I am retracting a post that I wrote earlier this afternoon before I learned that Georgia Representative Bobby Franklin has been found dead in his home today. Although the subject was not inappropriate, it does not feel like a post that should be on a website on the day of his death.
As I walked the streets of Toronto last month, it occurred to me that Pride Week had become something of a national holiday there, where rainbow flags and the Maple Leaf banners flying in honor of Canada Day on July 1 were equally ubiquitous. For the first time in my many years visiting the city—the place where I myself came out—the juxtaposition of Pride and the anniversary of Confederation felt appropriate and natural.
For some, however, this crescendo of inclusive celebration was threatened by the Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) protest at the city’s Pride March, often nicknamed PrideTO. The group’s 30-minute, parade-stopping sit-in has since come in for predictable condemnation. The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente dubbed BLMTO “bullies,” sniffed that its tactics and concerns belonged to the United States, and asked why it didn’t care about Black-on-Black crime in Canada. The Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy, meanwhile, called BLMTO “Nobody Else Matters,” also saying it “bullied” Pride’s organizers and suggesting we all focus on the real object of exclusion within the LGBTQ community: gay members of the recently ousted Conservative Party.
There is a lot to learn from this Torontonian incident, particularly around managing polite liberal racism—an especially important civics lesson in light of the past month’s tragedies in the United States. Privileging the voices of white LGBTQ Canadians who claim racism is not a part of Canada’s history or present means ignoring the struggles of hundreds of thousands, many of whom are LGTBQ themselves.
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Pride has always been a thoroughly political affair. It is, thus, hardly an “inappropriate time and place” for such a protest. It began as, and remains, a public forum for the unapologetic airing of our political concerns as a community in all its diversity. We may have reached a new phase of acceptance—the presence of Prime Minister Trudeau at Pride was a beautiful milestone in both Canadian and LGBTQ history—but Pride as a civic holiday must not obscure the challenges that remain. It is not a coincidence that the majority of transgender people murdered worldwide by the hundreds every year are Black and Latina, and that many of them are sex workers. That is part of the reality that BLMTO was responding to—the fact that racism amplifies homophobia and transphobia. In so doing, it was not just speaking for Black people, as many falsely contended, but advocating for queer and trans people of many ethnicities.
Even so, one parade-goer told the Globe and Mail: “It’s not about them. It’s gay pride, not black pride.” The very fact that Black LGBTQ people are asked to “choose” validates BLMTO’s complaint about Pride’s anti-Blackness, suggesting a culture where Black people will be thinly tolerated so long as they do not actually talk about or organize around being Black.
Indeed, BLMTO’s much-criticized list of demands seems not to have been read, much less understood. While drawing attention to the Black Lives Matter collective, it also advocated for South Asian LGBTQ people and those in First Nations communities, whose sense of not-entirely-belonging at an increasingly apolitical PrideTO it shares.
In each paint-by-numbers editorial, there was lip service paid to the “concerns” BLMTO has about Canadian police forces and racial discrimination, but the inconvenience of a briefly immobilized parade generated more coverage. Throughout, there has been a sense that Black Lives Matter didn’t belong in Canada, that the nation is somehow immune to racist law enforcement and, in fact, racism in general.
Yet to listen to the accounts of Black Canadians, the reality is rather different.
Janaya Khan, one of the co-founders of BLMTO, recently spoke to Canadian national magazine MacLean’s about the activist’s views on structural racism in the country. As a native of Toronto, they were able to speak quite forthrightly about growing up with racism in the city—up to and including being “carded” (a Canadian version of stop-and-frisk, wherein officers have the right to demand ID from random citizens) at Pride itself. And last year in Toronto Life, journalist and writer Desmond Cole talked about his experiences being raised throughout Ontario. He told a story of a traffic stop, none too different from the sort that killed Philando Castile earlier this month, after a passenger in his father’s car, Sana, had tossed a tissue out the window onto the highway. The officer made the young man walk back onto the highway and pick it up.
Cole wrote, “After Sana returned, the officer let us go. We drove off, overcome with silence until my father finally exploded. ‘You realize everyone in this car is Black, right?’ he thundered at Sana. ‘Yes, Uncle,’ Sana whispered, his head down and shoulders slumped. That afternoon, my imposing father and cocky cousin had trembled in fear over a discarded Kleenex.”
