This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

July-August 2015

One year later

Denise Hansen

2015JA_BLMDenise Hansen examines the Black Lives Matter movement in Canada—and why there’s cause for anger and hope here, too

PROTESTS AND MARCHES AND SIT-INS have never really been my chosen course of social action. I can remember my dear family friend Kathy, a valiant social justice advocate, trying over the years to introduce my tender, elementary-aged sister and me to the world of social action. She’d drag us to women’s marches and tuition rallies but somehow, we always became so besieged by the noise and the cold (this is Canada, after all) that after a mere hour we’d end up at the nearest Tim Horton’s, clutching hot chocolates and talking through alternative ways we could create social change. Still today, I deeply admire the committed and resilient spirit of protestors (and my dear family friend for fearlessly trying to involve us in that world!) but have decided that for me, social justice is best pursued in other ways. So I write.
But that was before Michael Brown.

The night it was announced that a St. Louis County grand jury had decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, I was in bed under the covers, glued to the light of my phone, slowly scrolling through news report upon news report, tears falling down my face at the same pace. I fell asleep that night feeling emotionally shattered, and like nothing mattered. It was an indescribable feeling of despair with society that I had never experienced before.

The same week I, along with hundreds of other Torontonians, converged at the U.S. Consulate General in downtown Toronto to express anger and frustration with the non-indictment decision and to protest the systemic oppression black communities both in America and here at home continue to face at the hands of police and the state. At the end of the rally, organizers asked us to turn to the person next to us, take our hand, place it on their back, and say the words “I got your back.” I biked home that cold November night feeling everything but what I had felt earlier that week. The protest made me feel that I, my community: we mattered.
I think there comes a time in every black person’s life where the straw simply breaks. You take it and you take it, and you take it and you see your family take it and your friends take it, and people you don’t even know take it, until one day the load becomes too much. For millions of people, that day came with the events surrounding Michael Brown and Ferguson. A year after Brown’s death and the #BlackLivesMatter protests (unofficially) began, I wanted to find out how far the Black Lives Matter movement had come in turning hearts and minds—in America and here at home—to the supposedly revolutionary idea that black life does, in fact, matter.
Does my black life matter more now, one year later?

PEOPLE OFTEN QUESTION what it was about the Michael Brown shooting that spurred millions of people around the world, black and otherwise, to pay heed to the unjust policing practises afforded to black communities in America. After all, since Trayvon Martin’s death in February 2012 and before Michael Brown’s death in August 2014,countless unarmed people of colour have been killed by police in the
U.S. These are just some of the names of black individuals that were killed by police or vigilantes only one month after Trayvon Martin died: Raymond Allen (age 34), Dante Prince (age 25), Nehemiah Dillard (age 29), Wendall Allen (age 20), Shereese Francis (age 30), Rekia Boyd (age 22), Kendrec McDade (age 19), and Ervin Jefferson (age 18).

“The community response set things off, the way people in Ferguson decided to rise up and come together as a community,” says 25-year-old Tiffany Smith, explaining what galvanized America around Michael Brown. “That really showed all of us that we could do the same.” Seeing the courage of the Ferguson community to come together and revolt spread action like wildfire across the U.S., she adds. She herself has been part of the Black Lives Matter movement since it began last year, protesting and organizing in Atlanta, Georgia.

After Brown’s death, protestors flooded the streets of Ferguson and other cities across America. When the first report came out of Ferguson that police tear-gassed peaceful protestors, the community, understandably, retaliated. In response, President Barack Obama addressed the nation and urged an “open and transparent investigation” into Brown’s death while calling for calm and restraint. But then Officer Darren Wilson’s name was released. National protests intensified, calling for police reform and the immediate arrest of Wilson. A state of emergency was declared in Ferguson. Every night as I turned on the news, I knew I was watching a revolution unfold before me.

As protests strengthened, the Black Lives Freedom Rides—organized by the same three women who began the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag—reportedly brought more than 500 activists from around the country and Canada to Ferguson to join thousands others for Labour Day actions and protests. Highways were stopped, football and baseball games and symphonies were disrupted, Walmarts were shut down, and hundreds of protestors staged die-ins in cities across the country. Black Lives Matter made its way into my conversation circles with friends, colleagues, and people on the street. I felt like a kid in a candy store when the subject came up. For the first time, I was discussing race relations—no! I was discussing anti-black racism!—with people I had known for years. Please, please, please let us hold on to this moment a little while longer, I thought.

