On Sunday, Toronto Pride celebrated in style. The first Pride Parade to include the Canadian Prime Minister, there was much to be happy about – the previous year has been a significant year as walls fall down across the United States, with more and more states writing marriage equality into law in light of the Supreme Court decision that ruled laws prohibiting same-sex marriage were unconstitutional.
But then Toronto Pride was interrupted by a group of protesters from the Black Lives Matter chapter in Toronto. Having been invited as honoured guests to walk at the front of the parade, they staged a sit-in. After presenting several demands, which included the removal of all police presence at future Pride parades, they refused to move until Pride Toronto’s ED, Matt Chantelois signed his name and agreed to the demands. In all, the Parade was held up for about 25 minutes.
My initial reaction, was one of frustration. As a white, straight male, I recognized my privilege, but I didn’t understand why the group had to stage a sit-in and interrupt the event, holding it hostage. In my original comments, written as a Facebook post shortly after the event I said, “…it seems that the best way to have a ‘conversation’ is not to hold a community celebration hostage for the purpose of extracting concessions through demands.” What followed was a flurry of comments, some made by one of my NDP friends, followed by other friends who I respect greatly. They were upset with the way I’d shared my concerns, as they felt like comments like these perpetuate the problem – unless the marginalized actually stand up and fight for their rights, they won’t be heard, and we won’t get anywhere. Another friend, who is not a part of the LGBTQ community or the Black community further commented with respect to her disability. She said,
I took into account these words, and the next morning on July 4, when I was on the Eric Drozd Show on 570News, I was asked about the actions of Black Lives Matter, on the Opposing Views Panel. The audio of the show isn’t up yet, but the gist of my comments were that while I very much disagreed with the tactics, it was important to recognize that many folks in marginalized communities, particularly people of colour, have long been pushed to the sidelines. Further, it is important to recognize that the actions of BLM come because there remains deep and entrenched cultural discrimination against people of colour. So while we talk about tactics, it is important to remember that these are real issues for real people, living real lives.
That night, as I sat on my balcony with a beer and thought about the emotion I’d invested into the topic, something felt off. I thought back to Martin Luther King Jr., to my admiration for a man who knew what justice for the Black man was, and he set out to make it happen, no matter what others thought, through peaceful means, often using civil disobedience as a tactic for being heard. He didn’t have to organize the March on Birmingham, but he did. He didn’t have to March to Washington, making it uncomfortable for whites along the way, but he did. The statement Rosa Parks made when she refused to sit at the back of the bus was likewise not a polite statement; she refused to obey a law that stated that a black person had to give up their seat on the bus for a white person. The law, inherently racist, was unjust, and so, as Parks puts it, she was “tired of giving in.”
I went back and read some of the pieces that were posted to my wall, some of the comments that I’d read from people of colour and from their allies. And as I thought about them more, as I look back at history, I recognize the ways that the Black person in particular has had to fight for recognition of even the most basic of rights, rights that I have always enjoyed simply by virtue of being white and male.
And so I began to recognize the sit-in, and the symbolism of staging such a sit-in at Toronto Pride, which itself developed as a protest after the Toronto Bath House Raids of 1981. The sit-in was intended to be uncomfortable, it was intended to shake up the media cycle. It was intended to make noise and to grab attention. We’re now talking more about BLM and the role that they’re playing in advancing the rights of Black people in Canada.
Rights for the marginalized and the oppressed have never come easy; the status quo is just too comfortable, too laid back, too good for those who benefit the most from it. And it’s never easy to recognize that yes, these marginalized groupings of people deserve to be afforded the same rights and opportunities as the rest of us, and then to actually put it into practice.
And so, as Black Lives Matter continues to disrupt the status quo, I’m going to try to first listen, and then react. There will be times we disagree but when that happens, it’s up to me to figure out whether I’m disagreeing because I’m missing the point, or if I’m disagreeing for a good reason.
As I sat on my chair on the porch that night, I realized that if I’d been alive and living in Montgomery, AL in 1955, a 34-year-old, white, straight man, I might have said the very same things about Rosa Park’s bus ride as I said about the Black Lives Matter sit-in.
And that’s when I knew I was wrong.
There’s nothing else to say but I’m sorry.