James: The divisive activism of Desmond Cole: How a campaign against a Black judge shattered Toronto’s Black community

Good long and disturbing read on how activism to excess can harm the cause, and alienate the very same people one is advocating for:

If you love Black people — if you are part of a Black church in Brampton or run a neighbourhood group in Scarborough or head your diversity committee at work — it has become difficult to “like” Desmond Cole, the self-styled streetfighter and intractable advocate for Black lives.

You can love Cole, in the Christian sense of loving your brother or your enemy. Like, though, is a term of endearment. To a growing number of African Canadians, Cole is anything but likable.

Mainstream media treat Cole as a go-to talking head on racism; progressive white folks by the thousands follow him on Twitter; and allies of Black causes embrace the award-winning author and social media influencer. But at a number of dinner tables where curried goat or roti trumps steak and potatoes, in many barber shops, healing circles and prayer groups, Cole is daily chewed up and spat out.

The sentiments about Cole’s comrades are nearly as strong. Seemingly, Cole and his cohort go out of their way to disparage and diminish Black leaders, branding them as ineffectual moderates too compromised by the racist system to dismantle it.

And, with an online army in tow, they wage a constant campaign against the so-called Black elite — a target that expands to include so many ordinary community workers and volunteers that the attacks amount to undeclared class warfare.

The collateral damage runs wide and deep.

“It has had an impact, in quelling the (volunteer) participation of some people who are just not prepared for (the attacks),” says Craig Wellington, executive director of a new community organization, Black Opportunity Fund. 

Call it the “Cole chill.”

Cole’s more vocal detractors — there are many, surprisingly so, considering his high-profile, commendable confrontation of Toronto police carding practices — say they arrived at their negative conclusions about Cole slowly and painfully over years. Many others landed there in a burst of outrage last year.

That’s when a judicial panel hearing — called to determine whether a Black judge, Donald McLeod, compromised judicial standards by improperly advocating for Black people — revealed that the most serious complaint against McLeod, an allegation of perjury, arose from Cole’s own February 2019 blog.

Cole says his aim was to hold the powerful to account. But a reasonable person, reading that February 2019 blog post and subsequent writings and comments, could conclude that Cole engaged a determined campaign targeting the judge.

McLeod, a successful criminal lawyer with a record of creating social good through community initiatives, was appointed a judge in 2013. Four years later, moved by the gun slaying of someone he knew, McLeod convened a meeting in Regent Park of professionals working in several fields to ask how they might address the issues. He had grown up in social housing in Regent Park and saw some of the worst effects of unaddressed problems from his place on the bench.

Within a year, the Federation of Black Canadians (FBC) was born, McLeod was talking about forming a national organization, and he was meeting with the Prime Minister. He sought and received guidance from the Ontario Judicial Council (OJC) on the limits of advocacy for a judge. The FBC grew to encompass dozens of community volunteers and gained such quick prominence that the federal Liberals announced funds to finance initiatives the FBC flagged.

Then came the 2018 complaint, brought by former associate chief justice Faith Finnestad and heard by the OJC, that McLeod had acted inappropriately for a judge. He was cleared of the charge. A second complaint followed in 2019, alleging (among other things) that McLeod had perjured himself in the hearings for the first one. The OJC tossed out that complaint, too, on June 2 of this year.

McLeod, then the only Black judge at the Ontario Court of Justice in Peel Region, one of Canada’s most diverse regions, was back on the bench on June 21 following a 22-month paid suspension while the judicial complaint process played out. But by then swathes of the Black community were awash in trauma over the general conclusion that McLeod’s blood was on Desmond Cole’s hands.

In his writings Cole has called the FBC “a shady organization” that is too close to the Liberal Party. “The total lack of representation from Canada’s Black Lives Matter chapters, who are doing some of the most important and celebrated advocacy in the country,” he wrote in his blog, “seems too much of an oversight to be an accident.” As for the FBC’s head, McLeod is a “cherished and untouchable” elite considered “sacrosanct” in the Black community and allowed “to do whatever he wants,” Cole told the Star in an interview. “I’m holding people in power to account; that’s what journalism is.”