In November, with the nation bracing for the Michael Brown grand jury decision, the city of Ferguson became a military war zone with police outfitted in riot gear, body armour, tear gas, and other militarized crowd control items. When the devastatingly predictable nonindictment decision was announced, thousands of people rallied to protest the verdict in more than 170 cities across America and massive protests were launched, shutting down malls and highways to boycott Black Friday.

“But what does asking poor, black families to stop shopping on Black Friday do?” my American friend asked me one day, referring to the Black Friday shopping boycotts. “These are the same families that, because of generations of systemic racism and oppression and as a result, limited financial means and economic wealth, are just trying to save a couple of dollars on their kids’ Christmas presents.” She made a good point. We talked for hours more about protest, boycott, and its place in revolution.

Then in December, another injustice made it to news broadcast. It was announced that a New York grand jury would not indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner, a 350-or-sopound, asthmatic, married father of six, who was harassed, mobbed, and eventually died at the hands of police via chokehold for selling cigarettes. I was getting ready for work the morning I heard the news. Listening to the audio of Garner desperately plead for his life is something that will stay with me forever. Shaken, I turned the radio off halfway through the audio, only able to muster up the courage to watch the full video a couple of days later.

The Garner non-indictment announcement incited a surge of protests in New York City and across the nation. Basketball teams donned “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts at games; a Black Lives Matter protest filled the Mall of America; and black congressional staffers walked out of Congress staging a powerful “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” protest. I felt a strange sense of relief when incidents of police violence were still making the evening news and daily newspapers. How strange it is to feel relief when black people—my community—were still the victims of violence and death at the hands of police. But I guess I was just relieved that the struggle still mattered enough to popular media.

With the start of 2015, the most powerful image: a diverse crowd of over 50,000 people marched through New York City. Titled the Millions March NYC, it brought together people of all races, ages, and backgrounds to protest ongoing state-sanctioned violence against black communities. Thousands upon thousands of people protesting anti-black racism; these were images I had never seen in Canada, outside of school textbooks during Black History Month. Then in Baltimore this spring, more outrage as people poured into the streets after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died in police custody after being illegally arrested and detained.

In so many ways, it has been a defining and transformative movement highlighting North America’s fractured race relations and broken criminal justice system. In just one year, the movement has been able to bring international awareness to the systemic dehumanization of blackness that occurs at the hands of the state, most visibly by the police, every day, every hour, and every minute. Similar in size and scope to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Black Lives Matter has brought race relations and the heartbreaking understanding of how disposable black life is in America to the fore.

Even in places as far away as Australia, Japan, Palestine, the U.K., Cuba, and the West Indies, Black Lives Matter has mobilized people not just to take to the streets in solidarity but also, and more importantly, has mobilized international communities to examine their own practises of policing, race relations, and anti-black racism. Outside of the important conversations it has sparked, Black Lives Matter has seen successes in the policy arena too. In less than one year the movement has seen seven bills aimed at police regulation and accountability introduced to Congress including the Jury Reform Act, the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, the Right to Know Act, and the End Racial Profiling Act. A federal civil rights investigation has been launched in the death of Eric Garner and its subsequent grand jury decision. The U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation into the conduct of the Ferguson Police Department and found that the force regularly engaged in conduct that violated the constitutional rights of its black residents (the Department of Justice is now investigating police conduct in other U.S. cities including Baltimore, North Charleston, Cleveland, Albuquerque, and St. Louis).

In August 2014, a petition to create the Michael Brown law, which requires all state, county, and local police to wear a body camera, received well over 100,000 signatures (the threshold required for the Obama administration to respond). The petition also spurred the NYPD to equip police officers with body cameras for a three-month pilot program, have 7,000 body cameras supplied to the LAPD over a two-year period, and have President Obama propose a plan that includes funding over 50,000 body cameras for American law enforcement. The Death in Custody Reporting Act was signed into law and we saw rightful police indictments retained in the deaths of Rekia Boyd, Levar Jones, Bernard Bailey, as well as six police officers indicted in the death of Freddie Gray.

