On the morning of Thursday, Aug. 27, Charity Williams woke up to an email from the City of Victoria. It told her that she needed to alter the mural she had organized by noon that day, or they would do it for her.
The mural, which is in Victoria’s Bastion Square, was installed by 17 Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) artists on Aug. 14. It was funded by a grant from the City Of Victoria. It reads “More Justice More Peace.”
Staff from the City of Victoria allegedly planned to alter the mural upon the request of the City Manager and the Victoria Chief of Police, according to an email, viewed by IndigiNews.
They took issue with the mural due to the inclusion of the acronym “ACAB” written inside the letter “S.” The acronym stands for “All Cops Are Bad” or “All Cops Are Bastards.”
It has become common in protest movements and graffiti tags throughout North America. The phrase has roots that stretch back to the 1920s.
The “S” letter was designed by artists Kaiya Jacob and Karmella Benedito De Barros. They issued a statement via Instagram on their feelings about the mural, speaking “from [their] experiences alone as Black and Indigenous identifying individuals.” They stated that they added the acronym in order to speak against police mistreatment of Black people throughout North America.
According to Williams, who organized the mural and is a member of the group capitalBLACK, the artwork was originally approved by the City of Victoria and the “Indigenous communities on that land.” However, it is unclear if the design of the individual letters, including the acronym ACAB, was included in the original presentation.
CapitalBLACK is a community-based social justice organization that has participated in and organized several other events this year, including the Black Lives Matter demonstration that took place in Centennial Square on June 7. The acronym BLACK stands for BIPOC Leaders Allies Community Knowledge.
Though the designers themselves were unable to be at Bastion Square that Thursday, an estimated 35 or more community members arrived in the square to stand watch over and defend the mural throughout the day.
“I reached out to my community and asked everybody to come and support,” said Williams. “The blatant disrespect that the city is moving with and the fact that they are okay with vandalizing…this mural is not okay.”
Sheldon Johnson, a spokesperson for the City of Victoria, said via email that the City had reached out to the artists and the mural’s sponsor, the African Heritage Association of Vancouver Island. He stated that the city is “looking forward to further discussions.”
As of publication, the mural remains intact and capitalBLACK have responded on their Instagram demanding that it stay the same. Members of the group have also spoken separately of the deeper meaning behind the mural, and the need for public awareness around issues of racism in Canada.
After the community members left Bastion Square on the evening of Aug. 27, Williams and Pam Buisa, who are both involved with capitalBLACK, spoke in an Instagram Live about the day as a whole.
“Oftentimes, it’s almost worse in Canada because we haven’t even arrived to the point to say that racism exists,” said Buisa. “So not only are we fighting to show that we’re here, we’re silenced.”
In a statement released that Thursday by Victoria Police Department Chief Constable Del Manak, he said he believes that “the inclusion of ACAB is deeply disrespectful to the women and men of the Victoria Police Department.” He went on to say that he supports the spirit behind the mural as he understood it to be presented to the city originally.
He ended the statement by saying that, “in these divisive times, coming together in the spirit of inclusion is the only way to better our shared community.”
Victoria City Councillor Sharmarke Dubow responded to Manak in a statement the following day via Twitter.
“The youth are using their agency, voices, artistic expression to address systemic exclusion through their artwork but unlike the police, the youth don’t have the power, resources or authority to determine who is & who isn’t included,” wrote Dubow.
“For the police to evoke inclusion in this way is really to decontextualize and depoliticize what it is really about – systemic racism.”
Dubow came to Bastion Square to hear the concerns of the youth present not on behalf of the city, but “as an elected official.”
In his statement, Dubow said that he is glad that the city is open to conversation and that he hopes that the discussion will focus on “systematic reforms.”
“Let’s not forget that racism is our most urgent public health emergency. We need to work hard towards building communities where all members of the community feel safe, have access to dignity, wellbeing, to quality of life and can thrive.”
On the afternoon of Aug. 27, while community members were waiting on a comment from the city, they sat on the steps in Bastion Square to speak about what they want the future of Victoria to look like.
Of the ideas voiced, community members spoke of services such as safe supply for drug users, support for the unhoused in the city and defunding the police. CapitalBLACK has previously stated that they support reallocating police funds to a “community-led public safety model.”
The big picture
Both police officers and members of the BIPOC community have emphasized that the disagreement over this mural means more than just a few words.
On Sept. 1, Inspector Todd Preston, the Officer in Charge of West Shore RCMP, issued a statement in support of Manak.
“The divisive language in this mural is not the way forward,” said Preston. “If we want a safer community we must have meaningful dialogue inclusive of all people and groups in our society including those wearing a uniform.”
In an interview with IndigiNews, Buisa spoke of how she often feels conversations around racism and policing are decontextualized.
“When we start to think about isolated instances of the issue, [we] miss the entire vision of where humanity needs to go.”
When speaking in the Instagram Live, Williams also stated the need to look at the broader picture behind the mural.
“I think the first thing we need to figure out beyond the letters ACAB is what is the bigger message here?” said Williams. “The big picture is calling to defund the police. The big picture is calling to abolish police. That is the future.”
Bayleigh Marelj is a reporter covering health, education and child welfare on Vancouver Island. You can follow their work here.