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I was in the midst of penning an article on a very different topic a short while ago when two related phenomenon took my breath away. The first was the Black Lives Matter action in Toronto's Gay Pride march, together with the very cogent explanations thereof.
The second was the almost immediate outpouring of vitriolic racism in response as well as the general misunderstanding with which the action was met. The first made me want to stand up and cheer. Standing up against racism -- yes! The second initially greatly disturbed me, and ultimately led to a resolve. Hence this article.
The primary purpose of this article is to shed light on an action that has been seriously misunderstood to the point of being vilified, together with the history leading up to it.
In a nutshell, Black Lives Matter -- Toronto (BLMTO) staged a veritable coup at Toronto Pride this year. They put a stop to the proceedings, pending receiving agreement to their demands. It was a well-planned action in which no one was hurt. And the demands were both measured and reasonable.
What were the demands? For a complete list I refer you a Now article which itemizes them. Just to name a few here, however, they include: continued funding for Black involvement; removal of police floats in future Pride Days, prioritizing the hiring of Black trans women, Indigenous people, and others from vulnerable communities at Pride; and the funding for and protection for LBGTQ2SIAA youth of colour, who have long been pushed to the margins and have suffered frequent harassment, including by the police.
What makes this action so important? For one thing, it is one of those precious moments of historical insurrection. A portion of the LBGTQ2SIAA community which has long been marginalized has seized the moment to forcefully insist on their rights (their rights have been trampled on not only by the Toronto community to which they have long generously contributed but to Gay Pride itself to itself -- note, for example, the paucity of resources afforded them).
For another, and what is not unrelated, what happened here is by its very nature an insurrection of subjugated knowledge. What is significant in this regard: There has been a veritable erasure of the formative role of people of colour in the Pride revolution generally and not until recently has there any been real acknowledgement of the role of the trans community. What this insurrection has been highlighting is the enormity of the role of people of colour, especially women of colour, also of trans people and the concomitant marginalization of both.
What the activists are saying is: We demand equality. We demand recognition. We demand safety.
White lives matter most
And what has been the response? On the positive side: Now featured a remarkable article by the cofounder of BLMTO Janaya Khan. Also there have been statements of solidarity from a number of groups.
On the negative side, there has been a massive vilification of BLM. Khan, for example, has received an avalanche of hate mail. The group, moreover, has been accused by being "the new bully on the block" by the journalists of the stripe of Margaret Wente.
And just look at these readers' comments written in response to Khan's article: "You made something that brought people together into a racial matter...GTFO if you are going to ruin events which brings others together"; "The Stonewall riots were not started by who she said it was. The Stonewall Inn was filled with white men...Stop trying to rewrite history."
What is happening here? On one level, "sexist racism" (most members of BLMTO are women of colour). On another, community members with privilege wanting Pride "as usual" and failing to comprehend the racism inherent in what "usually" happens. Moreover, disgruntled whites are assuming an easy consensus model by which BLMTO could have their legitimate demands met by just asking, despite a history that demonstrates otherwise. Accompanying and subsidiary problems include: the recycling of hegemonic takes on history. The hurling of racist and otherwise oppressive invectives. And a minimizing or outright denial of the appalling record of police violence against people of colour.
In this last regard, a telling incident: I was in a dentist's waiting room a few days ago. An overhead television was playing. What was being broadcast was commentary on the BLM action. A white woman in the waiting room who was watching suddenly started shouting, "Why should they discriminate against the police when almost no police are violent, and why 'Black lives matter.' Don't white lives matter? BLM are the ones being racist, and the whole bunch of them are out-and-out-hypocrites."
It is difficult for me to wrap my mind around this level of unawareness. I am particularly mystified by what makes it so hard to understand why leading Black groups so vehemently reject police presence at Pride. A question: If you or your community were being routinely brutalized by the police, would you not find the presence of police a danger? How would you feel about the police having a float in your parade when they are to this very day attacking you and yours? Moreover, if they had long been shooting members of your community?
