By James Cairns
The successful campaign to terminate the police liaison program in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board was led by HWDSB Kids Need Help. In June, I interviewed two members of the group about the history of their activism and what comes next. Sabreina Dahab is a founding member of HWDSB Kids Need Help, a community organizer, and a student at McMaster University. Chance Cordon is a community organizer and a student at Wilfrid Laurier University who joined HWDSB Kids Need Help earlier this year.
The Origins of HWDSB Kids Need Help
In 2015-16, during Sabreina’s final two years at Westdale High School, she was an executive member of the Muslim Student Association. While campaigning against Islamophobia in schools, students “from all marginalized identities” began seeking support from the MSA to combat their own experiences of racism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression. “People were coming to us because there was no trust in the administration. Our MSA became an advocacy body for a broad range of students.”
Shortly after Sabreina graduated and began studying at McMaster, a Black, Muslim, autistic student at Westdale was “forcibly removed from school in handcuffs.” Sabreina and a group of past and current Westdale students built support for the family of the attacked student, and created the HWDSB Kids Need Help page on Twitter.
Over the past three and a half years, HWDSB Kids Need Help has fought against racism, ableism, and all forms of oppression in Hamilton schools by collecting data, running town-halls, writing reports, meeting with administrators, and organizing direct action, all with the goal of implementing “community-informed solutions.”
The group’s activism is directly responsible for the HWDSB establishing a Human Rights and Equity Officer, a Human Rights and Equity Advisory Committee (made up of students and community members), and creating an Equity Action Plan. Sabreina is clear about the power of her community: “all of these changes have come because students have pushed for them. Not because the board actually wanted to put these things forward. It was years of advocacy by students, racialized and Black students.” The successful motion to kick cops out of Hamilton schools came not from a school trustee, but from the Human Rights and Equity Advisory Committee.
In February 2020, research by HWDSB Kids Need Help informed a report by the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion that called on the school board to end its police liaison program, and to facilitate a public review of anti-Black racism and police violence in schools. The day after the report was released, the school board cancelled the Black Youth Mentorship program, clearly exacting revenge on the HCCI, and program members who were involved in publishing the report. Sabreina says the response from below to the board’s hostile action was immediate and powerful: “The next day, over 300 students from Bernie Custis [Secondary School] walked out. They protested, marched around the school, calling to bring back the Black Youth Mentorship program.” Community members openly challenged the school board at its own press conference. The board was forced to backtrack and reinstate the Black Youth Mentorship program.
“Since then,” Sabreina says, in her warm, matter-of-fact way, “we’ve been working to get cops out of schools.”
Spring is deeply grateful to Sabreina and Chance, not only for their activism, but for taking time to share insights with readers of our magazine. I began by asking them what it felt like to win the fight to get cops out of schools.
Thinking back to the night you occupied Main St. until school trustees agreed to terminate the police liaison program, what were the first thoughts that went through your head on the street that night?
Sabreina Dahab: Yeah — um. The first day and I half, I think, I was on a high. I was really excited, and I was like, “Wow. We actually did this.” And then as I began to process what this meant – “win” – and the expense it came at, I started to get very emotional. Just thinking about the years of organizing, and the fact that it had to take the death of Black and Indigenous people to come to fruition is really hard to grapple with. It makes the celebration part bittersweet. So, we did something huge – something that is going to help young, racialized and Black students in schools. But at the same time, this came at the expense of a lot of emotional trauma, a lot of police violence in schools, a lot of police violence outside of schools. I’m grateful for the win and the people we won it with. I just also think it’s important that we remember what it came at as well. It was hard. It was a hard win.
Chance Cordon: During the debrief a lot of people talked about this. That they had that turn from being super high, then recognizing that there was so much work put in. A lot of these organizers have been there for years. The emotional connection is so strong. I’ve really been aware of the emotional expense people have paid. Watching this group put their ideals into practice in all spaces they’re in, it’s life-changing, to be honest. To see it happen. I’m honoured to be a part of it, even if I am “the new guy.”
What have been some of the major challenges of the campaign, and how did the group overcome them?
Sabreina: One of the biggest challenges is creating sustainable movements. There was a period a while ago where it felt that things were sort of starting to wind down. I think one of the most effective things we did at that point was to actively open up the organization, bring in a ton of new people, train people up, consistently have open and honest conversations about capacity. Where are people at? When do people need to step back and take a break, and when can they check back in, in order to make sure the work is sustainable?
We have people in our organization across generations. We have high school kids, university students, and people who have graduated from schools. That can make sustainability difficult. It requires having enough people in the group, and being organized enough, so that people can step back at different points in their lives, and we can make sure that this work will continue to happen.
Chance: And the challenge of sustainability isn’t just about the whole group, but for me, at a personal level, also about myself. Being new to this type of front-line work, it’s draining, especially as a Black person. One of the biggest challenges as a newcomer on the team is, one, How am I going to be able to feed the sustainability of the organization, while, two, also be able to balance that in myself as a student, and in my battles at Laurier? I want to take what I’ve learned here in Hamilton and apply that to everywhere – you know, being anti-racist all the time. Not just showing up at the protest, but showing up all the time for yourself. That’s draining for Black people
The work you’re doing is part of, and taking place in the context of, an historic global rebellion against racism and anti-Black police violence. Here your group was campaigning to get cops out of schools in Hamilton months before the latest global surge in Black Lives Matter mobilizing, months before the uprising triggered by the police murder of George Floyd.
There’s something remarkable about the way your campaign both expresses and anticipated some of the core aspects of the current global rebellion, as well as draws strength from broader movements for racial justice. What’s your sense of how the global context relates to the work you’re doing in Hamilton?
