No matter what verdict the judge delivers Tuesday in the manslaughter and assault trial of Const. Daniel Montsion, the fight for justice in Abdirahman Abdi’s name will continue long after the legal decision is read.
“This goes beyond the fate of one police officer,” said Ifrah Yusuf, the incoming chair of the Justice For Abdirahman Coalition, a grassroots group of community organizers and activists born of tragic and violent circumstances that in the four years since Abdi’s death on July 24, 2016 has grown into a prominent and vital voice in combating anti-Black racism.
“We’re really looking to police reform as a whole and working to ensure all police officers can be held accountable for their actions,” said Yusuf. “Not just with what happened to Abdirahman, but in other encounters with policing.”
With the long-awaited verdict coming Tuesday in Montsion’s trial — and its inevitable impact on the relationship between police and minority communities — the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition will see a change in leadership as Yusuf will take over duties from inaugural chair Farhia Ahmed with a renewed sense of purpose.
The coalition will continue its pursuit of legislative change following a long and frustrating exchange with Queen’s Park — the group contributed to Justice Michael Tulloch’s review of police oversight in 2018, only to see the legislation stalled after a change in provincial government.
Ahmed in an interview recalled that “rollercoaster” of emotions after making the legislative reform of Bill 175 its top priority and working for 18 months to make its voice heard at the table.
“Here we were being told everybody’s hands were tied to this legislative machine, and now here was an opportunity before us to influence what might come out of a new Police Services Act,” Ahmed said. She called it a “divine coincidence.”
“Then there was an election, a new government came in two months later and Bill 175, which was to receive royal ascent and come into force on June 29 — on June 28 we received a notice from the government this was being halted. It felt terrible. I remember reading the letter and my stomach turned upside down, I just couldn’t believe it.”
Among the group’s top post-verdict legislative priorities, Yusuf said, is a provision that would require police officers accused in criminal matters or in misconduct cases to be suspended from the force without pay.
And Justice for Abdirahman will continue highlighting examples of racial injustice in this city, sharing stories from victims and amplifying their voices through the coalition’s powerful social media presence.
“A lot of these stories are coming up from social media, whether it’s someone filming their encounter with police and posting it online, it’s become a really important public platform to express what they’ve been through and the stories they’e encountered,” Yusuf said.
Ottawa police Const. Daniel Montsion leaves the Ottawa courthouse during an adjournment on the first day of his trial for manslaughter in the death of Abdirahman Abdi on February 4, 2019.
Prior to taking over as coalition chair, Yusuf worked as the group’s social media and marketing manager, shining a light on those stories on social media and thrusting them into the mainstream media spotlight.
“It’s about highlighting stories and giving people a platform — beyond Abdirahman Abdi — so that people can really see and be aware of what’s going on in this city,” Yusuf said.
Stories first circulated on the @J4Abdirahman Twitter account have landed directly on newsroom assignment desks and gained widespread media attention — a Black child in Russell whose arm was broken in an incident the mayor condemned as a racist attack; a Black man pulled over by an Ottawa police officer in a traffic stop and erroneously told his plates had expired.
The coalition “aims to highlight those types of stories,” Yusuf said, “and most recently on Anthony Aust.”
The death of 23-year-old Aust, who fell 12 stories to his death from his family’s Jasmine Crescent apartment complex during a no-knock “dynamic entry” warrant executed by Ottawa police, is currently being investigated by the Special Investigations Unit.
Ahmed said Aust’s death, among other issues, exposed “glaring gaps” in the city’s community support networks.
“Our coalition was left answering endless phone calls, emails, messages on social media on how to support the family,” Ahmed said. “And it is complete devastation that an unfunded volunteer group of individuals ends up being the place where the most traumatized folks in our community, who are dealing with police brutality and misconduct, are directed to.
“This is a complete and utter failure of our social system and social networks and a complete failure in the ability to respond to those in crisis in moments like this.”
Ahmed said a recommendation the SIU be given a larger budget to support victims was one of the key items in the 2018 report from Tulloch that the coalition and others fought to preserve.
“So that’s what I think justice looks like,” said Ahmed. “Communities, the non-profit, the volunteer sector, the private sector, the public sector getting their act together and being able to quickly mobilize and support the most vulnerable people in these kinds of situations.”
The continuing fight against racial inequality and injustice is only one way the coalition aims to honour Abdirahman’s name, Ahmed said.
On Sunday, the group awarded its inaugural scholarship, designed to encourage young Black students in the academic pursuit of social justice.
“We’ve tried to capture the legacy of who Abdirahman was and what he represents, which is the need for our community to understand there is still a serious disregard for Black life,” said Ahmed.
“We wanted to keep something going, and this goes beyond the verdict. This is something we wanted to leave as an everlasting impact on the community,” said Yusuf.