This noted, in the hope of providing greater clarity, below are some of the most common complaints leveled against BLMTO, together with my responses to them:
Claim: BLMTO is discriminating against police by insisting that they be barred from Pride.
Response: BLMTO has not objected to the unofficial un-uniformed presence of individual officers who are attending the parade as private citizens. What they object to is an official and armed police presence on one hand and police floats on the other.
Claim: BLM is rewriting history. It is white men who fought back at Stonewall.
Response: While the riots at Stonewall were followed by white groups, especially on the New Left, doing some highly important work, and while the movement that followed was dominated by middle-class white men, and while white men (mainly poor white men) were surely at the Inn that day, in the first five, ten minutes, it did not look as if there was going to be any kind of political protest.
Then a small handful of transgendered women began hurling shoes with spiked heels at the police harassing them, while shouting slogans of liberation and revolution. Central among them were two trans women of colour: Martha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, one of them a sex worker, both of them poor.
In other words, disenfranchised Black trans people were central to the riot and especially central to the demonstrably political tone which it assumed. The press almost completely ignored this centrality when reporting on the event.
Whence began the creation of a white-middle-class-male-dominated gay liberation movement, wherein LGBTQ2SIAA people of colour, women, the poor and members of the trans community were pushed to the margins, their contribution, albeit significant, largely invisibilized. The point here? BLMTO have not been "rewriting history"; they have been correcting major distortions in accepted history and reclaiming their rightful place.
Claim: BLMTO activists simply acted like children, throwing a tantrum.
Response: BLMTO adopted the time-honoured tactic of direct action, moreover, a particularly tame version of it. And uncomfortable though it may be for many, direct action makes sense when you have reason to believe that in its absence, you cannot succeed.
Claim: It is absurd for BLMTO to be protesting marginalization in Toronto Pride when Toronto sports the most diverse Pride anywhere.
Response: While it is true that Toronto Pride is far more diverse than Pride in most other necks of the wood, middle-class white men and the moneyed interests of the elite remain dominant.
Claim: BLMTO only cares about anti-Black racism.
Response: This would not be problematic even were it true. In a world in which Blacks are so demonstrably oppressed, such a focus has its own legitimacy. At the same time, something closer to the opposite is the case. Right from the outset, BLMTO has had a solid intersectional politics, and their demands stem from that intersectional understanding.
Note in this regard the following demands "More Black deaf and hearing signs languages for the festival" and "prioritizing the hiring of Black trans women, Indigenous people and others from vulnerable communities at Pride Toronto."
I ask the reader how many other identity groups similarly systemically include the needs of all vulnerable groups? And how many so much as mention the needs and rights of the disabled community?
Claim: BLMTO is being divisive and is destroying unity.
Response: No question, the immediate effect is a kind of splintering. The point is, however, unity was achieved at the cost of marginalizing certain groups. Not that something beyond fake unity is impossible. History is cyclic in this regard. One of the ever repeating cycles of history is the achieving of a more authentic unity which folds more people in.
In the fullness of time, this is inevitably followed by the growing awareness that despite claims of inclusion, someone is yet again being left out. This in turn is followed by the pulling apart of the unity in order to redress; which itself is inherently threatening to those in the process of losing power -- hence the outrage and backlash. Following that at least ideally is the gradual acceptance of the need for change and the concomitant creation of a more authentic (though inevitably imperfect and fragile) unity. We can only get to that more authentic level of unity however, by heeding and acting on righteous demands.
In ending, my invitation is: However painful this for many, especially for those who have poured years of their lives into making Pride what it is, let's embrace the temporary destruction of unity, knowing it has the potential to yield a more solid foundation on which to build. Let's commit ourselves wholeheartedly to antiracism and to social justice more generally.
And let's work to bring about the day when Pride and other important societal events can truly enjoy a more authentic unity.
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