Sabreina: For sure. But I think the important thing to note is that, as long as police have existed, there have been calls for abolition. Black communities, Indigenous communities, have been working on abolition for years now. It’s just become sort of more mainstream now, which means that people can push for more targeted ways of organizing to fully defund, and lead toward abolition. Honestly, I think it’s just like… the consciousness of a lot of non-Black and non-Indigenous people, a lot of white people, is maybe changing. I think that’s the biggest change. Our communities have been talking about this for years. The difference now is white people are talking about this, too, and are now starting to see what we’ve been saying for years. And that’s complicated.
When I think years back, when we were dealing with issues of Islamophobia and racism in schools… a lot of the kids who are now posting like “BLM” on their Insta-stories did not show up once for us when we asked for support. We were on our own. It actually kind of hurts to see a lot of these people post the same stuff on their stories, and then also recognize that they probably won’t show up in a lot of cases. I think that the only thing that this global context has done has allowed these calls to be more targeted and strategic and mainstream. We’re constantly at risk trying to do this work. The work of organizers gets romanticized. The number of “thanks yous” I’ve got since we got police out of schools. And I’m like: “I don’t want a ‘thank-you.’ I want you to be at these sit-ins when we’re protesting the cops. I want you to be calling for the abolition of the police. Because it’s not safe for us to do so.”
Chance: For me, two things come to mind. One, what’s amazing about these organizers here and everywhere, is you get the sense that there will be no rest until racial inequalities are completely addressed across the board. Not just in education, but in health care, housing, wages. All spaces in society. The second thing is, though, I worry about the backlash. Certain people are already starting to become almost anti-anti-racist. And that’s starting to change the dynamic of the struggles we’re in today.
I know that your organization has begun work on finding alternatives to police in schools, as well as defunding the Hamilton Police Service. Do you want to say anything about what the key phases of your campaign might involve in the coming months?
Sabreina: Obviously the ultimate goal is abolition. And what we did with the school board was part of the process of defunding, because there’s money in the budget that’s no longer going to a program. In terms of the school board, like, organizations like Speqtrum, that support queer and trans* youth, organizations like SACHA, who’ve done a lot of work to support sexual violence survivors – a lot of these organizations have already started to speak out about ways that they can fill in the gaps of the services or programs that police were sort of offering in schools, but from an actual professional, informed perspective. So, looking to those organizations to offer these services, investing more in programs like the Black Youth Mentorship program (run by HCCI), talking to community about what community’s needs are, investing money into housing, investing money into food programs. The solutions are clear. It’s super clear what needs to be done in this city, and where we have to put our money. It’s just about council needing to have a little bit more courage to do some of this. We don’t need cops to respond to any of these issues.
The HWDSB Kids Need Help statement on successfully getting cops out of schools says in part:
“Police-free schools are just one step toward a safer community. The ultimate goal of this work is abolition. It is a world without prisons, which serve to separate people from their communities and create generational trauma. It is a world without policing, which acts as a tool of the state to surveil and criminalize Black and Indigenous peoples. It is a world without capitalism: a system that pits us against one another, and forces us to leave one another behind. It is reimagining from its roots a system that will care for every person in our society.”
Can you say a little bit more about how you see the links between the police and capitalism, or the links between defunding the police and anti-capitalist activism?
Chance: The police is where a lot of the pressure is right now. We can see it’s possible to change something right now. But capitalism bleeds everywhere. It creates climate injustice (which is racial injustice), health care injustice (which is racial injustice)… So you know, that connection: it’s deep, it’s intrinsic. And while it can be hard for a lot of people to understand at first, when you comb through the ways in which a lot of these issues are created, it does come from exactly what the statement says: the ways we are pitted against one another under capitalism. The way in which campaigns to defund the police opposes capitalism the most is the way it prioritizes humanity over profit. Capitalism creates these injustices for profit. We’re emphasizing humanity, human dignity.
Sabreina: When I think about police, I think about Canada. Policing as a system doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s part of this larger colonial, genocidal system that only exists because it has enslaved Black people, it only exists because it has committed ongoing genocide against Indigenous people. And so when I think about abolition, it’s not just about abolishing police. It’s about abolishing all of these systems in place that only function through the criminalization of Black and Indigenous people. Desmond Cole speaks about this in his book “The Skin We’re In.”
The historical creation of by-law officers was to capture slaves, to make sure Black people did not have access to their culture or religion. Police were created to control the movement of people on these lands. So all of these systems are inherently violent. Their very roots are racist and anti-Black. Same thing with the prison system. Defunding the police is a process toward abolishing the police; and abolishing the police is a process towards abolishing all these violent institutions – the welfare system, the system of wage-labour — that in so many ways are harming our communities.
What would you say to people who are inspired by your activism, interested in doing similar work, but maybe coming to activism for the first time or just starting out on a campaign?
Chance: For new people? Especially if you’re emotionally connected, I’d say: Take care of your heart, and do it in a sustainable way. Take care of yourself, and understand that it will always feel like an uphill battle. I would also say that having a set list of clear, concise demands that you can refer back to is very, very, very important. It seems pretty simple in terms of what you should have when you’re organizing. But given how fast things are moving in the current climate, it may not always seem possible. But having written demands that can keep you and the people who are supporting you and your organization organized is really important.
Sabreina: For me, the most important thing has been: Get connected to community, and once you are connected to community, continue to bring community along the way. Being in community and winning that night? Surrounded by so many incredible people? That’s the reason, the motivation for me to continue to do this. Being with people I admire and people I love. It helps keep this work going, because this work is exhausting and draining. When I think about the powerhouse of the community we’ve created here, the way I’ve been cared for by community, and the ways I’ve been honoured to care for other people is really, really special. We have something special going on in Hamilton, for sure.
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