SOCIETY :: Black Lives Matter – It was Pride Sunday in Toronto: July 3, 2016. The sun was beating down on hundreds of thousands of people as the largest Canadian Pride Parade in history got underway.
I was worried I’d be late. The morning had come and gone. I got out of bed, laughing at the memories of the night before (I danced and loved the night away at a weekly event I co-ordinate with my partner.) With a phenomenal turnout and an even better time we made memories to last forever, real moments for life. A much needed shower and two Gatorades later, I called my friend who was going to be on the Toronto District School Board float to set a “time and place”. It was her first time in the parade and she really wanted me to snap a photo; I was on a mission.
As I neared Yonge Street, the beginning of the parade was approaching. The crowds were the largest I could ever remember seeing – thousands upon thousands of rainbow flags and water guns and umbrellas and everything else you can think of. It was a sea of rainbows, a technicolour ocean of love.
My friend and I had decided that Yonge and Carlton would be an open enough area for me to catch her in action and I was on my way.
I squeezed through the crowd and managed to secure a spot about four-people-deep from the barricade. Now, I just had to wait and enjoy. I was there for the same reason everybody else was that day and ready for a good time.
But it was hot. It was sticky. It was crammed and packed and feral. None of these aspects were surprising, but none of them were very appealing, either. Not from where I was standing.
How do people stand here all afternoon, I thought to myself.
But we do. We have, and we forever will.
I had never attended the parade by myself but I didn’t feel alone: my LGBTQ family, thousands of them, surrounded me. I received a phone call from a friend watching the parade from his rooftop across the street. I decided that after I snapped the photo, I’d make my way there, underground, and continue watching the rest of the parade with an ice cold beer in hand.
Suddenly, the mood veered from overly excited to curious, restless, and confused.
I could see the Black Lives Matter Toronto truck approaching us in the distance, hundreds of it’s members chanting:
If BQY don’t get it – SHUT IT DOWN!
If Blocko don’t get it – SHUT IT DOWN!
I can still hear it, even find myself chanting it while I’m housecleaning or bathing. Not only was it catchy, it was valid. I knew what they were referring to as soon as I heard it: “Black Queer Youth” and “Blockorama” – but I could tell many people in the crowd had no idea what they meant.
This was an issue in and of itself.
Black Lives Matter Toronto was making it known: if the Black Queer Youth and Blockorama and all other racial minorities and event spaces within Toronto’s LGBTQ community were being overlooked (in terms of visibility and funding – and that’s just the beginning), they were not going to stand for it. They were going to let us know it. Especially as this year’s “Honourary Guests”.
I found myself nodding in agreement with their chants. I’ve talked before online and with friends about how funding has been cut for Queer POC stages and events during Pride Toronto. It isn’t right, and I understand that, but I truly doubt most of the people in the crowd did. This was hopefully about to change.
As Black Lives Matter Toronto approached Yonge and Carlton, they stopped their truck right in front of where I was standing. Literally, right in front of me. I noticed the truck had these gorgeous drawings of people who are no longer with us. People whose lives ended too soon, propped up in remembrance. A lovely acquaintance of mine, Sumaya Dalmar, was one of them. To this day, there are still unanswered questions about her death and our community has mourned her loss very publicly. I’ll never forget her presence at our events, pulling my partner and I aside to thank us for such a fun and inclusive party, telling us that she loved coming to see us.
Seeing Sumaya’s smile in person like that, her name in bold for people to see and say, even if it was just a drawing, tugged at my heart in ways that are hard to express. That emotion, mixed with the chants and the stance Black Lives Matter Toronto was taking in honour of Sumaya and all the others who’ve been marginalized because of the colour of their skin, was very powerful.
That’s when I heard a white man to my right say something I’ve never heard anyone say to anyone, ever: “Move, fucking panthers!” He yelled this at the float.
My eyes literally bulged from their sockets.
I giraffe’d my head over to him and said, “Excuse me!”
He didn’t acknowledge me.
“SIR!” I yelled, and he looked over to me, probably because I addressed him with more respect than he deserved. “This is their parade too, you know! They have every right to be here!”
His girlfriend, holding his hand, a rainbow painted on her cheek, looked at him and whispered something to make him stop whatever it was she thought he was going to do.
“If you have a problem you should leave,” I finished. I turned away, and shook my head.
I pulled out my phone and took a photo of him, in case he wanted to try anything else.
As I focused my attention back to the the parade, a cute girl beside me nudged me on the shoulder. When I looked over, she said, “Good for you!”
I wasn’t looking for any type of acknowledgement for my actions, it was my gut reaction. How dare he.
