‘He was seen as being out of place:’ Black mother says son was racially profiled

Rachel Zellars is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Justice at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. She studies the cause and effect of racial profiling on marginalized populations.

But living in the predominantly-white area of HRM known as Rockingham, she’s also seen racial profiling up close and personal.

“We live in a neighbourhood where we are the only black family in our community,” she tells NEWS 95.7’s The Todd Veinotte Show.

During COVID-19, Zellars says she’s gone for walks two or three times a day. Like other neighbourhood kids, her son has been playing outside.

But unlike other neighbourhood kids, he had the cops called on him while playing basketball.

“Two or three weeks ago my son had the police called on him for playing in an open courtyard at one of our community schools alone,” Zellars says.

The SMU professor says when she showed up, she asked the police officer whether they had received a complaint.

“She shared with me that it was the first call that she had ever received to that specific location since the state of emergency restrictions began,” Zellars explains.

Zellars says there are many children who frequently play in the schoolyard, even during the state of emergency. She thinks her son was the only one to be targeted because of his skin colour.

“My son, who’s 14, is already 6’2” and looks probably like he is 18. He’s also very dark-complexioned in colour,” she says. “my experience in other parts of the world has taught me that the most reasonable conclusion I could make at that time was that he had been racially profiled because he was seen as being out of place in that school courtyard.”

Zellars says since the incident, she is trying to educate other members of her community on what to do if they are worried about social distancing not being followed, especially by children.

“I ordered two t-shirts that I now wear every day on my walks. On the front of the t-shirt, it says stop calling cops on our kids, your neighbours. And on the back are three simple alternatives to calling the cops,” she says.

The first step should be talking to the child, the second step talking to their parents, and lastly talking to a community member who can explain the issue.

“Ask me to be in conversation with my white neighbours about what racial profiling is and what’s happening in the moments that neighbours make a decision to call the police on a black child that they believe to be out of place,” she says.

Zellars hopes to educate others about racial profiling, which the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission has said is on the rise amid COVID-19.

“When I walk around my neighbourhood and I see children on tricycles and on bikes, skateboards, playing hockey in the street and on courtyards, there was never a moment in my mind, in my body as a parent that I would ever think of calling the cops on a young child who I saw as out of place,” she says.

But the Rockingham resident also says Nova Scotians need to address racism on a structural level.

“All of us who live in Nova Scotia have a bigger responsibility, an urgent responsibility to learn where the roots of profiling begin, and they begin right here and they begin in the context of slavery and segregation,” Zellars adds.

For other marginalized groups who have been racially profiled during COVID-19, Zellars recommends reporting the incident to COVID Cops 902, an organization keeping track of police encounters during the state of emergency.

“They are the only organization that I know that’s collecting data, and this aggregated data specifically around racial profiling in the province,” Zellars says.

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