Why Black Lives Matter is Toronto’s most effective LGBT movement

Queer and trans people at forefront of a grassroots success story

On the afternoon of April 1 at Toronto City Hall, council waded through a number of member motions.

After 31 of these — most concerning uncontroversial property issues in specific wards — came and went, a motion sponsored by councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam, Mike Layton and Gord Perks came up. It asked city council to urge the provincial government to re-examine the Special Investigations Unit — which deals with police misconduct in Ontario — through an anti-racist lens. There was no debate. The motion passed unanimously with five abstentions. Mayor John Tory voted in favour.

In the lecture-theatre style seating of the council chamber, dozens of activists from Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) stood up and unfurled arm-length sheets of paper. On them were written the summary of the SIU report on the death of Andrew Loku, a 45-year-old Sudanese immigrant who was killed by a Toronto police officer. The full report is not public. On March 22, Mayor John Tory stated that he had yet to read this summary.

“This is the SIU report that Mayor John Tory was too busy to read,” shouted Jayana Khan, one of the co-founders of BLMTO.

It’s unlikely Loku ever stepped inside City Hall while he was alive. But details of his death, however sanitized, were written in bold type for everyone in the council chamber to see.

Council was recessed and the protesters were asked to leave, which they did, continuing the chanting throughout City Hall. But Tory was the first to exit the chamber.

The success that BLMTO has had over the past two months has been astonishing. Since the two-week occupation of the plaza outside of Toronto Police Headquarters, dubbed #BLMTOtentcity, BLMTO’s protests and actions have kept the shooting death of Andrew Loku by an unnamed Toronto cop in the news, and they’ve produced a number of tangible results.

Afrofest, which had been reduced to a one-day festival after noise complaints, is back to its original two-day schedule. Toronto city council passed the motion to review the SIU. BLMTO activists briefly met with Premier Kathleen Wynne on the lawn of Queen’s Park, and came away with a promise that she would meet with them again. Wynne has since pledged to release the information contained in the SIU report, something that hasn’t been done since the agency was formed in 1990. Tory has acquiesced to a public meeting with BLMTO, after months of insisting on a private meeting. The group appears to have the support of the broader city, with a recent poll showing that 55 percent of Torontonians approve of their aims.


But most importantly, regional supervising coroner James Edwards announced a public inquest into Loku’s killing. He said that pressure from BLMTO and other groups was responsible. The identity of Loku’s killer will likely be revealed during the inquest.

Protest movements are rarely able to get these kinds of varied results and obtain them so quickly. But despite their successes, BLMTO still must contend with a police force that isn’t willing to acknowledge the reality of systemic racism, a mayor who doesn’t believe white privilege exists, and a press corps that finds it easier to pick apart a hyperbolic tweet than a politician’s racist remarks.

Even in the face of that adversity, BLMTO may be the most effective LGBT-led protest movement in Toronto today.

At a BLMTO protest on College Street, hundreds of people had gathered to support #BLMTOtentcity.

An indigenous man stood on a statue dedicated to the Toronto Police Service, waving a purple and white Haudenosaunee flag. Near the back, someone held up a sign with the words of Audre Lorde, the black and queer poet.

“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives,” it read.

In many ways, the quote captures the way that BLMTO has been operating. The group, like many other Black Lives Matter chapters, is organized mostly by queer and trans people, and most of them are women.

Queer and trans black people have often been at the forefront of black and LGBT liberation movements. But their contributions and accomplishments are often pushed to the side in media reports and popular culture.

In the 2015 film Stonewall, the leadership of the black trans women — like Marsha P Johnson and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, who had led the 1969 uprising — was erased and replaced with a fictional white, cisgender male protagonist. Though many protest movements have been spearheaded by women, male leaders are often the ones recognized and remembered. And the concerns of queer, trans, deaf, disabled, sex-working and undocumented people are often seen as secondary to many movements and are willingly sacrificed in the name of progress.

But that sort of intersectional approach is central to the work that BLMTO has been doing.

Alexandria Williams, a BLMTO co-founder, stood in front of crowd, revving them up and leading them in chants. Wearing a #blacklivesmatter shirt and round sunglasses reflecting the image of the crowd in front of her, Williams roused the protesters with her commanding voice.

“Now when we say black lives, we mean all black lives. All black lives. Queer black lives. Trans black lives. Disabled black lives. African black lives,” she declared.

The crowd responded back resoundingly with a chant of “all black lives.”

Later that evening, the weather had cooled off and the crowd had thinned. But dozens of people, mostly black, crowded around a flatbed truck parked next to the sidewalk. From it, Janaya Khan, another BLMTO co-founder, addressed the group through a loudspeaker.

“When Sandra Bland was killed,” said Khan, “we started to talk about gender. And what it meant to be brutalized by police with an intersectional identity.

“It wasn’t just about being black. It was about being black and queer. It was about being black and trans. It was about being queer and black and trans and disabled. And we began to add more of those intersections. And suddenly the movement was including people who have been ignored from day one, even though we were the ones bolstering the movements as we know them.”

Khan, who is queer and gender non-conforming, told Daily Xtra that this approach is essential for BLMTO.

“We really want everyone to understand that this is a plural movement, that blackness is also plural,” they said. “And taking an intersectional approach also allows for other people to find themselves in a Black Lives Matter movement.”

Khan said that this sort of solidarity works both ways, crediting sex workers for being one of the first groups to reach out and support BLMTO.

