Image courtesy: Fatin Chowdry

300 HOURS: What I learned about Black Queer and Trans Liberation at BLMTO Tent City by Gloria Swain

Image courtesy: Fatin ChowdryImage courtesy: Fatin Chowdhury

Part of Special Issue #1 – QTBIPOC Space – Remapping Belonging in Toronto

Author: Gloria Swain

I am an elder Black woman who is cisgender – meaning I identify with the gender I was assigned at birth. I am also a performer, an artist, and a mother. At the time of writing, Black Lives Matter is a global cultural movement in response to anti-Black police violence in many cities. It is also important to note that it is an intersectional movement that has Black queer and trans leadership at its heart. In Toronto, Black queer and trans activists of Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) received a flood of racist backlash after their sit-in that halted the 2016 Toronto Pride Parade, where they demanded increased accessibility and anti-racism in the Pride Toronto festival. In the midst of this, I believe it is important to share what I learned at BLMTO Tent City, a 300 hour protest that happened three months before the more famous Pride sit-in. At this momentous occupation, I expanded my understanding of police brutality, systematic racism, occupying public spaces, and the importance of allyship with Black queer and trans communities. In essence, Tent City showed me that BLMTO is redefining what Black, LGBT and intersectional activism looks like.

In March 2016, BLMTO organizers transformed the Toronto Police headquarters at 40 College Street into a community space for hundreds of Black people, Indigenous people, homeless people and allies. The occupation included an incredibly advanced system of distributing food and supplies, and ongoing cultural events for over 15 days. The main organizers of BLMTO 1 are committed to Black liberation, transformative justice, and Indigenous sovereignty, as well as Black queer and trans liberation. The community presence, leadership, chants, and art/cultural content of the occupation was unapologetically both Black and queer.

BLMTO had called for the Tent City occupation in response to various anti-Black crises occurring in Toronto at the time. This included the Special Investigation Unit’s (SIU) unjust verdict on the shooting death of Andrew Loku 2, which was released on March 19, 2016. This SIU verdict decided to not charge the police officers responsible for murdering Andrew Loku or release the names of the officers responsible. BLMTO -which had called a day of action for Andrew Loku the year before, involving a shut-down of the Allen Expressway- responded to this verdict with a call for BLMTO Tent City. Andrew Loku’s death, however, was only one of the reasons that the Tent City occupation was declared. Members of the Black community were also protesting the death of Jermaine Carby, a 33-year-old man who was killed in Peel by Police, Alex Wettlaufer, a 21-year-old male also killed by police, and the reduction of the city’s Black cultural festival Afrofest from two days to one (a permit decision that was eventually reversed). The BLMTO Tent City occupation was also a response to cultures of anti-Black racism, and to the mass incarceration of Black and Indigenous people more broadly. The protest began with a demonstration at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square, and was relocated to Police Headquarters, where it stayed for 15 days. The public demands at tent city included:

  • Release of the name(s) of the officer(s) who killed Andrew Loku;
  • Charges laid against the officers who killed Loku;
  • Public release of any video footage from the apartment complex where Loku died;
  • Adoption of the African Canadian Legal Clinic’s demand for a coroner’s inquest into Loku’s death;
  • Overhaul of the Special Investigations Unit in consultation with families of victims of police violence, black community and community at large;
  • Commitment to eliminating carding, including deleting all previously recorded data, reframed regulations, consistent implementation of policy among various police boards, and concrete disciplinary measures for officers who continue to card; and
  • Immediate release of the name(s) of the officer who killed Alex Wettlaufer, and charges to be laid accordingly.

The Tent City protest was largely peaceful. However, on its first day, March 21st (ironically, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination), Toronto police officers attacked the peaceful camp-out 3. When I heard about this the following day, I was so moved by what was happening that I joined the front line of protesters. As a Black cisgender woman with an understanding of oppression and  discrimination, I was committed to allyship with this new Black anti-racism movement. I didn’t expect, however, the level of learning that I would experience while working with the Black queer and trans people on the front lines. In the words of Janaya Khan, who is a Black, queer, gender-nonconforming activist and a co-founder of BLMTO: “Black Lives Matter is a movement deeply invested in a Black Trans feminist politic that centralizes the experiences of Black cis and trans women, who are queer, who are disabled and who live in poverty, and a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society” (BLM forthcoming) 4While on the front lines of the Tent City occupation, I witnessed the ways that BLMTO centralizes Black people who are queer, disabled, poor, Deaf or hard of hearing, while building capacity and leadership in these communities.