This story, of narrowly escaping the wrath of a white officer on the side of a motorway, could have come from any state in the Union. While Canada has many things to be proud of, it cannot claim that scouring racism from within its borders is among them. Those of us who have lived and worked within the country have an obligation to believe people like Cole and Khan when they describe what life has been like for them—and to do something about it rather than wring our hands in denial.
We should hardly be surprised that the United States and Canada, with parallel histories of violent colonial usurpation of Native land, should be plagued by many of the same racist diseases. There are many that Canada has shared with its southern neighbor—Canada had a number of anti-Chinese exclusion laws in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it too had Japanese internment camps during the Second World War—but other racisms are distinctly homegrown.
The Quebecois sovereignty movement, for instance, veered into anti-Semitic fascism in the 1930s and ’40s. In later years, despite tacking to the left, it retained something of a xenophobic character because of its implicit vision of an independent Quebec dominated by white francophones who could trace their ancestry back to France. In a blind fury after narrowly losing the 1995 referendum on Quebecois independence, Premier Jacques Parizeau, the then-leader of the independence movement, infamously blamed “money and ethnic votes” for the loss. More recently, the provincial sovereigntist party, the Parti Quebecois, tried to impose a “Values Charter” on the province aimed at criminalizing the wearing of hijab and niqab in certain public spaces and functions. Ask Black francophones if they feel welcome in the province and you’ll get mixed answers at best, often related to racist policing from Quebec’s forces.
Speaking of policing and the character of public safety institutions, matters remain stark.
Meanwhile, LGBTQ and Native Ontario corrections officers have routinely complained of poisonous workplace environments; a recent survey found anti-Muslim attitudes prevail among a majority of Ontarians.
Especially poignant for me as a Latina who loves Canada is the case of former Vancouver firefighter Luis Gonzales. Gonzales, who is of Salvadoran descent, is now filing a human rights complaint against Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services for what he deemed a racist work environment that included anti-Black racism, like shining a fire engine floodlight on Black women in the street and joking about how one still couldn’t see them.
One could go on; the disparate nature of these abuses points to the intersectional character of prejudice in Canada, something that BLM Toronto was quite explicit about in its protest. While anti-Black racism is distinct, the coalition perspective envisaged by Black Lives Matter, which builds community with LGBTQ, Muslim, South Asian, and First Nations groups, reflects an understanding of Canadian racism that is quite intelligible to U.S. observers.
It is here that we should return again to Margaret Wente’s slyly nationalistic claim that BLMTO is a foreign import, insensitive to progressive Canadian reality. In this, as in so many other areas, we must dispense with the use of Canadian civic liberalism as a shield against criticism; the nation got this far because of sometimes intemperate, often loud protest. Protests against anti-LGBTQ police brutality in the 1980s and ’90s, for example, set the stage for a Toronto where the CN Tower would be lit up in rainbow colors. And any number of Native rights actions in Canada have forced the nation to recognize both its colonial history and the racism of the present; from Idle No More and the Oka Crisis to the 2014 VIA Rail blockade, that movement is alive and well. Indeed, the blockade was part of a long movement to make the government acknowledge that thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women constituted a crisis.
If we must wrap ourselves in the Maple Leaf flag, then let us at least acknowledge that peaceful protest is a very Canadian thing indeed, instead of redoubling racist insults by insinuating that Black Lives Matter is somehow foreign or that institutional racism is confined to the United States. Canada has achieved little of worth by merely chanting “but we’re not as bad as the United States!” like a mantra.
Far from being a movement in search of a crisis, Black Lives Matter and its intersectional analysis is just as well-suited to Canada as it is to the United States. In the end, it is not, per the national anthem, God who keeps this land “glorious and free,” but its people.
From addressing racial disparities in the city’s public school system to overhauling its response to crime and ending the "war on drugs," DeRay Mckesson's website reads in many places like a manifesto for the movement itself.
DeRay Mckesson, the prominent Black Lives Matter activist who is running for mayor of Baltimore, has unveiled a campaign platform just over a week after announcing his bid.
