I choose activism for Black liberation

This week I met with Andrew Philips, the Toronto Star’s editorial page editor, who has essentially served as my boss at the newspaper. Phillips called me in regarding my political disruption of the April 20 meeting of the Toronto Police Services Board. Phillips said this action had violated the Star’s rules on journalism and activism. He didn’t discipline me or cite any consequence for my actions—Phillips said he just wanted me to know what the Star’s rules are.

I have no formal employment with the Star. I’ve never signed any contract or agreement, and no one ever directed me to any of the policies Phillips cited. However, I knew my police protest was activism, and I could have guessed the Star wouldn’t appreciate it.

At no time during this week’s meeting did Phillips try to tell me how I must conduct myself in the future. He did say he hopes I will continue my bi-monthly column. I appreciate the offer but I’m not going to accept it. If I must choose between a newspaper column and the actions I must take to liberate myself and my community, I choose activism in the service of Black liberation.

There’s so much I feel and could say about this decision, but for now I will limit my commentary to my experience as a freelancer with the Star. For the last year I have been contributing to the Star once every two weeks. I started as a weekly columnist in September of 2015 but my space was cut in half after eight months with almost no explanation (at the time Phillips cited budget struggles and told me “times are tough”).

I doubt any freelance columnist in the recent (or even not so recent) history of the Star has consistently generated more interest and readership, and consequently more revenue, than I have. Few of the Star’s full time columnists cannot claim the following I have built as a freelancer and, with the very notable exception of Washington correspondent Daniel Dale, no regular Star columnist or reporter can match my success in aggressively marketing my work on social media.

My contributions to the Star are in sharp contrast with the lack of tenure, exposure, support, and compensation I have received in return. I believe I have been good for business during a time when our industry is desperate for new voices and new readers. Although I was recently warned about my actions, the Star’s leadership has previously warned me about its limited appetite for my very political and unapologetically Black voice.

In April of 2016, John Honderich, the chair of Torstar Corp., who was also serving as the Star’s acting publisher at that time, asked to meet with me. Honderich suggested I was writing about race too often, and advised me to diversify my topics. The next day I published a piece in support of Yusra Khogali, a Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder who was the subject of a racist, Islamophobic campaign to distract from her activism. It was the most popular piece I wrote all year—my editor contacted me to congratulate me on its reach.

The Star invests heavily in reporters whose excellent work inspires much of my commentary on anti-Black racism and white supremacy in Canada. Yet it seems the Star is reluctant to invest in columnists who relentlessly name these racial power imbalances, who call out the political and institutional forces responsible for white supremacy and Black suffering.

This is bad news for emerging local Black journalists and journalism students, most of whom are Black women and many of whom tell me they are also being shunned, not for their actions but for their radical and emancipatory content. My profile will allow me to find other work, but what about all the brilliant Black people who share my conviction and sense of urgency? Will they ever find steady work in Canadian media?

The struggle continues. I hope my candour here, and my growing reputation as an unapologetic Black activist, is compatible with a continued relationship with the Star. I wish my colleagues there—especially Nicholas Keung, Wendy Gillis, Evelyn Kwong, Jim Rankin, Patty Winsa, San Grewal, Azeezah Kanji, Jennifer Pagliaro, Jayme Poisson, Betsy Powell, Jacques Gallant, Sara Mojtehedzadeh, Morgan Campbell, Ed Keenan, and Daniel Dale—continued success in their respective works, all of which have shaped my writing. 

See y’all in the streets, on Newstalk 1010 radio (every Sunday at 4 p.m.) and, hopefully sometime early next year, in the pages of my first book with Doubleday Canada.

In love, rage, and Black power

~Desmond Cole

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