“We’re always under suspicion”: Surrey youth contend with their experiences of policing and criminalization

Anti-Police Power Surrey’s (APPS) high school workshop, A Thin Blue Line? Thinking Critically About Policing, encourages students to develop a critical analysis of policing, reflect on their experiences of criminalization, and imagine a world without police. Racialized youth are a focal point of the gang panic in Surrey, but are rarely given the opportunity to share their perspectives on policing and violence prevention. While presenting A Thin Blue Line? in high school classrooms, we’ve heard young people of colour describe the immense weight of police profiling, harassment, and criminalization that they live under – as well as the possibility of fighting back. We see this workshop as a way to create space for youth leadership within an emerging movement against the police and the capitalist, colonial, and white supremacist systems of power and domination they uphold.

In the spring of 2019, we facilitated A Thin Blue Line? twice with high school students and once with educators at the 2019 Surrey Teachers’ Association Convention. We open the workshop with a quiz on policing in Surrey and found that participants are generally surprised to learn that 30% of the City of Surrey’s annual budget goes to the RCMP, amounting to over $156 million every year. We discuss how almost every “social problem” has become a point of police intervention. In response to homelessness, for instance, the City of Surrey created the so-called Outreach Team, comprised of 12 RCMP officers and four bylaw officers. In response to fears around youth involvement in gangs, the City brought police into our schools and youth programs.

With the help of these examples, high school students are quick to point out that policing does nothing to address the root causes of these problems. As one young person observed, “It doesn’t make sense. If you’re homeless, what you need is a home.” Another commented, “If your options are you can either work at McDonald’s or join a gang, then those are your options. The cops don’t change that.” Students had no trouble brainstorming alternative ways to spend $156 million, like building affordable housing, improving the public education system, and investing in local community centres.

A Thin Blue Line? creates space for youth to talk openly with one another about their encounters with the police. When one young person recounted how he was pulled into the principal’s office and accused of dealing drugs, another student recognized the incident as an example of racial profiling: “If you’re Black, no matter what, they assume you’re doing something wrong.” Another student described being repeatedly stopped and questioned by the police: “Especially if there’s a group of us, they see that we’re brown and they automatically think we’re a gang. We’re always under suspicion.” When we asked how they felt about the presence of police officers in schools, one student responded, “I never really thought about it before, I guess it just seemed normal. But when you think about how they bring guns into school, it is kind of creepy.” In one classroom, almost three-quarters of the students, most of whom were people of colour, said they felt uneasy around the police. Talking about this shared experience was eye opening for many students, who said they often felt alone in their discomfort.

When people are targeted by police, they often individualize their experiences and blame themselves. Exploring the history of policing in Canada can help people situate their personal experiences within a broader social context and understand the structural reasons why young people, people of colour, Indigenous people, and homeless people are disproportionately policed and criminalized. In A Thin Blue Line?, participants work together to create a timeline of policing, starting with the Vagrancy Act of 1824, which made it illegal to sleep outside, beg, hawk, or engage in sex work. Students observed that, while the “vagrancy” laws were overturned, police still spend most of their time patrolling the streets. One young person said, “It’s like you’re not allowed to just hang around outside. You’re always supposed to be going somewhere – school, work, home, whatever.” This student’s feeling is an expression of the problem that racialized youth exist outside the police mandate to serve and protect property and profit.

Police serve another function in Canada: from the very beginning, they have existed to establish and defend settler colonialism by repressing Indigenous struggles and expressions of sovereignty. The North-West Mounted Police, which would later become the RCMP, was explicitly founded as a military force of settler colonial occupation, dispossession, and displacement. When students learn about the Oka Resistance in 1990, the Gustafsen Lake Standoff in 1995, and the Gidimt’en Raid this past January, they see how police continue to uphold colonial domination and violently undermine Indigenous sovereignty. One student said, “The cops are supposed to keep us safe – that’s what they say. But it seems like they do a lot of things that actually make it harder for people, like First Nations people, to have their basic rights.”

The workshop closes with a discussion about grassroots youth organizing and collective action against police power. After showing two short videos highlighting youth activism in Toronto and in Chicago, we ask students about the possibilities for organizing in Surrey. They tell us that a movement against police power in this city is hard to imagine. This should come as no surprise, given that the Surrey RCMP has come to dominate all aspects of our lives, infiltrating our schools, youth services, local businesses, and even our imaginations. But this hard reality only drives home the need to continue organizing against policing and criminalization as part of a broader anti-colonial and anti-capitalist movement that honours the wisdom that racialized youth already hold within themselves.

If you are interested in booking a workshop or getting involved with Anti-Police Power Surrey, email us at antipolicepowersurrey@gmail.com. You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Instagram.

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