Cole’s opponents say he and his confrères acted as the investigative arm of the OJC, de facto undercover agents intent on trapping the judge — only to fail ingloriously. The OJC hearing unmasked what aggrieved citizens described as dirty tricks, and what one witness called a “failed witch hunt” — actions that went demonstrably beyond the bounds of acceptable journalism, traditional or otherwise.

“I was disgusted that it was our own people who were involved in what I consider to be a public lynching of Donald McLeod,” said Peel district school board trustee Kathy McDonald, who said she and others watched in despair as the virtual hearing streamed for 17 days last December and February.

“In the end it boiled down to a bunch of vindictive, envious people that just hate the skin they are in,” she said. 

Dave D’Oyen, a local activist and diversity consultant who says he is trying to help his Scarborough community heal from the tragic affair, convened a healing circle for people to vent. He summed up their feelings in a post for Medium:

“Something is wrong when our actions are to malign ardent individuals who wish to be in genuine service of our people … The unintended consequence is a flight of capable individuals from community service because the risks of reputational damage and career suicide are too palpable. In this case, a possible removal of Brampton’s only Black judge from the bench. Many now find themselves asking, ‘If this could happen to a judge, could this happen to me?’”

I have known Desmond Cole for about a decade. In glowing and proud tones, I have introduced him to more than one audience as he received an award or delivered a keynote speech. I watched from a front-seat vantage point as he challenged the Toronto Police Services Board to end the evil practice of carding. Tears streaked down onto my glasses as the board greeted his cries with indifference.

I helped grease the path to his freelance columnist job at the Star because I felt the platform was so huge and so right for a voice this large and forceful. And, of course, I was disappointed he chose to give up that platform.

No matter how he spins it, and he has written about his experiences at the Star as well as in his book, he gave it up — in much the same way he approaches many issues — by adhering to an uncompromising rigidity that’s incompatible with improvement by degrees. His tactic has its place, for sure.

On the question of whether he could report and opine in the Star on the very issues he is actively and publicly protesting — to the point of disrupting and halting public meetings because his demands are not met — Cole considered the guidance from Star editors as an encroachment on his desire to practise journalism how he felt compelled to do it. So he chose to advocate for Black lives, without constraints. He gave up the column. His world is black or white, no grey.

I accepted his decision.

What is surprising, then, is how someone who seeks such latitude for his own radical advocacy would deny the same to a judge — even where the judge’s governing body allows it, acknowledges the risk of crossing ethical lines, and struggles to set some limits so as not to ban advocacy outright for judges. Cole dismisses the possibility of such a double consciousness for Justice McLeod.

“A sitting judge saying he is going to lead a political advocacy group is a quite novel and bizarre occurrence that warrants greater scrutiny … That’s why the fixation,” says Cole, explaining his repeated interest in McLeod and the FBC.

Community members watching the OJC hearings were dismayed to learn of a surreptitious recording of a conversation between McLeod and Idil Abdillahi, assistant professor of disability studies at Ryerson University. McLeod called Abdillahi in early 2018 for an off-the-record conversation to clear up misconceptions between the FBC and its critics. It lasted more than three hours. What McLeod didn’t know was that Abdillahi recorded the private conversation and also linked in Cole and others (listening in a car) the judicial panel would hear.

The anguish among many Black residents and community leaders spiked when Dahabo Ahmed-Omer, the current FBC chair, testified during the hearings about the stress of dealing with what she felt were daily online attacks from Cole and friends. 

It climaxed when McLeod testified of the “violence” done to him by Cole’s assertions, which he branded as false; the betrayal he felt when Abdillahi’s secret recording of their telephone conversation ended up as evidence at the panel hearing; and how, at his lowest point in the ordeal, his mortgage provider began questioning his viability as a client because he could be fired from his job.

