As Canada prepares to reflect on 150 years of colonization, imperialism and unfettered resource extraction, rabble journalist Phillip Dwight Morgan is interviewing key grassroots activists across Canada to identify what struggles will shape the politics in this country in 2017. This is the first part of his series.
In 2016, anti-Black racism became a focal point of municipal, national and international conversation. The most powerful nation in the world moved from its first African-American president to a man endorsed by the KKK, young Black men in the United States were nine times more likely to be killed by police than other Americans, and, in Ontario, discussions around the legality of carding repeatedly made headlines.
The growing number of accounts of police harassment, intimidation and profiling voiced by Black youth in this country have undermined the well-trafficked narrative of national harmony, peace and acceptance. For many racialized people in this country, the emptiness of this narrative is hardly a revelation; their daily experiences belie a truth long overlooked by the media. Yet 2016 remains noteworthy, for it was during this year that the chasm between those fighting for racial justice and the mainstream media narrowed ever so slightly.
One of the many catalysts for this change was and is Black Lives Matters Toronto (BLMTO). As an organization of young Black activists devoted to “smashing anti-Black racism and state-produced violence,” BLMTO’s bold and courageous activism forced importance conversations about racism in Canada.
“2016 was about Black people continuing to kick ass”
Two actions in particular — their 30-minute disruption of Toronto’s Pride parade and two-and-a-half week occupation of the stairs outside the Toronto Police Headquarters (widely known as “Tent city” ) — were closely followed by the media. These actions and the coverage they received brought anti-Black racism to the fore, making Blackness both physically and rhetorically unavoidable.
“2016 was about Black people continuing to kick ass,” says Pascale Diverlus, co-founder of BLMTO, “It was our entire community coming together and continuing to resist like we always have, like we always will. I think that in different ways the City, the province, John Tory showed that they don’t value Black life over and over and over again.”
The Pride demonstration raised important questions about intersectionality and the limits of allyship as many non-Black members of the LGBTQ community accused BLMTO of hijacking the parade and cultivating divisiveness. Yet, for Diverlus, there was no question about importance or necessity of their action: “this summer with Pride we made sure that we weren’t forgetting about the Black queer and trans people that continue to make the city and Pride what it is.”
When asked about critics and detractors who suggest that BLMTO are “bullies”, the “victim group du jour,” or that the circumstances of Blacks in Canada are much better in Canada than the U.S., Diverlus is taken aback. “The States collects race-based data on when police officers take our lives. So at the end of the year they are able to look at the numbers, the percentages, and see by race who is being targeted. In Canada, we don’t do that. So the stories that we know from friends, family, and people in our community are not recognized and acknowledged in the same way they are in the States.
“But, also, it’s insulting to hear that it’s only when the situation is dire — when people are being murdered in the streets in broad daylight — that we can start to be taken seriously. Whether the numbers are doubled or halved, one life taken by a police officer is too much.”
Carding must be banned, not reformed
With respect to carding, media attention has largely dissipated with the recent announcement from Toronto Police Services that that there will be a revised carding policy. For many of the critics of carding, including BLMTO, a revised policy is not a satisfactory outcome. “Jermaine Carby was killed because he was carded” says Diverlus, adding ” they [the police] were trying to card him and that’s what led to him getting murdered by police officers. At the end of the day carding is an illegal practice. It targets and surveils us; we need to see carding banned–not new regulations, not revisions, banned.”
In addition to protests and demonstrations, community engagement is an essential and often overlooked aspect of BLMTO’s work. Throughout the year, BLMTO participated in numerous public lectures, held community gatherings, and attended community events. “We are nothing without community,” Diverlus observes, “we exist for and with community. The decisions that we make are with community and, while the media like to focus on the fireworks of everything, there are so many things [we do] that are meant specifically for our community.”
Among the many community projects undertaken by BLMTO, its three-week Freedom school and it year-end fundraiser for the Watah Theatre stand out as highlights to Diverlus. “It was so beautiful to see alternative programming for young Black kids that taught them about themselves, about Black love, about our ancestors who have been fighting for us in both past and present day,” she notes, adding, “honestly, it made me very hopeful that the world we are trying to create for our children can come to fruition.”
Looking forward to the rest of 2017, Diverlus points to the abolishment of carding and the dismantling of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) as two key battlegrounds for the group. “The SIU did not press any charges, and would not release the names, of the officers that murdered Andrew Loku. This was such a heartbreaking moment for so many of us,” Diverlus asserts.”The SIU has proven time and time again that it is not useful, it is not objective; it doesn’t actually value our lives.”
In addition to pursuing these particular causes, BLMTO will continue its broader goal of “insisting that we can be as free as we want, that we can have our Black-owned spaces, Black community, and Black art exist without targeting, without surveillance, without the oppressions we feel everyday. “
In a year where images of raced-based violence regularly circulated social media and where the affirmation “Black lives matter” was often met with resistance, BLMTO offered us sobering reminders of the anti-black racism deeply rooted here in Canada. In 2017, we can anticipate a redoubling of efforts by the organization to combat anti-Blackness. This includes fighting not only the most egregious acts of anti-Blackness such as police brutality and carding but also the exclusion of Black queer and trans folks from spaces such as Pride which are widely perceived as welcoming and safe despite their anti-Black practices.
“All of us believe that all Black lives matter,” Diverlus concludes, affirming the group’s vision. “In all of the history, in all of the intersections, in all of the identities. It is our duty to recognize those who are routinely left out, those whose stories are routinely not said. We are not free until all of us are free.”
This article, featuring Pascale Diverlus, originally included a photo of Rodney Diverlus instead. rabble.ca regrets the error.
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Image: Facebook/Pascale Diverlus