Yesterday, I had an unpleasant encounter with Mayor Rob Ford at Ribfest. I shook his hand and asked him if he was going to apologize for referring to African Canadians as “niggers,” and to community grant programs as “hug-a-thug” programs. The brief exchange ended with him shrugging and saying “It’s complicated,” before walking away.
I wish there were so much more I could have asked Mayor Ford. I wish I could have asked him why he feels that he does more for black youth than the Lions Circle, more than Tropicana Community Services, more than 100 Strong, more than the Black Business Professionals Association. I wish I could have asked him why he takes no responsibility for the wreckage the investigation into his drug transactions has left behind in the Somali community. Why he hasn’t looked upon the faces of the men and women forced to the ground by police in the middle of the night, and offered an abject apology for helping to bring this down on their heads.
I wish I could have asked him why he feels that Jerome Miller, a young, fiercely intelligent, and successful man would be in jail or dead without his intercession. These and so many more questions, but as Rob turned his broad back on me and walked away, I was left alone to contemplate the futility of asking Rob Ford any questions at all. He doesn’t answer them because he doesn’t need to. Because we don’t make him. Ford Nation occupies a space of complete epistemic closure, where the truth is as it comes forth from the lips of Rob Ford. Everything else is either a distraction, or an irrelevant item from an inert past.
Before I spoke with Rob Ford, I approached with a group of African Canadian youth. They were the outside ring of the Ford Nation mob, smiling and cracking jokes to each other, taking up the cheer “Rob Ford! Rob Ford! Rob Ford!”
I watched the faces of these young people light up. I watched their sheer glee at being in the presence of the man who had made their reputations more tarnished, their futures more unstable, and their lives more dangerous. It turned my stomach.
I don’t expect Rob Ford to rise to the decorum of his office this late in the game, but it’s difficult not to be let down. It’s difficult when there are so many African Canadian youth putting in so much effort to get ahead, and being offered zero opportunity from their elected representatives. It’s difficult when they latch on to Rob Ford as some sort of political Robin Hood, and cheer the same man who called himself “the most racist guy around.”
This is the reality of politics in Toronto, where a change in City Hall often means almost nothing at the ground level. Our young people, underemployed and rapidly losing hope, are referred to as “lost” and “a waste” by their elders. Those elders work themselves well past retirement age, clinging to the vestigial scraps of middle-class status. Our public housing molders, and our inadequate transit system leaves many facing an arduous daily commute. To many, the promise of change is false, empty, and dead.
I’ve said before that Rob Ford’s ongoing support is not just due to stubborn holdouts, unable to let go of their populist grudges. The reality is worse; these supporters — of which many of us can count ourselves — are people who legitimately feel utterly let down by their government. Their support of our disgraced mayor is an upraised middle finger directed at a political class that, from their point of view, could not care less about their quiet struggle.
What saddens me deeply, though, is that Rob Ford doesn’t care, either. To him, we are a cushion for his ego. He apes our dialects, dances in our street parades, clothes himself in the saintly artifice as our young men’s shepherd. When he finds himself back on his heels, he dangles the threat of those young men being turned loose to wreak violence and chaos. And he continues unabated, because too many us in the African Canadian communities are co-signing his behaviour.
So the questions I have aren’t for Rob Ford. He does not care. My questions are for those of us in the African Canadian communities who continue to support him.
1. If your teenaged son or daughter behaved in the way Mayor Ford has behaved, would you be okay with that? And what would you say to them?
2. Given that he has already taken advantage of us, co-opted our culture, put money from his own pocket into the hands of drug dealers, called your sons “thugs,” called the rest of us “niggers,” and reduced his destructive, sociopathic behaviour to a problem with weight and alcohol, what would it take for Rob Ford to finally lose your support?
3. If we are not being adequately represented at City Hall, why has there not been an organized effort to groom and support candidates who will do so?
You have just under four months before the answer has a very real chance of becoming moot. But please do consider the fact that there are some of us from the “lost generation,” myself included, are working very hard to provide better representation for all communities in City Hall. We are doing our part.
We cannot do it without your help.
A final question, and be very honest. When this election is over, would you rather remember yourself for being motivated by revenge against the political establishment, or by hope that our young men and women will be up to the task of shaping Toronto’s future?
We await your answer.