Brian Amadi freely admits he doesn’t consider himself a community organizer. But as the 22-year old steps up to the microphone at the foot of the Confederation Building on Saturday June 6, he appears calm and in control. It’s an impressive demeanour to maintain as countless moving parts swirl around him: sound technicians, fellow organizers, media negotiating where to set up for the best shots, and a small number of high-ranking police officers who are speaking with him intently.
At twenty minutes before the official start of the Black Lives Matter NL rally, a small crowd has already gathered—no more than fifty individuals—as newcomers stream across the parking lot to the base of the steps. My first reaction is uncertainty. Talking with friends the night before about attending the protest, the common refrain seemed to be a lingering anxiety over COVID-19 risks. There’s a concern the pandemic would keep people away.
“I’m actually very grateful for everyone for coming out today,” Amadi tells the Independent. “We saw the invites and how many people said they were going to come here, but we didn’t expect this much turnout, because we had so much resistance in setting this up.”
“We just started last week,” he continues. “I feel like this is the beginning of something.”
As they finish setting up, organizers lay out the ground-rules for the assembling crowd. They explain that their aim today is to work with local law enforcement in ensuring that any risk to public health is mitigated. From a makeshift medical station near the steps, they distribute face-masks to those without them, encourage everyone to distance as best they can, and remind the growing crowd not to leave any garbage behind.
Organizers lead bullhorn chants and the crowd gladly follows suit. They echo the deep frustration of the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ as passing cars lend their blaring horns in support of all assembled. The higher-up police are gone now, but on the outskirts of the parking lot two mounted officers watch from atop their horses, waving to passers-by.
Most in attendance are wearing masks when they arrive, many of them holding homemade signs showing slogans of support. It doesn’t appear as if anyone has come out today for a riot. In accordance with the organizers’ wishes, there is a decidedly non-confrontational air to the protest—though someone has planted a single ‘ACAB’ sign at the feet of John Cabot’s statue.
It’s been two weeks since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police, the latest in a long history of police brutality against Black American citizens. In the days following his murder, the 46-year-old’s name has become synonymous with the frustration, anger, and exhaustion of protesters in cities across the world. St. John’s is no exception.
The protesters here are mostly young, in their 20s and 30s, and there are children here and there carrying homemade signs alongside their parents. A handful of religious leaders, priests of different denominations, stand near Townie skateboarders holding decorated decks high above their heads. An old white woman sits by the stage with ‘BLM’ hand-written across her jumper. In her hand she holds a small plastic figurine of former US president Barack Obama.
The entire parking lot has rapidly filled up, a veritable sea of signs, masks, and supporters. There could be nearly a thousand people here.
Speakers of all ages take turns stepping up to the microphone to share their experiences with racism in Newfoundland. Some offer advice for white Newfoundlanders on how to better understand ideas of race and supremacy, while others address the Black members of the crowd and encouraged them to keep fighting. It’s clear that everyone here knows enough is enough, that they are all tired of being tired.
“As we adjust to the reality of COVID-19, we are assaulted with the ongoing reminder of anti-Black, racist police violence,” organizer Precious M. Familusi told the crowd.
This violence doesn’t just occur elsewhere, Familusi went on to say. He cited numerous examples of police brutality in Canada, as well as issues of race here in Newfoundland.
“In 2019 CBC News published a story of a student who was constantly bullied, who was constantly harassed, who was called the N-word,” Familusi continues. “We have stories of Black children being racially stereotyped, having the RNC called to discipline a child, student being racially targeted in post-secondary institutions, and employees passed over for promotions or not hired because of the colour of their skin.”
Navel Sarr, who organizes the province’s only African music festival, recognizes Canada’s bilingual languages and addresses the crowd in French: “We don’t have the medication for coronavirus, but we have the medication for racism.”
Dr. Paul Adjei shares accounts of the racism he’s experienced locally over the years—vile words and people crossing the street to get away from him. Long before COVID-19, he says, social distancing based on race has existed in St. John’s.
Many of the stories shared are different than those we’ve been hearing out of American cities, which often centre on the sheer brutality of policing. Rather, these are accounts of the culturally-entrenched prejudices within our own city and province.
That’s not to say that Canada or Newfoundland doesn’t have a sordid history of policing. But the aim of the organizers seems to be to push back against the stereotypes of angry Black people, and instead work to show white Newfoundlanders that not only does racism exist, but how to combat it. By opening a racial dialogue and encouraging people to not feel attacked when their racist behaviour is called out, they might instead take their discomfort as a learning opportunity.
“The huge part of the problem is that people are not aware of actions they take that continue this systemic racism, right?” Amadi explains to the Independent. “And now this event here has provided an opportunity for people to learn, or for people to socialize into that idea.”
“If you read the works of Dr. Robin DiAngelo, she explains that racism as an issue is not actively being talked about among white people, because white people don’t see themselves as an actual race—white people don’t organize themselves as a community by the colour of their skin,” he continued. “Of course they have a community, but they don’t base it on the colour of their skin. Everyone belongs to a race and it really doesn’t matter, because what should matter is the content of your heart, and the content of your mind, and your ability to add to society.”
“Realizing that is going to be really powerful, and if we can continue to support like what happened here today, I feel like Newfoundland might lead the equality issue.“
Another speaker, Nuna Toweh, takes the stage and address people of colour in the crowd, telling them that they need to speak up if they want to be heard.
“Change only happens when you speak up.”
There are powerful moments, long silences and sore knees which make you feel the weight of eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Raised fists of solidarity punctuate chants: whose streets? our streets!; no justice, no peace; we can’t breathe; Black Lives Matter.
Khadeja Anderson delivers an impassioned closing speech about how the lives of Black youth are often cut tragically short, and about how the lived experiences between the Black and white members of our community are starkly different.
“To listen, you need to be quiet first.”
She addresses an online comment the group received claiming that there are no actual Black residents in Newfoundland.
“I am here,” she declared. “We are here, and we’re not going anywhere.”
There are those in the crowd before them that have been in this fight for decades. But there are many more who are new to the struggle—whether they’re simply coming of age within it, or newly opening their eyes to it.
As the rally wound down, protesters dispersed peacefully with the help of police cruisers holding up traffic. The Independent caught up again with Anderson to ask how it felt as a young Black woman to have her voice heard in front of so many people. There was no hesitation.
“Cathartic,” she said.
Photos by Jessie Evans.
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