On the grassroots level too, Black Lives Matter has triumphed. Protestors have been able to create and distribute resource toolkits for organizing protests and other actions; nationwide, conferences have been hosted; conference calls regularly occur between groups across the country to share actions and next steps; and Black Lives Matter organizers named 2015 the Year of Resistance. Taken together, we are seeing how, in just one year, grassroots community work can directly shape and inform public policy work.

“That report that came out about Ferguson of how black folks are over-policed,” says Smith, who believes that Black Lives Matter has highlighted the importance of data and the power of information. “That report would have never come out if people weren’t in the streets.”

Rick Jones is lawyer and a founding member of the Neighbourhood Defender Service of Harlem. The NDS is a community-based public defence practice which provides legal representation to residents of Harlem and other historically underserved and over-policed communities in north Manhattan where it’s not uncommon for some of his clients to be stopped by police two to three times a week. Jones agrees that what Black Lives Matter has done best is bridge the worlds of policy and protest (although he’s not sure it’s yet been successful). In his own work, he notes that the action that Black Lives Matter in New York City did to protest Stop-and-Frisk on the streets concretely helped in highlighting the work NDS and other practices did around
Stop-and-Frisk litigation at the policy level.

When I ask Jones how the Black Lives Matter movement has impacted the work NDS does, he tells me, “We’ve been able to help our clients understand that the constitution applies to them, to help them understand that it’s not okay for the police to just throw you up against the wall and go through your pockets for no reason.” This is important work, he stresses, adding that when generational oppression is present—“granddad was oppressed and dad was oppressed and now son is oppressed”—this education becomes a lot more difficult. Even in a country like America where race is talked about often, making the connection between people’s personal struggles to systemic injustices becomes hard because racism has been the status quo for so many generations.

Even harder is asking these same communities to act and expose themselves to a system (police, etc.) that has wronged them in the first place. Black Lives Matter is so remarkable because it has done both: made the link between individual disenfranchisement and systemic oppression and convinced affected communities the fight is worth it. Yet, then, what happens in a place like Canada where race and anti-black racism is almost never talked about? How has Black Lives Matter permeated the Canadian landscape? Has it at all?

ONE YEAR POST-FERGUSON Black Lives Matter has been instrumental in providing Canadian justice organizations and black groups legitimacy when speaking out about how our own black communities are treated by law enforcement. The protests and marches and sit-ins we saw planned by Black Lives Matter organizers across Canada came about not just to show solidarity for black men and women in America who contend with a racist criminal justice system, but also to protest and rally around the racial profiling, suspicion, and institutional anti-blackness that is present in Canadian policing practices.

“In Canada, we maintain a kind of smugness so that when we talk about police and black communities, often we revert to experiences going on in the States,” says Anthony Morgan, a lawyer at the African Canadian Legal Clinic, a not-for-profit organization that advocates for and represents African-Canadians in a number of legal forums. Morgan asserts that the movement has created space to acknowledge how Canada’s black communities experience policing institutions and practises. To him, Black Lives Matter has allowed Canada to critically assess the Special Investigator’s Unit (SIU.), a civilian law enforcement agency that conducts independent investigations to determine whether a criminal offence took place whenever police officers become involved in incidents when someone has been seriously injured, dies, or alleges sexual assault.

Morgan says Black Lives Matter has also allowed us to critically assess the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), an independent civilian oversight agency that receives, manages, and oversees all complaints about police in Ontario. And it has especially engaged people in critically assessing the issue of carding, the practise whereby Toronto police officers stop, question, and collect information on people without arresting them.

While black communities make up only 8.3 percent of Toronto’s population, they accounted for 25 percent of the cards filled out between 2008 and mid-2011. Research shows that in each of Toronto’s 72 patrol zones, blacks are more likely than whites to be stopped and carded and the likelihood increases in areas that are predominantly white. This in Canada’s most multicultural city and a global beacon of what a post-racial society looks like.

