We often speak about the success of second and third generation immigrant youth in terms of educational attainment, professional status achieved or public profile received because they have been appointed by one government or another to a public role. Rarely do we pay attention and applaud when they are engaged in political activism on the ground following their gut instincts, that when the most vulnerable amongst us are hurt, abused and even killed, they have a responsibility to speak out to try to right the wrongs - in short to spark a revolution. Hyperbole, maybe, but the young Black women and their allies who have put their bodies on the line in opposition to police violence against primarily Black and Indigenous men and increasingly those with mental health challenges, have been nothing short of awe-inspiring. They have demonstrated in no uncertain terms what it means to ‘walk the talk’.
On Sunday March 20, 2016 a call went out from Black Lives Matter Toronto coalition (BLMTO) across the region for a rally of solidarity with the family of Andrew Loku, a man who had arrived in Canada as a refugee and had mental health challenges, who was killed in his home by police in July of 2015. A few days earlier, it was announced that the nameless police officers who were implicated in his death would not be charged. The Black community seethed as once more the State showed its callous disregard for Black lives. In a political age of Black Lives Matter movements in Canada, the USA and now in Europe it is no surprise that there was a swift organizing of a rally that was inclusive of all progressive groups and individuals wanting and needing to voice their outrage at this decision and other incidents involving the police.
Adding fuel to the fire was the decision by a City of Toronto Council Committee to cut the Afrofest event in half due to eight complaints from neighbours of the venue (a large park where music festivals are held throughout the summer months). Afrofest is the largest celebration of African arts and culture in Toronto (and I would argue Canada) and is an economic driver for Black and other small businesses. Black Lives Matter Toronto made the reinstatement of the festival to two days one of their demands and social media exploded in support. As of this writing the festival has been restored to two days and it appears a new relationship is being forged between the festival and the City. Activism does work.
At the end of the March 20 Rally, the young women leading the action announced that they planned to stay put in front of City Hall for the night. The police moved in threatened them with charges for trespassing, and pulled down their tents. Not intimidated, the small group made the decision to (in a matter of speaking) follow the police home and set up camp outside police headquarters in downtown Toronto.
The next day was March 21st, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. This day was so designated by the United Nations in recognition and commemoration of the Sharpeville uprisings (led primarily by youth) in 1960 in South Africa. Many students were killed and the world opened its eyes to the evil that was apartheid South Africa. Earlier that day in Toronto a forum was held by Racism Free Ontario, an initiative of OCASI member agency, the Council of Agencies Serving South Asians (CASSA) and many made their way to the protest site after the Forum to show solidarity. That night the police moved in. From media coverage they can be seen to be tearing down tents, dousing the bin fire that had been going for warmth and roughing up protestors. We must remember that there were children, elders, and people with mobility challenges in wheelchairs all at a peaceful protest and yet there was an over-the-top response from police. Media showed a few images, and then moved on. The Black Lives Matter activists and their allies stayed. Through the cold nights, snow storms, sleet and rain, bunked down on cold concrete with a few blankets and sleeping bags on soggy cardboard – they stayed.
On Saturday March 26, a solidarity rally was held in support of the demands put forward by the Black Lives Matter Toronto coalition and for their ongoing presence in what had become a ‘tent city’ in front of police headquarters. Thousands showed up representing various Faith communities, Labour, Post-Secondary Institutions, LGBTI advocates, Indigenous groups and various organizations and groups from the Black African-Canadian community. It was an afternoon of resistance and celebration of political activism and the forging of new alliances across identity, political ideology and faith. The gathering was intergenerational with babes in arms and grandmothers with placards. Folks with varying abilities rallied, dancing and moving to music, signalling support for the speeches through shouts and signing of ‘Black Lives Matter’. The gathering was cathartic: A collective exhale.
A week later and the protest continued. There is a growing list of letters and petitions to the provincial Premier, the Mayor of Toronto, the Toronto Police Chief all calling on them to respond: To acknowledge the anger and hurt and fatigue of a community who daily face the harassment of police only because of the colour of their skin. To respond to the specific demands of the BLMTO and others from the affected communities and the families of the men who died.
The province’s release of new regulation around the police practice of Carding (whereby the police stop and document information of primarily Black and Indigenous men going about their daily lives) was met with mixed reviews with many pointing out that what is needed is outright elimination, not regulation of what is clearly a racist practice.
Three City of Toronto Councillors drafted a motion which passed unanimously at Council. The motion while criticized by many for ignoring the very specific demands being made by the BLMTO coalition and their allies is an important symbolic gesture and was the first response from political leaders in the City.
During debate on this motion, BLMTO staged a media event at City Hall that finally caught the attention of the media. Within the next few days they received more media and public attention that they did throughout the previous ten days. Political leaders began to pay attention.
The protest continued. The demands remained the same:
- Release of the name(s) of the officer(s) who killed Andrew Loku.
- Charges laid against the officers who killed Loku.
- Public release of any video footage from the apartment complex where Loku died.
- Adoption of the African Canadian Legal Clinic’s demand for a coroner’s inquest into Loku’s death.
- Overhaul of the Special Investigations Unit in consultation with families of victims of police violence, Black community and community at large.
- Commitment to eliminating carding, including deleting all previously recorded data, reframed regulations, consistent implementation of policy among various police boards, and concrete disciplinary measures for officers who continue to card.
- Immediate release of the name(s) of the officer who killed Alex Wettlaufer, and charges to be laid accordingly.
The demands have been met with silence from the Police Chief, the Chair of the Police Board, the Mayor of Toronto, and the Coroner’s Office. Silence in the face of a community’s pain and fatigue in dealing with the many micro and macro aggressions of anti-Black racism.
Finally on April 4th, Refugee Rights Day in Canada the political silence was broken. A protest march made its way to our provincial seat of political power, Queen’s Park. As hundreds shouted ‘Black Lives Matter – Justice for Andrew Loku” (a refugee from South Sudan), the Premier and three of her Cabinet members – Michael Coteau, Yasir Naqvi and Madeline Meilleur waded through the demonstrators. For the first time the Premier stood nose to nose with our young women leaders and acknowledged their protest: Acknowledged that there is a persistent racism- an anti-Black racism in our cities, province and country that we must collectively work towards rooting out. For the first time a promise of a meeting was made, that murmurs of a review of the practices of the Special Investigation Unit as it has to do with policing and the killing of Black and Indigenous and mentally challenged men and women could be heard from our politicians.
The demonstrators left Queen’s Park and closed up their ‘tent city’ after offering the politicians three hundred hours (12.5 days, the length of their protest outside of Police HQ) to respond to their demands. They left with one promise: We will be back if no progress is made.
The young women activist over the course of twelve days showed us what is possible. They created art and music. They fed the hungry. They galvanized a city and brought communities together that rarely find the opportunity to sit together and break bread. A new solidarity has developed between Black and Indigenous communities and the City of Toronto and the Province of Ontario are better off for their efforts. It is now up to the politicians, the police leadership and other State institutions to come to the table with goodwill with the aim of eliminating anti-Black and all forms of racism.