Protests against perceived race-based police brutality broke out in Canada’s capital Ottawa Saturday, days after a 37-year-old mentally ill black man died during an altercation with police. Hundreds of protesters chanting “Black lives matter” — a slogan borrowed from the protests against racial bias in the U.S. — gathered in downtown Ottawa, making their way to the police headquarters, where the march ended late afternoon.
The protests stem from the death of the Somali-Canadian Abdirahman Abdi, who died last week following his arrest. The altercation between police and Abdi took place on July 24, when officers responded to reports of disturbances at a coffee shop. Eyewitnesses quoted by local media said that Abdi was chased by police officers and beaten when he tried to run into the apartment building where he lived.
According to media reports, Abdi was struggling with “mental health issues.”
“It’s devastating. We know him, the gentleman. He has a mental illness, a very peaceful guy. I have children in the building and he walks around, he’s good with the kids, he’s good with all the neighbors, never a problem,” Nimao Ali — a friend of the family — told CBC News. “And all of a sudden, that he’s bleeding on the front steps of our building and dying, it was a devastating thing to see.”
Many have also drawn parallels between Abdi’s death and that of Andrew Loku — a 45-year-old mentally ill black man who was killed during a confrontation with police in Toronto in 2015.
Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association, however, said it was “inappropriate” to assume that race played a role in the incident.
“In a situation like this, race is simply a fact to the case. I mean, this is no different than gender or height. Our relationships with the community are very well established and we do not have the same history around racial tensions that the U.S. experiences,” Skof said last week.
However, the Black Lives Matter movement in Canada said that Abdi’s death was a direct result of racial bias against the Somali community and the “broader black community.”
“Brother Abdirahman was killed because he teetered on the intersections of Blackness, Somaliness, Islamophobia, and mental health. Brother Abdirahman was killed because of a society that says his life doesn’t matter. One that allows for hospitals to corroborate the police, to protect his killers, claiming to his family and the public that he was alive and in 'critical condition' for 24 hours, even though he was dead 45 minutes before arriving at the hospital,” the Toronto chapter of the movement said in a statement released Saturday. “We must hold the police accountable for the killing of Abdirahman. We must hold Ottawa hospital accountable for their role in protecting the police and lying to the public.”
Organizers of Saturday’s rally have also called for the officers involved in the incident — identified by CBC News as Dave Weir and Daniel Montsion — to be put on unpaid leave, and for a review of how police officials deal with minorities. However, as of now, the employment status of the two officers remains unchanged.
“Someone cannot be on a payroll if they have just killed someone,” Wangui Kimari, who helped organize Saturday’s protests, told CBC News.