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BLMTO - Feature Story (FINAL) - Adams

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BLMTO - Feature Story (FINAL) - Adams

  1. 1. Long Feature “Black Lives Matter here, too” Final Draft Kelsey Adams JRN303 Kamal Al-Solaylee Six protestors attached at the arms by pipes stood in the middle of the Allen Road facing hundreds of cars. They weren’t going to move until their demands were met. Traffic stood still for over two hours. On July 27 2015, Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLM) decided to try something radical. Fed up with the “official channels” in seeking justice for Andrew Loku—a black man who was shot in his apartment doorway by Toronto police officers—they decided to get their message across more boldly. Janaya Khan, one of the co- founders of BLM led the pack at the Eglinton Avenue exit. The six protestors went up against frustrated drivers, some allegedly howling racial slurs. Supported by hundreds more who came from a memorial vigil at Loku’s former apartment, the highway was flooded with protestors and signs. As the vigil group made their way to the Allen, people came out of barbershops and their homes to join them in the street. They walked through Little Jamaica, the heart of where the people they’re fighting for live. Tari Ngangura, another founder, alleges that before the whole group came and the media along with them, police officers attempted to force their bikes through the arms of the six to separate them. “When we got there the cops backed away because they can’t be seen being violent because Canadian cops don’t do that kind of stuff,” she says. Although BLM took measures to ensure the safety of the six on the frontlines, things were tense. According to a Toronto Star report, traffic on the Allen was stalled from 7:30 p.m. until 9 p.m. The blockade, largely inspired by Tamil protests closing down the Gardiner, was a surreal experience for BLM Toronto and their supporters. Music and dancing and chants to “Shut it down!” and “No justice, no peace!” reverberated around the area near Eglinton West station. BLM founder Pascale Diverlus is a Haitian refugee and felt a personal connection to the killing of Loku. “He was a refugee and father of five children, Andrew Loku very easily could have been my father.” The community coming together helped her realized that, “We are not alone in this.” What many drivers may have seen as an inconvenience was an opportunity for this movement to show “that if need be we can actually shut down the city and make life uncomfortable, because every day being black is uncomfortable,” Ngangura says. What issue had six people willing to lock themselves in on a highway for two plus
  2. 2. hours? Carding and the killing of two innocent black men by the Toronto police. Jermaine Carby, a Brampton resident was killed by a Peel police officer after being pulled over in his car in September 2014. BLM refused to leave until Mayor John Tory agreed to meet with them and discuss the negative impact carding has on black communities in Toronto. That night they reached their goal; Tory called in from CP24 and agreed to a meeting. Five months later and that meeting hasn’t happened yet. Alyssa Williams, another of the eight co-founders of BLM, says that Tory offered a private meeting but they want something open to the public so he can be accountable to the families who have been directly impacted. The demands that the group made—that the officers who shot Loku and Carby be charged, confirmation that they are off the streets and compensation for the families have not been met either. Black Lives Matter Toronto is fighting a battle on two fronts, simultaneously fighting racism and having to prove that it exists here. Not all the racism in Toronto is as visible as police officers killing black men, in a city celebrated for its multiculturalism; racism becomes elusive and harder to fight. -- Line Break -- Tari Ngangura immigrated to Canada five years ago from Harare, Zimbabwe to Leamington, Ont. She was the only black girl in a graduating class of less than a hundred students. “I was the only one, it can be isolating.” When she started at Ryerson University she moved to Scarborough, however the remnants of Leamington and living in a predominantly white town continued to influence her. She eventually found solace in the United Black Students of Ryerson collective and community organizers, some who founded BLM alongside her. She considers other founding members—who are mostly women—Sandy Hudson, Yusra Ali, Diverlus, Williams and Khan as her family and her inspiration to keep pursuing the cause. On top of BLM, she runs a blog with her friend Angelyn Francis, called Care Free Black Girls that celebrates black women activists and artists. One blog post is entitled, “F*** Your Respectability Politics” for some insight on the tone of the content. Right now, her long silver box braids cascade down over her torso but she flips between wearing her Afro and having her hair styled in braids wrapped in traditional scarfs from home. Ngangura beams when talking about the insidious nature of the movement. “The more we mobilize the more people will see that this isn’t a Toronto issue, it’s all over Canada.” BLM have noticed pockets growing in Montreal, Calgary and