Cole “maligned my name. He had been doing it for years and continued to do it. It was now offensive. This was violence to me. He took someone’s name and decided to brandish it as if I were lying,” McLeod told the OJC hearing.

McLeod’s words unleashed a torrent of anger. “Treachery,” “Judas” and other highly charged words and images were frequently unfurled within the Black community. The conclusion among many was that Cole and his allies were responsible for McLeod’s public flogging.

One tweet, from Danielle Dowdy, an early FBC volunteer read: “Having taken in 9 days of the hearing into the conduct of Justice Donald McLeod, what’s abundantly clear and impossible to measure is the depth of pain and hurt many of us are feeling. The emotional collateral damage among the local and national Black community is incalculable.”

How did we get to this stage? And why is it set to continue — fracturing the vital advocacy of tens of thousands of anti-racism fighters across the country? Consider the judicial lynching of Justice McLeod as exhibit A.

I became aware of Donald McLeod in Seventh-day Adventist church circles in the late 1980s when he sang in a men’s gospel quartet. We worship with different congregations but share the same strictures of this relatively small religious denomination.

Soon McLeod, the lawyer, was seen on television representing clients in high-profile cases like the Toronto 18 terrorists and arguing racial profiling before the Supreme Court. In my capacity as city columnist, I attended his launch of 100 Strong, an organization aimed at empowering Black youth through education.

In 2016 he called to say he was convening a group of Black professionals who have an interest in improving the outcomes for Black people in Toronto and Canada. Something needed to be done to stem gun violence. And Black folk can’t just sit and watch the carnage. By then he was a judge. The fact that he cared enough to step out of his judicial ivory tower was not lost on anyone.

I attended the Regent Park meeting, now known as the Toronto 37. It was part of my journalistic information-gathering around community engagements. The only thing that sticks out was that the attendees were all business, laser-focused on seeking a way to make a difference. They agreed to create a document leading to this end. I don’t recall reading it. But not long after, I understood they were taking their findings and recommendations to politicians and agencies and anyone who could spark the changes needed.

The Federation of Black Canadians came out of this beginning. How they advocated, and why, and to whom was never my concern. I was just happy for their advocacy. It takes all kinds. I marched with Charlie Roach, embraced Dudley Laws and felt proud of Lincoln Alexander, Wilson Head and Sen. Anne Cools — all entirely different Black community icons and representatives, with sometimes incongruous sensibilities. It’s this belief that allows me to embrace radicals and conservatives, elites and common folks — while remaining mindful of their varying impact.

Cole and his comrades were not among the 37 at that 2016 Regent Park meeting. As the fledgling organization quickly gained traction in Ottawa, and the Trudeau government promised funding for Black community projects, jealousies surfaced.

Cole and others created a Twitter storm and stirred acrid debate over the FBC. They questioned the legitimacy of “elites” lobbying for Black people, their political loyalties and Black credentials. Besides, Cole argued, a judge can’t lobby, period, much less advocate to root out the systemic racism endemic in the government institutions from which he and the elites earn a living.

Those are reasonable debating points and fair comment — but they provided fodder to the former associate chief justice of Ontario to complain against McLeod’s advocacy. The OJC, the governing body for Ontario judges, hauled McLeod before a complaint hearing panel in 2018. But the panel ruled that McLeod’s intentions were noble. He crossed the line here and there, but there is no judicial misconduct. So, carry on and follow the new guidelines.

Cole told me his criticisms of McLeod are not motivated by jealousy. He doesn’t apply for government funding but he was concerned that “when there are lots of groups that have been out there for five, 10, 15, 20, 25 years doing real work in the Black community and are unable to receive federal funding … But a new group that is led by a very powerful person introduces itself on the scene and is immediately able to secure hundreds of thousands of federal funding. That is a story, my friend.”

So was this the driving force behind his preoccupation with Justice McLeod and the FBC, I asked Cole in late August.

“You say driving force; I would say important factor,” Cole said, adding later, “I’m following the money and power. That’s what journalists do.”