Morgan adds that the Black Lives Matter movement has also been effective in raising awareness about the SIU and how many times it has exonerated a police officer who has killed a civilian. Black people are overrepresented in these encounters as well. Jermaine Carby, a black Toronto man, was shot and killed by police last year after being pulled over by police for unknown reasons. Rather than providing answers and support to the Carby family, the SIU is still withholding the suspect officer’s name and details of the incident. “What systems do we have here in Canada that try and justify or explain the killing, harassment, and violence black civilians experience at the hands of police?” asks Morgan. “These are important questions that we’ve finally been able to get at.”

THE SUCCESS OF BLACK LIVES MATTER has had as much to do with its origins as its message. Here is a movement that began as grassroots in nature, had its origins in female leaders and youth, lacked centralized leadership, and used social media as an organizing tool. By virtue of all these characteristics, the movement has wildly succeeded. Black Lives Matter has also wildly succeeded because of its universal message— Black Lives Matter. It’s not only a powerful message, but one that is easily understandable and irrefutably cannot be denied. “One of the realities of protest movements is that unless those who are protesting frame their protest in a way that is not threatening and that is easily understood by the very society that is oppressing them, the protests don’t go anywhere,” explains Ken Coates, Canada Research Chair of Regional Innovation and author of #IdleNoMore: And the Remaking of Canada. In his book, Coates argues that the basic assertion of #IdleNoMore as aboriginal people engaging with their identity and feeling empowered to be a part of the future of Canada was a success in its own right.

“It’s hard for governments and the public at large,” he adds, “to ignore movements that start off with an assertion that cannot be rejected.”

The Black Lives Matter movement has worked in much the same way. Protestors have found a concept that no sensible person can reject. In this way, when government or policing institutions don’t deny that black lives matter, they at the same time are forced to question why then they continue to over-police and over-criminalize black communities; or why they continue to use poor, black populations as revenue tools; or in Toronto, why they continue to unduly target young black men in carding stops (though the city’s mayor recently vowed to end the practice). If black lives matter, why continue to apply these unjust practises to black communities? With three simple words, the Black Lives Matter movement has exposed the hypocrisies and, thus, has been able to rally for change.

“The protestors won as soon as they started organizing,” explains Coates who says that Black Lives Matter protests have spurred a similar paradigm of revolution to Idle No More, where people were equally as excited about being aboriginal and showing their country that aboriginal people were alive, engaged, vibrant as they were ready to assert their presence. “In the same way, Black Lives Matter is as much a conversation among African Americans as it is with African- Americans and the rest of the American population,” he adds. “And that part is really powerful.”

Arguably, the greatest success of the Black Lives Matter movement is that it has made people excited about being black again—a feeling we haven’t seen since the 1960s in America, or in Canada, ever. One year later, Black Lives Matter is and continues to be a powerful assertion of black identity and confidence whereby black communities, especially young black people, have found their voice, realized the future of their communities lay in their hands, and have demanded public attention in this regard. “Black folks who may have not thought about their lives as something that mattered are now reminded,” says Smith, who adds that when Michael Brown was killed, it opened up a new space for young, black activists who saw their involvement in the movement as an act of necessity. “For me being a part of this movement is about my livelihood. I felt like how can I not be a part of this? Black Lives Matter encompasses all of my lived experience: as a black person, as a woman, as a queer person. For me, Black Lives Matter has been this constant reminder that I do matter.”

Popular media feeds us so much bad news coming out of the black community: our crime rates, our lack of involvement in the economic, social, or political dimensions of the wider (whiter) society. In the face of one of these bad news pieces —the excessive violence and death of black individuals at the hands of police—Black Lives Matter has, in Lauryn Hill’s words, turned a negative into a positive picture. It has reminded black people of the simple notion that we do matter. In just one year, the movement has turned the tragic and violent death of Michael Brown into a sense of shared identity and purpose for millions of black people across America, here at home, and across the world.

I remember that cold, November night biking home from a Black Lives Matter protest feeling like I, my community: we mattered. Many gains have been made by Black Lives Matter, but even if the movement does have a long way to go in reforming policy, transforming the school-to-prison pipeline and creating equal opportunities for black populations across social, economic, and political dimensions, thanks to Black Lives Matter, I know my life matters. More than I did last year. And millions more do too.

I matter. A simple and most powerful revolution. If this is just one year in, the Black Lives Matter revolution has only just begun.

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