“Thanks,” I said back to her.
Then I pointed to Sumaya’s portrait and said “You see that beautiful girl, Sumaya, she was my friend.” I said “friend” even though I had only truly spent time with her a handful of times.
Sumaya celebrated inclusivity and approached things with a very passionate, loving way. I admired her outlook on life and remember her very fondly. I wanted to vocalize my appreciation of her, even to a stranger, in light of that man’s ludicrous remark.
“Wow, I’m so sorry. That guy’s a dick,” the stranger said, and she shoved her fist into the sky.
Shortly thereafter, everyone began to notice smoke flowing into the sky, rainbow coloured. The billowing smoke caused worry and tension at first. It was very reminiscent of LGBTQ political protests overseas, where queer people are treated poorly by their governments.
This is when Alexandria Williams, a spokesperson for Black Lives Matter Toronto, was now addressing the crowd about how she – and everyone with her – felt about the exclusivity and anti-black racism within Pride Toronto and the Toronto Police Services.
She relayed fact after fact after fact to the crowd surrounding her.
Just then, an older, lone white woman carrying an umbrella was walking by in the narrow walk-way behind me. She shouted at the top of her lungs, “MOVE THAT TRUCK! MOVE THAT TRUCK”, to which I spun around and replied, “ENOUGH!”
I couldn’t even believe it. What was wrong with this woman, was she not listening?
“This is their Pride too!” I finished.
She looked stunned that I had called her out. There was malice in her voice and I felt it on me as she yelled. I wasn’t standing for this. Not here.
The woman continued walking in the opposite direction. (Days later I had to relive the moment: a bystander caught me on tape and posted it onto YouTube. A friend sent it to me online and I have absolutely no regrets.)
Alexandria Williams stood there in front of thousands of people at that Toronto intersection explained that Queer POC make up the majority of Black Lives Matter Toronto and that they are a part of our gay family, not against it. She made sure to remind us that the victims in Orlando, “the 49” as she relayed, were “Black, Latinx, and Indigenous” and that these are the people they represent. This is who they are.
“We fought for you, we died for you”, she exclaimed.
Alexandria reminded us that the first Pride march in history, at the Stonewall Riots in New York City, 1969, was thanks to a black transgender woman (Marcia P. Johnson) who “threw the first brick for you”. She was there to teach us something.
It was sad to watch how people were already against the Black Lives Matter Toronto movement even before they stopped the truck. Before they opened their mouths. I was witness to that, twice in ten minutes. People, and I’ll say mainly white people, were overzealous and aggravated with this powerful, queer, black woman, and the stance she was taking.
Everything after that gets hazy because of how many things were happening at once. How many people were saying things, negative and positive, about what was unfolding in front of them. Under their breath, to their friends, on the phone, and shouting out.
Black Lives Matter Toronto continued to unroll their activism, however. The crowd began to boo and throw water bottles. I couldn’t understand this. Why were people oppressing them further? Many people started to move around, this way and that, and being claustrophobic I got really uncomfortable standing where I was. I wanted to leave, but when I did I got trapped in a mess of human bodies moving parallel to one another. I found myself in the middle of my family, the whites ones, and the black ones, and everybody in between.
At this point, I just wanted to take that damn picture of my friend and have a cold beer and dance and have a good time. It seemed hopeless. This was where my European/Canadian privilege blinded me.
The next 24 hours were met with harsh disapproval or passionate praise for Black Lives Matter Toronto’s protest. Today Toronto’s LGBTQ community remains separated as opposing opinions have show us the best and worst of people. I have never experienced Pride like that before, but I have never had to stand up for myself because of the colour of my skin; I’ve never had to do it within a community that supposedly accepts me for who I am.
As a white, gay man, this isn’t something I’ll ever know about first-hand. Ever.
The more comments I read, the more anti-black racist remarks I’ve been exposed to, the more I understand that Black Lives Matter Toronto didn’t lead the parade to amuse us – they didn’t bring balloons and clown wigs or rainbow flags and water guns – they brought justice and righteousness to their people (and all marginalized people) at a march that started in protest to begin with.
When I got home that day I rewatched the video I recorded where Black Lives Matter Toronto’s co-founder Janaya Khan addresses the aggressive, booing crowd. It reminded me that my privilege as an Italian-Canadian will never allow me to understand how they feel. I can only empathize and help them make these necessary changes.
Something that will stick with me forever from the protest was when Janaya Khan, who has been active in Toronto’s LGBTQ community for 18 years, lifted the megaphone to their lips in the faces of thousands of booing peers, their judgement evident and loud, and said:
“Your racism is showing”.
*Photo and video by Joey Viola