After the 2018 complaint against McLeod was dismissed, Cole and his cohort doubled down. McLeod told the hearing that Cole called him a “house negro” on his Newstalk 1010 radio show — as despicable a slur as there is for someone to attach to a Black advocate. In other words, McLeod was sucking up to Massa in the big house while selling out his people toiling in the “field.”

Since 2018, the hearing documents show, Cole alone issued more than 130 criticisms of the FBC and more than 70 against McLeod on several print, online and social media platforms. He and his colleagues frequently attacked the FBC for faux activism. One recurring issue was the deportation of Somali refugee Abdoul Abdi. If the FBC wouldn’t join them in pushing to stop the deportation, then the organization was proving itself to be a fraud. Cole blamed McLeod for FBC’s inaction; with him as chairperson, the group couldn’t do more. 

The criticisms stung. Inside the FBC, a struggle raged on how to proceed. With their leader being a judge who must tiptoe around public advocacy, how could they prove their bona fides? The actions of Cole and some of his allies as disclosed during the McLeod hearing took the betrayal to a new level.

Cole colleague Rinaldo Walcott, a well-known scholar and Black Lives Matter member, tweeted criticism questioning the relevance of the FBC. Notwithstanding his public criticism of FBC, Walcott privately asked McLeod to set up a meeting with the immigration minister. McLeod did so. Walcott never acknowledged the meeting publicly, asked McLeod to not disclose it either and later tweeted that the FBC was useless because it wouldn’t help Abdi. 

Abdillahi’s role in the campaign against McLeod elicits much scorn. In her covert recording of the phone call with McLeod, which became part of the evidence heard by the panel, she repeatedly reassured McLeod the conversation was off the record. She didn’t mention that others were listening in. Some of Cole’s later accounts were spiced with information from that call. 

Cole explained it this way. Yes, his ally recorded and shared a private conversation with the judge. But there was no entrapment, Cole said. The judge telephoned Abdillahi and exposed himself to the recording, which was legally made. 

Notwithstanding that explanation, the essence of the narrative was: Look, people, last year Justice McLeod told his disciplinary panel he had not advocated for Abdi, but I have people and info and a taped recording that show he did. So he lied. Hello, OJC. Perjury!! The judge’s going down. 

So, Cole and friends went from: You are a fraud and can’t advocate effectively for Black people, so get out and let us do the job to … Breaking news, my investigation uncovers evidence of the judge being the very advocate we say he can’t be. Oops! That’s an offence. Let’s see what his bosses do now.

The narrative was so convincing McLeod’s judicial bosses sprang into action and filed an official complaint, the second against the judge, paying him to sit at home for 22 months while they conducted a public hearing that they knew could signal career death for him.

Most egregiously, the OJC did so despite its own policies, which favour remedial measures to resolve complaints. In the 2019-20 year, the Council processed 37 complaints against judges. None went to a hearing. McLeod had two complaints against him, and both went to a hearing.

The OJC was acting on thin evidence. For example, the investigators did not have the secretly made recording before the hearing was called. Fatally, the OJC investigation relied too heavily on Cole’s interpretation (in blog posts and elsewhere), which could not be supported by the recording when it got to the hearing. And the kicker came when Walcott — described by McLeod’s lawyer as the OJC’s “star witness” — failed to confirm that McLeod advocated for Abdi at the meeting with the minister. Case against McLeod dismissed. For a second time.

The Star has reported that the second hearing alone cost taxpayers $3.4 million to pay the battery of high-priced lawyers for McLeod and the “presenting counsel” or lawyers hired to present the case for the complainant. These costs do not cover the OJC staff, the panel of judges, and attendant costs to hold the hearing. So don’t be surprised if the tab for the two hearings approaches $5 million. 

Cole presents as one who relishes a brawl. He’s built for this and can capitalize on the fame, or notoriety, to increase his online presence and grow his brand — all the time benefiting from the very thing he condemns. He’s promising more of the same.