“When you’re doing something that requires rapid response, like an occupation, you require cash on-hand and fairly large sums of it,” they said. “And it’s been sex-working economies that have really responded with a rapidness and an urgency, because they also know what it’s like to feel criminalized by the police.”

Khan said that it’s essential to state that black sex workers lives matter.

“It’s literally all of us, or none of us, and that’s the stance we want to take,” they said. “What we’re doing is bringing to light often people who are left out or identities who are marginalized who often don’t get to centre stage.”

And BLMTO has taken this sort of solidarity seriously. In the wake of mass suicide attempts in Attawapiskat First Nation, members of Idle No More and BLMTO occupied the Toronto office of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, demanding immediate action from the federal government.

While #BLMTOtentcity was up, Williams told Daily Xtra that indigenous communities have been in support of the initiative since the very beginning

“Indigenous people have been here as long as we have,” she said. “Understanding that our two fights are symbiotic, we can’t talk about one without talking about the other and how they’ve been intrinsically intertwined in the process of colonization.”

But while many of the organizers of BLMTO are queer or trans, there has been less visible support from the rest of Toronto’s LGBT community at BLMTO protests.

The rallies were studded with signs from various groups declaring solidarity with BLMTO. At the March 26 rally at #BLMTOtentcity, along with indigenous people, there were signs declaring Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Asians, Palestinians, socialists and a variety of unions in solidarity with BLMTO. But there were no rainbow flags visible, or any signs declaring LGBT people in solidarity.

Pride Toronto, which selected BLMTO to be this year’s honoured group during Pride Month, signed a statement of solidarity and came by with supplies in the first week of #BLMTOtentcity.

When asked if Toronto’s large LGBT organizations had come out in solidarity, Williams told Daily Xtra the support had been equivocal.

“We did have Pride come through, check out the space, ask us what we need, but there’s no public solidarity with these groups,” she said. “And especially with us, we’re led by queer women, women and trans folk. We’re repping that community so hard. Me myself and with my identity, it’s one of those things that is so important to me, because that’s my community.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that there was no support from queer and trans people.

Jasbina Justice was there. In November 2015, Justice, who is black and South Asian, was pushing for more support for trans, intersex and non-binary people at University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus. They were at #BLMTOtentcity demanding that the Toronto Police recognize that black lives matter.

“I really want people to know that black folks, black femmes, queer black folks, trans black folks, intersex black folks have been leading this movement,” they told Daily Xtra.

Lali Mohamed was there. During last year’s Trans Day of Remembrance ceremonies at City Hall, Mohamed, a queer Somali man, spoke about his friend Sumaya Ysl, a trans Somali woman who died last February.

“Two-hundred-and-twenty-one days ago, we got a phone call that Sumaya was dead,” he said then. “And since then, absolutely nothing has been done by the Toronto Police Services to figure out what has happened to our friend.”

“When we organized her memorial although, there was such a deep sense of loss in the room. It was also the first time that the largest gay community centre in the country saw so many black people in that room.”

Mohamed was in the council chamber again during the April 1 meeting, fighting for the police to acknowledge that black lives, like Ysl’s, matter.

Black people who are also queer or trans are subjected to more danger, violence and criticism because of their multiple identities.

Black people in Toronto are subjected to a disproportionate amount of police scrutiny and violence. Numerous investigations have demonstrated that carding, the practice of police stopping and documenting people without cause, disproportionately affects black people. And for black people, these kinds of interactions can be fatal. Around half of the people killed by Toronto police since the late 1980s have been black. The number of black Canadians in jails and prisons has risen drastically in the past decade.

Many of those people are also queer or trans.

And black people are also more likely to be disproportionately affected by issues that are traditionally seen as LGBT.

Black trans women are subjected to violence at extraordinary rates. There are indications that racist dating practices amongst the rest of the population leads to a higher rate of HIV among queer black men, who are more likely to use protection than everyone else.

The Canadian Blood Service doesn’t just ban blood donations from men who sleep with men, but also people from African countries, such as Togo and Cameroon.

Queer black refugees are often deported back to countries where they are in danger of homophobic violence.

All of this indicates a greater need amongst LGBT organizations to address the specific needs of black LGBT people, and to act in solidarity with black liberation movements more generally.

Through their support of indigenous protesters and initiatives like Take Back the Night, BLMTO has demonstrated that sort of solidarity will be reflected back.

In many ways, the rhetoric of the Black Lives Matter movement resembles that of the AIDS movement a generation ago; not just a fight for human rights, but a fight for life itself.

Thirty-five years after the bathhouse raids and uprising, queer and trans people are still being brutalized by the police and the broader state. They just also happen to be disproportionately black.

Jasbina Justice was there the night the police raided #BLMTOtentcity, a day after the encampment had been set up.

Protesters had put up tents and had a contained fire in a barrel. Police officers came to take down the tents and put out the fire. The protesters refused to move. The police started pushing people and dragging them away. Williams and Justice both say that police turned violent.

“If they were so concerned about burning, they nearly threw a few people into the fire,” Justice said. “There were children. There were disabled folks.”

Justice said that they saw people vomiting and people being hit. They said that they themselves were punched.

And then they saw an officer in front of them with his hand on his side, gripping his holstered firearm.

“I had to talk down a cop, I don’t have formal training to do that, but I actually had to basically be like, sir, we need to calm down, we need to calm down, and his hand left his gun slowly,” they said.

“I’m 5’6, maybe 150 pounds, and they looked terrified of me,” Justice said. “The hardest thing is looking into a police officer’s eyes and realizing they don’t see me as a human being.”

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