  3. 3. Kitchener-Waterloo. Black Lives Matter arose to confront the overt violence being inflicted on black bodies by figures of authority but the movement itself is an act of “self-love”, an affirmation that black lives actually matter. The movement came to Toronto in late 2014, after the no indictment verdict for the police officer who shot and killed 18- year-old Michael Brown. The group planned a vigil at the Superior Court in Toronto on Nov. 14 to show solidarity. The night before they put up a Facebook event and went to work making banners and signs. By 2 a.m. about 1000 people rsvp’d. Around 3,000 people showed up to the vigil. “That just showed us that there’s such a desperate need in Toronto for a space like this,” says Ngangura, “for black people to come together and mourn and heal and talk about the issues.” New developments about the fate of police carding in Toronto were announced in early November by the provincial government. There is a plan to enforce regulations that would mean “the end of carding” but Sandy Hudson of BLM Toronto is sceptical. In a column for the Star she argues that regulations aren’t enough, the practice needs to be stopped outright. In response, BLM Toronto has launched an online petition to convince the Wynne government to eliminate carding. Hudson’s stance echoes that of Desmond Cole’s, who has emerged as an authoritative voice in discussions about race in this city. On April 21 2015 Toronto Life magazine published Cole’s groundbreaking account of the racial profiling he experienced in Ontario. It’s not that no one was aware of the disproportionate way black men were being targeted but his story added a face and a name to the Toronto Star’s 2013 in-depth investigation of the Toronto Police Force, “Known to Police.” Numbers and statistics are difficult to relate to. A man retelling the dozens of times he was stopped by the police for being black is not. The contact cards that police fill out with information about the people they stop end up in a police database. Carding doesn’t require that the police be conducting a criminal investigation; officers can simply stop people on the street for suspicious behaviour and collect their information. After a decade, there exists no concrete evidence that carding lessens crime. Cole warns that although carding documents non-criminal interactions, having your name in the system means there’s a chance the information will show up on criminal background checks. BLM Toronto is fighting to have this intangible database erased. Disproportionate police surveillance of black bodies is not a recent phenomenon. As David M. Tanovich’s book The Colour of Justice: Policing Race in Canada suggests, “the colour of justice in Canada is White.” What Tanovich calls “the pervasiveness and silence of the problem” parallels what members of BLM Toronto are saying
  4. 4. almost a decade later. “People in Canada get so uncomfortable talking about race,” says Ngangura. Recently, Cole started writing a column in the Toronto Star. He has discussed Canada’s reluctance to acknowledge racism twice saying Canada needs to commit to anti-racism following the federal elections and by highlighting the deflection of Canada’s history of racism by comparison to the United States. This idea of constant comparison to the U.S as having worse race relations than us has permeated throughout Canadian culture. In a November workshop at Ryerson University, partially organized by BLM Toronto, artist Deanna Bowen discussed the omission and repression of Black Canadian history and the formation of an idyllic racism-free Canada. Lit dramatically under a spotlight, she spoke candidly about what she calls the “Canada as promised land myth.” During a question and answer segment of the workshop, Ngangura referenced the fact that more people will show up to events with an American narrative, such as Michael Brown or Eric Garner, but less so for Canadians who have been equally impacted by overt racism. She asked, “How do you think we can mobilize Black Canadians to realize that anti-black racism is also prevalent here and their urgency needs to be the same as it is in the States?” Bowen replied, “I have a couple thoughts about this. One is acknowledging the landscape that we’re in, the different type of racism we’re experiencing here. It’s not the American racism, it’s kind of this other thing that’s shrouded in a layer of repression. It’s a racism that doesn’t exist.” It’s easy to believe in the myth of Canada as promised land. Bowen credits this to our government’s conscious efforts to deflect our concern south and on the limited way Canadian history has been written until now. In 2009 at a G20 summit in Pittsburgh, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper said "We [Canada] also have no history of colonialism. So we have all of the things that many people admire about the great powers but none of the things that threaten or bother them." Canada has actively framed itself as a sanctuary through omission. Considering that Indigenous people are amongst the most marginalized in Canada and the lasting cultural weight of forced assimilation and residential schools, it’s a bit bold to proclaim that Canada is free of any fault. The Underground Railroad and Canada as a haven from slavery is widely touted as a defining moment in our history. Most school age children have heard of it. However, it’s unlikely they’ve heard very much about section 38 of the Immigration Act ordered by Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier in 1911. It prohibits for one year “any