Before McLeod, he pulled the rug from under Saron Gebresellassi, the young Eritrean lawyer and long-time activist and mayoral hopeful in 2018. Days before the election Cole withdrew his endorsement. Why? Incumbent Mayor John Tory had given Gebresellassi a list of the debate organizers — favourable inside information that, in Cole’s mind, must have meant Gebresellassi had “sold out.”

At one Toronto Police Services Board Meeting, attendees had to restrain Ken Jeffers, community elder and police board member, from going after Cole, who disrespected Jeffers’ years of sterling community service, charging Jeffers had betrayed community interest over police presence in schools.

“He was accusing me of betraying my community, imagine that. You will not see me speak at any platform with him,” Jeffers said in late July. 

Recently, Cole slammed the efforts of Black North Initiative — the corporate “show your love and respect for Black people” initiative started by Black businessman Wes Hall, following the murder of George Floyd. Hall’s sin? Partnering with a company that has contracts to ensure bail bonds and bail conditions are met in the U.S. Black men overwhelmingly are the target. The criticism falls into fair comment, but many in the Black community see it as another Cole attack.

There are normal, intergenerational philosophical differences in any movement, and it can be painful for older advocates for Black communities to hear some of the young radicals speak. They think the protest and advocacy that preceded Black Lives Matter was somehow less impactful and authentic. They talk about the old guard hopping onto their bandwagon to take credit for the blood the young ones now shed on the streets.

Writing in Maclean’s magazine in 2018, during the buzz over the FBC’s worthiness as a national rep, Melayna Williams and Lincoln Anthony Blades argued:

“While younger, more militant activists see a colour-aware future of intersectional acceptance, and a complete eradication of systemic discrimination, other movements involve private luncheons and glad-handing, which haven’t historically been effective measures of overcoming white supremacy, but rather demonstrate an obscene allowance of it … efforts from groups like the FBC appear to be rooted in an investment in the oppressive structures themselves.”

Such hubris — elegantly and arrogantly stated in this useful insight. The wiser among the young activists are less haughty and more mindful of the foundational work of the thousands from “other movements.” 

Just know this: some of the quiet advocates who work for institutions founded and sustained by systemic racism, do more in a year for the advancement of Black people than some radicals are on track to accomplish in a lifetime.

Cole and his colleagues add another disrupting layer to these generational dynamics, crossing the median from critique to personal attack. Rarely have persons who claim to love Black people waged such a targeted, destructive, dis-unifying assault on their own flesh and blood.

Well, McLeod’s bosses rejected both complaints about the judge’s behaviour. They ruled that his interface with governments amounted to lobbying and that some of his community activities are incompatible with his judicial role, but there was no misconduct. They found he didn’t lie.

But even if the judge were guilty of all that Cole claims, the attacks are excessive and smack of unstated animus — a realization that prompted one witness to tell the OJC panel she feared she was caught up in a vendetta against the judge.

It’s counterproductive, destructive and dispiriting to anti-racism fighters when one of their fighters is pilloried by others on the same side because he successfully engaged government. The result is that many ordinary Black community volunteers who do the majority of the heavy lifting are turned off advocacy because of the toll the unrelenting criticism takes on their profession, their family and personal lives.

They are not in it for fame and fortune. They consider the price paid to be unfair and crippling.

So many have expressed this as trauma that someone like me —committed to free expression and welcoming of all kinds of advocacy in the fight for the dismantling of racism — is forced to request less stridency from Cole and friends.

I’ve loved Cole for a long time and respect much of his work. Lately, it’s been with a sigh, and so much regret. I prefer to like him, but we don’t get everything we desire.

Despite all of this, I still want Cole as an advocate. His voice is resonant, strong and distinct. It is one of many voices the community needs. Black people don’t have the luxury of discarding tactics and approaches that don’t quite meet the “best” advocacy standards. That is a reality both radicals and moderates might want to embrace.

Source: https://www.thestar.com/opinion/contributors/2021/11/07/the-divisive-activism-of-desmond-cole-how-a-campaign-against-a-black-judge-shattered-torontos-black-community.html

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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