I believe that BLMTO has become Toronto’s most effective LGBT movement because it is an example of intersectional activism at its best. At the occupation, contingents of diverse allies stood in solidarity, including folks with disabilities, as well as Deaf, Muslim, Sikh and Tamil communities, and Indigenous people who offered prayers during the demonstration. The solidarity that arose from Tent City was heart-warming, radical and highly organized. Supporters supplied three hot meals a day, and healing and acupressure was offered on site. Drummers, dancers, singers, artists, and musicians brought life to the space as well. Despite the large-scale action, BLMTO was ignored by the media and public figures for almost 10 days. 5  

I have always aimed to treat people with respect, and I had believed that I was a good ally. But the BLMTO Tent City action took me on a steep learning curve. At Tent City, I learned that overcoming racism and gender violence against Black queer and trans people will require an intersectional approach. As a committed ally to the trans and LGBTQ community, I will continue to do my part to support my trans sisters and brothers; and to educate other cis people to:

  • Always use proper pronouns (if unsure, ask)
  • Ask questions, if not sure of something
  • Be an advocate but don’t overstep your position as an ally
  • Apologize when a screw-up happens
  • Help raise awareness about violence within and against trans communities
  • Always understand Black liberation and queer and trans liberation are linked

My transformative experience with BLMTO Tent City ended on April 4th 2016, when a brunch was served to protesters, allies and homeless people as part of the occupation’s closing ceremony. A reminder was left behind by BLMTO in the form of a ‪banner, with bold white lettering that read: ‘You are on notice. We are not finished. Countdown: 300 hours.’ Indeed, BLMTO isn’t finished. They continue to fight for Black liberation in Toronto. Furthermore they continue to demonstrate that Black queer and trans liberation movements are one and the same. The BLMTO Tent City occupation was a process of decolonization. As Tiffany King says, racism really has f— us up in our core and made us relentless about seeking out and making alternatives possible. That is exactly what the BLMTO movement is doing by demanding justice for Black people, with Black queer and trans people and liberation at the movement’s heart. It has been an honour to be a part of Black Lives Matter as an elder, and to support a new generation of Black queer and trans leadership in doing this unapologetically Black and queer work.


Fatin Chowdhury, Black Lives Matter – Tent City, Digital Photography, 2016
Check out Archiving the Unarchivable for full description of this photography project and other art pieces in the blog issue!

Notes:

  1. Including Yusra K. Ali, Alexandria Symone, Janaya Khan, LeRoi Newbold and Sandy Hudson
  2. Loku had been shot and killed on July 4, 2015 after Toronto police were called because of a disturbance. Loku suffered from mental illness and had approached the armed officers with only a hammer. He was killed by gunfire from the police after a brief verbal exchange. He was forty-five years old and had lived through 16 years of civil war in South Sudan, spending time in a refugee camp before coming to Canada to attend college and build a new life.
  3. Black children, men, women, and Black queer and trans people were shoved, punched, and knocked to the ground by police. Tents were removed, personal items were broken and/or removed, and a barrel of fire that was being used for warmth was extinguished by police with an unknown toxic waste.
  4. Black Lives Matter Toronto (forthcoming), Teach-in, in J. Haritaworn, G. Moussa, R. Rodriguez and S. M. Ware (eds.), Marvellous Grounds (working title).
  5. On the night of March 31 BLMTO visited Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s home and left flowers, cheese and a tent in response to Wynne’s silence. The police arrived to investigate the items left on her property. This was the start of BLMTO’s media coverage. On April 1, BLMTO interrupted a city Council meeting to present Mayor John Tory with the SIU report and BLMTO demands that he said he hadn’t had the time to read. Police monitored the entire occupation from cruisers parked across the street, yet during this time, Police Chief Mark Saunders never made any attempt to come out and speak with the organizers. Premier Kathleen Wynne finally made an appearance to start dialogue with the movement on the last day of the protest.