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Black Lives Matter Toronto has been at the crux of several discussions this year. While much of the discussion surrounding the movement and its members has only served to reinforce the reason the movement exists, such as Toronto chapter co-founder Yusra Khogali coming under fire for a tweet, Black Lives Matter Toronto’s (BLMTO) tactics have illustrated a divergence between academia and activism.
Furthermore, the movement has sparked a dialogue about how activism functions in this country.
I spoke with Black Lives Matter activist Janaya Khan about how BLMTO has served as, not only a pathway to goals such as the coroner’s inquest of murdered Toronto man Andrew Loku, but how it has formed a community of diverse voices that has etched a permanent spot for itself in Canadian activist history.
Multipicity of Black experiences unite under #BlackLivesMatter
Khan, who is also an amateur boxer, works in Canada and the United States and has a broad view of how the movement functions across North America.
In the past, accusations that “the Somali community, working class Black people, Black [trans] women, and Black youth are deliberately excluded from BLM’s organizing and messaging” was addressed by Khan.
“Here’s the reality, the people who are in the chapters are Black queer people, Black trans people, Black disabled people, and Black sex-working people. The people who are at the forefront are Black women and Black trans woman. That’s really important because the vast majority of them are also poor,” explained Khan.
Using the example of the 18-day occupation Black Lives Matter Minneapolis chapter carried out last November, Khan describes the work as, unsurprisingly, “not glamorous.”
Khan added, “We’re talking about a group of people, who in the middle of winter, were there day in and day out. Some of them had jobs and some of them didn’t. Some of them… their jobs were compromised because they said ‘I can’t come into work because of this particular thing’. There are people in Black Lives Matter who are sex workers and that’s how they make their money. There are people who work in not-for-profits and that’s how they make their money. There are people who try to scrounge together dollars and cents here and there for this type of facilitation or that type of consultation.”
Historically, most activism has been led by youth leaders as well as poor and working class individuals, specifically women. American activist and educator Mimi Abramovitz chronicles this in the United States in Learning From the History of Poor and Working-Class Women’s Activism. Abramovitz describes divisions of labour as being a distinct marker in activism stating, “The gender and race division of labor shaped their collective action and contributed to a distinct working-class women’s consciousness.”
In the LGBTQ liberation and AIDS activist movements, Black sex-working transwomen such as Marsha P. Johnson were and are everpresent. In #BlackLivesMatter the multiplicity of the Black experience unites, but wealth typically doesn’t.
“We don’t have people in there who are wealthy. It just doesn’t happen. We have people who support us, who maybe have access to folks who have wealth, you know, and we can lobby them for it. But that’s just not the reality of the movement,” explained Khan.
Activist infrastructure in Canada
The Toronto chapter of the #BlackLivesMatter movement is emphasizing just how different activism functions in Canada versus the United States.
Khan describes the United States as simply having better infrastructure. Grassroots activists gather and there are several steps between them and corporations.
Khan explained that in Canada, “We’ve barely developed a grassroots platform, and then automatically there’s not-for-profits, and then a huge gap. So, there’s no infrastructure to really support this type of movement building.”
A skilled facilitator, trainer, and public speaker, Khan articulated that due to the lack of infrastructure in Canada, it is challenging for activists to sustain themselves while engaging in movement building. The diversity in lived experience also paves the way for a diversity of tactics.
“Black Lives Matter does not have a monolithic narrative surrounding what freedom and liberation looks like for Black people,” Khan said, “Take myself for example, I’m not a person who is deeply invested in putting pressure on politicians, myself. I love shutting shit down on the ground. I love escalation, agitation, and education. Those are my favourite things. If there was a strategy I could employ, it would be: mobile, agile, hostile. That would be me!”
Tactics employed by #BlackLivesMatter are context specific. Superficial solutions such as the election of Black officials are often not a part of the pathway to Black liberation. It is often argued that using the #BLM agenda as a platform for election is an investment in self-aggrandizement and not change.
Activist DeRay McKesson sparked similar discussions when he announced that he was running for Mayor of Baltimore, MD. While his platform calls for reforms to law enforcement, education, and raising the minimum wage, it also emphasized the challenges that having a decentralized movement brings.
Many are not familiar with the #BlackLivesMatter founders Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Khan argued that while these names might be more familiar than others, they still are not given the same level of recognition as DeRay’s. “It’s not a single individual or a single man at that. [DeRay] really capitalized on that by never making the distinction between himself and Black Lives Matter very clear. He is not #BlackLivesMatter and he will never be #BlackLivesMatter. That’s on the record,” said Khan.
Khan also went onto say that context matters when electing officials in high-ranking positions. Selling a Black Liberal agenda is very different from being invested in the cause.
“If you look at Jackson, Mississippi — “Jafrica”– it’s full of Black folks. The mayor Chokwe Lumumba changed the game for Black people,” explained Khan.
Lumumba was elected in May of 2013, quickly gaining national popularity after using his platform one day after being sworn in to publicly question whether Christopher Columbus should be in history books. Before his death in February of 2014, he was recognized as one of the few elected officials that could affect change from the inside.
“Jafricka is small enough, and contained enough, and united enough that was possible. Real change and transformation happened. [You] could change what counsel looks like. It was not tokenistic,” said Khan.
Khan added, “How much did Obama change relations for Black people in the States as a Black president? Not that much. And so you have a person who is in a position of power who is actually incapable of facilitating change that’s tangible for Black people on the ground. That to me is the epitome of assimilating into the system can mean. As a token, we had a Black President. In terms of transformation, not all that much. Now at the end of his era he’s kind of naming mass incarceration. I wonder how much is going to change for him when he’s not in office. I’m actually fearful for his life because there have been more assassination attempts on him than on anyone else.”
The fear is not misplaced. Since Barack Obama took office in 2008, threats against the President have increased approximately 400 per cent.
Stay tuned for part two of this conversation with Black Lives Matter organizer Janaya Khan.
A. Splawinski is a student at the University of Toronto. Previously, Ashley worked as a producer and host of News Now on CHRY 105.5 FM covering Canadian social, political, and environmental issues. You can visit her personal blog www.lionpolitics.tumblr.com and follow her on twitter @asplawinski.
Photo: flickr/Lenee Son