If you take a look at the Twitter account of Jim Watson, the mayor of Ottawa, Canada, you’ll notice how involved he is in his community. He is known for attending the most hyperlocal community gatherings. In interviews, he comes off as approachable and easygoing—a quality that translates into many of his tweets. He can even appear unusually woke: In 2014 the mayor went viral for supporting gay athletes at the Sochi Olympics.
Canada’s race problem, meanwhile, seems tame compared to the United States.’ The country famously prides itself on rejecting cultural assimilation in favor of a more accepting “cultural mosaic.”
So why has a twice-elected mayor, who’s been a leader in both the municipal and provincial government for the last 24 years, been blocking black Twitter users pleading with him to address racism?
It all started about a month ago, when Abdirahman Abdi, a 37-year-old Somali immigrant to Canada, was killed by police. He was described by his neighbors as “a very peaceful guy,” and after his death, many of them told news outlets he never showed signs of aggression. While he was believed to have an unspecified mental illness, Abdi never acted erratically, his neighbors told various Canadian media outlets.
Despite all these accounts, on the afternoon of July 24, 2016, he was beaten by Ottawa police officers outside his apartment building. Officers had been called to respond to 911 calls regarding assaults at a Hintonburg coffee shop, and a confrontation ensued. In a video taken by a neighbor, a bloodied and motionless Abdi is seen lying on the ground after multiple officers allegedly pepper-sprayed and beat Abdi with batons. He is handcuffed with his pants around his thighs and surrounded by four police officers. His neighbors and family can be heard screaming helplessly.
Two days after Abdi’s death was announced, the Ottawa Police Association president Matt Skof spoke to CBC Radio’s All in a Day about community speculation that race played a factor. "To suggest that race was an issue in this, it's inappropriate,” he said. “Our decision-making is based on our training, and our training has nothing to do with race.”
The statement didn’t stop activists and the black community from demanding answers with the #JusticeForAbdirahman hashtag on social media, which quickly gained traction after Abdi’s death. Even those outside Ottawa used the hashtag to put pressure on law enforcement: How could a situation involving a man known for his gentle demeanor have escalated in such a violent and deadly way?
But mostly, activists wanted to know where to find Mayor Jim Watson, who up until that point had been completely silent.
Watson, who’s known for his vibrant social media presence, waited two days before providing a short statement. According to his Twitter account, he was on vacation during that time period and would refrain from tweeting (although he did find time before Abdi’s death to tweet at the Ellen show). After expressing condolences, Watson’s statement ended with, “I am confident that Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit will conduct a fair and thorough investigation that will provide comprehensive insight into this tragic incident.”
His boilerplate response is not unusual. What is surprising is how Watson has dealt with activists on Twitter. Instead of empathizing with those who felt overlooked, he’s blocking the marginalized people who need him the most.
Desmond Cole, a Toronto journalist and activist from Toronto, has been active in the #JusticeForAbdirahman movement since the news of Abdi’s death broke in late July. Cole first began tweeting at both Jim Watson and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on July 25 (before Watson’s acknowledgement) urging them both to speak out in support of #JusticeForAbdirahman. When Cole tweeted at Watson on August 25, many took notice that Cole had been blocked. Soon, other vocal critics noted they too had been blocked.
Being an Ottawa resident who is also outraged by Abdi’s death, I decided to address the mayor directly:
Watson asserted he was only blocking those using “vulgar and rude” language, as well as people calling him out as a “white supremacist.”
It would be understandable for him to block users who were being abusive. But as far as I can tell, that’s not what happened. A Somali Twitter user from Ottawa was blocked after pointing out how the usually right-wing Ottawa Sun called out Watson for his silence. An analysis of Cole’s tweets prove he had done nothing other than demand action from the mayor. Other activists mentioned to me that they’d only gone so far as saying he’d done a bad job at addressing the question of structural racism in Ottawa. (Jim Watson’s office has not responded to multiple inquiries over the past 24 hours.)
“I think the word ‘vulgar’ is code for ‘You called me out on my racism and I want to deflect,’” Hawa Y. Mire, a member of the Toronto Somali community who was blocked by Watson, told me. “This is really about invoking respectability politics.” By framing the critics he’s blocked as “vulgar," Watson is painting the community he’s alienating with the same brush.
And blocking someone on Twitter holds more weight if you’re a public official. “He has a job to do as a mayor,” Cole told me over the phone. “A part of that job is weighing in on the process.” Abdi’s death, he says, never seemed like Watson’s priority. “When you wait 48 hours to say anything about Abdi’s death and your excuse is that you were on vacation, you’re telling the public this isn’t an important issue.”
Since the Twitter storm hit its peak on August 28, the mayor hasn’t engaged with or blocked anyone regarding Black Lives Matter or Abdi’s death. But the demands for justifying his blocks still fill his mentions.
Watson is capable of speaking out when it’s easy for him, like when he supported gay athletes in Sochi in 2014. Abdi’s family expected more. Speaking to the Ottawa Citizen, his aunt expressed the sad reality of a police killing that left a man dead for 45 minutes before reaching a hospital. “We came to Canada from Somalia to get refuge from violence,” she told a reporter. “We are just being greeted with this violence here.”
Sarah Hagi is a Canadian essayist and culture writer.