  5. 5. immigrants belonging to the Negro race, which race is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.” It’s also unlikely that they’ll learn that the KKK held national headquarters in Toronto. Out-dated curriculum that follows the narrative of the English and the French and very few other groups in Canada is to blame as well. As Bowen relayed in an email, “The challenge of addressing racism and anti-blackness in Canada is that one has to fight past denials of having slavery, racism, or oppression before you can tackle the issue itself.” There is also reluctance amongst elders in black communities to discuss the past with their children and grandchildren because of an understandable unwillingness to dredge up painful memories. Although Ngangura’s father was involved in activism in Ontario, he doesn’t discuss it with her. “For him to see his daughter fighting the same battles he fought? That can’t be easy.” -- Line Break -- “Our Black is beautiful!” “Our Black is bold!” BLM founders Alexandria Williams and Diverlus chanted back and forth at each other, hyping up the dozens of people shivering in the cold outside of the TDSB Education Centre on Dec. 4 2015. “We’re here because a girl was pulled from class because of how her hair grows naturally out of her head,” Williams shouted through a microphone. On Nov 10 2015 CityNews reported that a 13-year old girl named Danae, who goes to Amesbury Middle School in North York was pulled from class and threatened with suspension by her principal for wearing her natural hair to school. Her full head of micro-curls was called “unprofessional.” To support little black girls like Danae, BLM planned an action to hold the TDSB accountable for racist practices across the board. Around 50 people, mostly women, rocking their natural hair in box braids, Afros and loose curls mounted the stairs leading into 5050 Yonge Street and stood solemnly with fists raised to the sky. Hundreds of photos were taken before they lost daylight but once night fell the rally began. Women, like hair stylist Tanya Turton, spoke candidly about their experiences as children in Toronto schools being sent home for violating the dress code. A live hair braiding station and books like the classic children’s book “Happy to be Nappy,” were laid out for kids to read. The idea that black women need to tame their hair to adhere to white beauty standards to be taken seriously or respected is prevalent. Alyssa Williams says that when she worked for Ryerson University she “straightened my hair as much as possible,” to avoid dealing with questions and to conform to that environment. It’s
  6. 6. not something she’s proud of doing, but it made life easier. Now, Williams, who is Bajan, wears her natural hair to work. “When talking about anti-black racism in Toronto we need to be aware of the fact that it shows itself very differently, it’s not overt. It’s in the way people treat you, it’s how they greet you,” says Ngangura. Racism in Toronto manifests itself more commonly as micro-aggressions. In his Toronto Life piece, Cole recounts a time he was denied entry to a bar for wearing sneakers when every other guy around him was dressed the same way. Alyssa Williams remembers having a white student ask her if she was a refugee because she has an accent and dark skin. Micro-agressions exist in myriad of forms. The random touching of a black woman’s natural hair by strangers. Or worse, having it called “ghetto” or “ratchet”. People asking where you’re really from. White people discrediting black people’s lived experiences through comment sections on Facebook. White women crossing the street when they see black men walking in their direction. People choosing to stand rather than sitting beside you on the TTC. Being followed around in stores from the moment you walk in. These are all small things that have a detrimental impact when they occur every day, for your entire life. It’s difficult to stop this with protests or rallies. The will to conform and the constant awareness of how you’re perceived sometimes leads to self-censorship. Ngangura says she used to stop herself from saying or wearing certain things because she “didn’t want people to read me as that loud, ghetto black girl. I wanted to fit into that niche that white supremacy told me I should be.” Ngangura cringes when she remembers how she dressed in her first year of university four years ago. She’s reluctant to tell me that she wore Pink by Victoria’s Secret sweat suits, that she only wore weaves and that she only found white men attractive. “I was self-hating.” She’s blocked people from seeing all the photos of herself from this period on Facebook. There’s an intangible nature to the kind of racism where the only proof of it are people’s personal stories. Williams finds there’s a lack of discussion about this side of racism and that without proper statistics or data it “makes you look like you’re just complaining,” rather than facing something systemic. The work that Black Lives Matter Toronto does is important because it not only combats racism but also routinely and loudly reinforces the fact that Toronto does in fact have a racism problem. -- Line Break -- In September they held a Take Back the Night in collaboration with the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre and “actively chose to include the voice of black people,”
  7. 7. specifically black trans people. The night was held under the theme #AllBlackLivesMatter. Diverlus says that the event was mostly planned and orchestrated by trans folks. The rally at Scadding Court Community Centre was led by Patrisse Cullors, a founder of BLM in the U.S. There was an emphasis on black children learning about their worth and workshops about some of the injustices they’ll face, “This work doesn’t just start when you’re twenty, it starts from the womb,” says Diverlus. Around a thousand supporters took to the streets, marching down the King Street strip on a Saturday night, carrying signs and chanting “All Black lives matter!” while drunk Torontonians stumbled along the sidewalk, perplexed. The juxtaposition was funny but also representative of how easy it is to go about life blissfully unaware. Ngangura remembers the awe of flooding King Street with protestors but realized something sobering that night, “It’s so easy to forget that while we’re out here fighting for our lives, people are just out living theirs.”

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