnerable-the mentally ill-who come in all races colours, creeds, religions and sexual orientation. There is no question about Mr. Lokus’ mental illness. The people with him in the hall at the time of his death knew about his mental illness. Did anyone tell the police as they were rushing to the apartment that this man was mentally ill? Did they give them a heads-up? I didn’t hear anything about that. What if they had? What if these friends had said to the officers as they ran up the steps “Officer the man is mentally ill?”
On July 27, 2013, Sammy Yatim, a teenager was standing in streetcar holding a knife and ordered everyone off the streetcar. The police surrounded the car and then an officer shot. Eye witnesses reported seeing “five officers swarming the front door of the streetcar, yelling at a knife-wielding man beside the driver’s seat, ‘Drop the knife! Drop the knife!’”
Next they heard numerous gunshots in succession.
Was Sammy killed because of his colour?
Ashley Smith died while in prison at the hands of her guards. She was white.
March 2013, Toronto police killed Michael Eligon, a 29-year-old white man dressed only in a hospital gown wearing no shoes and wielding two pairs of scissors. One witness said “About five or six officers were behind the man trying to grab or restrain him and another two or three were in front…And then I saw one officer raise his arm and fire at him point blank three shots.” The shots were fired from about half a metre away. The man “fell to the pavement and police jumped on top of him, still trying to restrain him while his body was writhing.” Another witness added that “the victim was walking toward police with his arms outstretched and a pair of scissors in each hand. The police called out “Stop, stop, stop.” and the man is dead.
We have people in Toronto comparing the tragic death of Mr. Loku to the deaths of Mike Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York while conflating his death with issues of race in Toronto. I don’t want this to be an issue of race. I want this to be an issue of care for the mentally ill. As I have written before, too many citizens with mental illness have died at the hands of the police who have too little training regarding the care of those in a mental health crisis. After all the other deaths of the mentally ill at the hands of the police, why is it that they still do not recognize a mental health crisis in the making?
Mental illness afflicts more than 20 per cent of our population; seven million Canadians from all walks of life. July 27 should not be a day of action regarding black lives. It should be a day of action regarding the lives of the mentally ill.