From addressing racial disparities in the city’s public school system to overhauling its response to crime and ending the “war on drugs,” the DeRayForMayor website reads in many places like a manifesto for the movement itself—and highlights the ways in which Black Lives Matter has brought U.S. politics to a critical tipping point.
“I think [Mckesson’s bid] is a sign that Black Lives Matter is a movement not a moment, one of many examples of how the conversation about an alternative direction for this country is deepening,” Eugene Puryear, a Washington D.C.-based activist and author of Shackled and Chained: Mass Incarceration in Capitalist America, told Rewire.
“The question before the movement is whether we are creating space only, or fighting to take power and change our lives. To the extent it is the latter, fighting in the electoral arena as well as the streets is going to be a necessary tactic,” added Puryear, who is also the 2016 vice presidential candidate for the Party for Socialism and Liberation. “No movement that truly wants to fight for the power to change things can avoid having people assume positions of some prominence.”
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There is a long history of civil rights activists seeking public office: Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale ran for mayor of Oakland, California, back in 1973. He lost, but the race brought out “more black voters than any other election in the city’s history,” according to the New York Times. And as Matt Ford notes in the Atlantic, “While Mckesson is the first civil-rights activist of his generation to seek higher office, he follows in well-worn footsteps. John Lewis, Julian Bond, Andrew Young, Marion Barry, and Jesse Jackson are among the most prominent figures in the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s to win major elections, and countless other activists of the era also sought transitions into governance.”
In entering the Baltimore race, Mckesson has squeezed himself into an already crowded room—he is one of 13 Democratic candidates out of 30 overall competing in the April 26 election to replace the outgoing mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D). If elected, he will join some 500 African-American mayors representing 48 million constituents across the United States.
Mckesson’s crowdfunding appeal has already secured over $115,000 from more than 2,100 donors, a testament to his popularity in the virtual realm—within a single year, the 30-year-old has grown his Twitter following from 85,000 to over 300,000. This he accomplished through a combination of providing real-time updates from sites of popular protest—including Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and his native Baltimore during the wave of unrest that followed the 2015 death in police custody of Freddie Gray—and sustained online commentary in the aftermath of protests about the growing movement to end police brutality.
His most recent endeavor, Campaign Zero, created jointly with fellow BLM activists Johnetta Elzie, Brittany Packnett, and others, offers solutions to the scourge of police violence. Among its ten proposed policies, the data-driven platform calls for ending “broken windows policing,” which disproportionately criminalizes low-income communities of color; ending for-profit policing by clamping down on civil asset forfeiture abuse, which has been known to disproportionately punish Black communities; and demilitarizing police departments.
His own campaign, a three-pronged approach involving youth development, community prosperity, and public safety, echoes many of the same sentiments. The mayoral hopeful wants to overhaul the Baltimore Police Department’s use-of-force policies, implement mandatory anti-racism training for law enforcement personnel, and enact an “ordinance making chokeholds and ‘rough rides’ (leaving a person unrestrained in a police vehicle) by police officers illegal.”
The latter is a direct reference to Gray, who died of spinal injuries sustained while being driven around, without a seat belt, in the back of a Baltimorepolice van on April 12, 2015. Gray’s death touched off a public outpouring of grief and anger over police brutality, which often saw Mckesson in the spotlight. In a widely watched interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Mckesson called the protests an expression of Baltimore residents’ “pain … and mourning”—a direct challenge to the mainstream media’s portrayal of the situation as a “riot.” When the CNN anchor pushed him to denounce the “violent” tone of demonstrations, Mckesson said, “You are suggesting that broken windows are worse than broken spines,” adding, “I don’t have to condone it to understand it.”
Mckesson claims his understanding of the beleaguered city runs deep. In a Medium article announcing his bid, Mckesson recalled a childhood immersed in the city’s joys and also its pain. He revealed himself to be the child of “two now-recovered addicts,” who has “lived through the impact of addiction” and who, like so many other residents, has “come to expect little and accept less.”
And although the city is currently nursing a 24 percent poverty rate, according to U.S. Census data, Baltimore is, in Mckesson’s mind, a place of “promise and possibility.”
