Why Pride Toronto handled Black Lives Matter badly

By Eternity Martis - Published on July 8, 2016
A woman representing Black Lives Matter addresses people at the 2016 Toronto Pride parade.
People from the Black Lives Matter sit on the ground to halt the annual Pride Parade, in Toronto on Sunday, July 3 (Mark Blinch/CP)

This was the first year I couldn’t attend the Toronto Pride Parade, so I refreshed my Twitter feed constantly to keep up with what was going on as I sulked, bedridden and ill. I swiped through positive, happy tweets until about 3 p.m., when I saw a tweet from a friend’s account saying that Black Lives Matter-Toronto had staged a sit-in and “blocked” the parade from moving.

I didn’t need to see other tweets to know that this would be tomorrow’s news.

Within minutes, all my social media feeds were flooded with accusations that by sitting in the middle of Yonge and College Streets with a list of “demands,” Black Lives Matter was “holding the parade hostage.” I could feel the animosity growing with the explosion of passive-aggressive comments and posts.

By the next morning, Canadian news outlets were weighing in on whether Black Lives Matter’s tactics were intrusive, inconsiderate, and harmful to its own image. One columnist called them “bullies,” suggesting that it’s already enough that Toronto’s police chief, Mark Saunders, is black. Another argued that Black Lives Matter showed disrespect by hijacking Pride, saying that an event for gay rights was not the place to be talking about black rights.

But for many, black and gay rights go together — and that’s exactly the point everyone was missing.

I recently wrote about the politics of being black and loud for a music publication called FADER, where I discussed the link between noise black people make and the public perception that it is threatening and disruptive. Unlike any other group, when black people make noise in public (seen as predominately white spaces), whether it be in music or simply in laughter, they’re viewed as loud, obnoxious, ignorant and dangerous. We saw this in the case of Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old Florida youth killed by Michael Dunn for playing hip-hop music too loudly, and when 10 black women were kicked off a Napa Valley wine tour in 2015 for “laughing too loudly,” even though non-black patrons were doing the same. We recently saw this in Toronto, when Afrofest had its two-day permit restricted for being too loud, although there was no evidence it breached noise levels. 

The same goes for black protest, which has always been viewed as antagonistic, angry, hostile and anti-institutional. When black people assert basic rights — to secure legal recognition, to end segregation, to gain federal protection, to not be killed by police, these simple requests somehow become an inconvenient and militant attack for people who think we’re “complaining.”

This is the same reaction we’ve seen since Sunday. In eight of the nine demands, Black Lives Matter asked for more inclusive hiring of black transgender people, indigenous folks and other vulnerable communities, as well as community support, increased space and more funding for Pride events run by black and brown LGBT communities. Instead, all we could talk about was one of the nine demands: the removal of police floats.

Aside from their police float demand (which should be considered with the knowledge that many black LGBTQ people may feel uncomfortable, or have even had negative experiences, with police), Black Lives Matter is a movement largely built by queer women and for LGBTQ people. Their list of demands was overwhelmingly about the need for Pride to validate, acknowledge, support, fund and create space for black and brown LGBTQ youth and adults and organizations such as Blackness Yes! This is essential, considering LGBTQ people of colour are more at risk of poverty, unemployment and being killed by hate crimes.

These are simple enough demands Pride could have settled on. However, pride organizer Mathieu Chantelois told the Toronto Star that he signed the list to make “the parade move.” Not only does this suggest that Chantelois just wanted to silence the “loudness” and “disruption” that Black Lives Matter was causing his event; it shows a complete lack of respect and disinterest in those essential demands—which are beneficial for future Prides—and reduces Black Lives Matter’s efforts and protest to nothing but noise.

Chantelois’s disrespect for the group did not go unnoticed. On July 6, Pride team lead Jacqie Lucas resigned from her position to stand in solidarity with BLM and to “apologize profusely for the mistreatment, thoughtless and complete disregard which came along with being honoured.”

Ironically, Black Lives Matter was Pride’s “honourary group” this year for their direct action against police brutality. And they were honoured — until they spoke up. Now, they’ve become demonized outcasts. Co-founder Janaya Khan said they’ve received a substantial amount of hate mail and death threats since the parade, some of which has come from white LGBTQ people.

But for what reason? As protesters and activists, they did nothing that any other group wouldn’t do. In fact, they did it just as Pride itself once would have. CBC recently spoke to Gary Kinsman, one of the original organizers of Pride, who said he stood with Black Lives Matter. “The Black Lives Matter contingent carried with it the spirit of Stonewall and the activist roots of Pride,” he said. So how can a group that was acting in the true spirit of Pride, with the blessing of original activists and praise for its commitment to LGBTQ issues, be so utterly villainized? Would it have garnered the same hostility if it was a different group?

We can see this hostility in how the sit-in was sensationalized. It only lasted 25 minutes, which can hardly be called a hostage situation considering that people wait hours in line for brunch or a new pair of Air Jordans. If people were angry about the sit-in, it’s because they felt inconvenienced by something to which they felt no strong emotional, social, historical or existential connection.

That is a sense of entitlement that Black Lives Matter will find no matter where it goes. In predominately white or corporate spaces, the response will always be: How dare you? How dare you stop the parade? How dare you make demands and make us wait? How dare you disrespect us? We made you the honoured guest.

But just because we’re honoured, doesn’t mean we honour silence.

The theme of this year’s Pride was “You Can Sit With Us,” a nod to inclusivity. But perhaps it should have been changed to “You Can Sit With Us...But Only If You’re Quiet.”

Eternity Martis is a Toronto journalist.

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