“I am running to be the 50th Mayor of Baltimore in order to usher our city into an era where the government is accountable to its people,” Mckesson wrote. “We can build a Baltimore where more and more people want to live and work, and where everyone can thrive.”
His campaign website suggests to some locals that these are not empty words, but reflect a deep commitment to his native city. “After one week he has a better plan than a lot of the establishment candidates have after running for months,” Lawrence Brown, a Black professor at Morgan State University, reportedly told the Guardiansoon after Mckesson released his platform. “It’s the craziest thing.”
In an interview with Rewire, Rukia Lumumba, daughter of the late civil rights lawyer and Mississippi mayor Chokwe Lumumba, called Mckesson’s bid a “bold move.”
“It probably wasn’t an easy decision to make, and it won’t be an easy run,” Lumumba said in a phone interview. “But anytime a younger person steps up to represent [Black communities], especially someone who has a strong understanding of people power and human life and is capable of dreaming bigger than what our current government looks like, it signals a positive change.”
Lumumba, who has held numerous institutional posts and organized nationally in the field of criminal justice reform for over a dozen years, added, “One of the many things my father taught me is that the center of any human rights struggle is the will and the need of the people—whoever is running for office with the goal of building freedom and self-determination needs to remember that.”
When Mckesson officially entered the mayoral race at the 11th hour on February 3, he sparked a wave of speculation as to whether, or to what extent, he was truly in touch with the needs of his constituency.
Slate’s Lawrence Lanahanclaims Mckesson’s bid drew “derision from … local black activists who were working in disinvested communities and drawing attention to racial inequity and police brutality before the deaths of Michael Brown or Freddie Gray.” (Mckesson himself deemed those deaths responsible for pushing him into full-time movement work.) Lanahan goes on to quote Dayvon Love, director of the local think tank Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, casting doubt upon Mckesson’s ability to mobilize at the grassroots level: “It’s one thing to be able to show up to an event in a major mainstream media moment,” Love said, according to Slate. “It’s a different thing to get people from Baltimore to go to Annapolis for a hearing on police reform on a Tuesday at 1 in the afternoon.”
Shortly after Mckesson announced his bid, Dan Rodricks of the Baltimore Sun reported that one of the front-runners in the upcoming race, Sheila Dixon, had never even heard of the activist until he threw his hat in the ring. Whether Dixon’s claim was genuine or a political ploy aimed at deriding a newcomer into an already stiff contest, it goes to the heart of a larger critique among some Baltimore residents that an activist who has a bigger presence online than he does in the political establishment may not stand a chance at the polls.
Mckesson himself appears well aware of this critique, and even addressed it in the Medium post announcing his bid, when he wrote: “I have come to realize that the traditional pathway to politics, and the traditional politicians who follow these well-worn paths, will not lead us to the transformational change our city needs. Many have accepted that our current political reality is fixed and irreversible — that we must resign ourselves to accept the way that City Hall functions, or the role of money and connections in dictating who runs and wins elections. They have bought into the notion that there is only one road that leads to serve as an elected leader.”
Other commentators have noted that, though Mckesson has largely made a name for himself via social media and a number of appearances on popular talk shows, his résumé also displays several years of practical work. He has served as an administrator in Baltimore’s public school system and spent several years teaching at public high schools in East New York, experiences that have obviously informed his current campaign: His ambitious plans for strengthening Baltimore’s education system include scaling up public funding for pre-K education, investing heavily in after-school programs for middle and high school students, and expanding college and career support services in low-income communities.
While Mckesson is not formally tied to the official Black Lives Matter (BLM) network, which was founded in 2012 by three Black women with the aim of centering the leadership, lives, and voices of queer and trans Black women, his bid has elicited statements of support from other prominent voices within the broader BLM movement.
An article published by Black Youth Project, the Chicago-based organization that has been instrumental in heaping pressure on Mayor Rahm Emanuel for his administration’s role in covering up the police killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, called Mckesson’s mayoral bid proof that “he’s not just another person looking to point out problems with no intention to fix them,” and New York Daily News correspondent Shaun King said he was “enormously proud to see [Mckesson] take the plunge,” adding: “Local politics impact real people in the most critical ways and we need young, energized leaders all over the country to do what DeRay is going to try to do.”