Black Lives Matter Held Pride Accountable—and Toronto Should Too
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Black Lives Matter Held Pride Accountable—and Toronto Should Too

It's up to allies to tell Pride Toronto how they really feel about police presence.

As sweaty and heterosexual Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood in the Sunday heat and stone-faced Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne avoided looking at a rooftop banner calling out her lack of action in striking down HIV criminalization, Black Lives Matter Toronto taught the city a lesson for 30 minutes.

LGBTQ Black activists and their allies educated onlookers and fellow marchers on ways Pride Toronto has failed the many communities it represents. They did not budge until Pride Toronto executive director Mathieu Chantelois signed a list of nine demands. One demand called for a ban on police floats and booths, which would remove an official police presence but not bar officers from patrolling the parade or attending in a non-representing capacity.

Chantelois has since said he has no intention to actually follow through with the demands, telling the Toronto Star that he only signed it to make the parade move.

The half-hour pause in Pride has incited social media outrage against BLMTO, who were chosen by Pride Toronto to be its honoured group this year. Instead of commending the social progress advocated by the grassroots group’s demands for Black deaf and hearing American Sign Language interpreters or the re-inclusion of a South Asian stage, many have accused BLMTO of being exclusionary bullies.

People decried the racialized organizers for asking that the armed police in uniform—who have been documented for battering and killing many people of colour for unjustifiable reasons—excuse themselves from an event they would historically suppress with violent assault. One officer called the cop march ban “discriminatory.”

Others, including LGBTQ locals, said that a sit-in at Pride was not the right time or place. It was a reminder that many have forgotten what the 1981 bathhouse raids and subsequent Pride marches were about. Or maybe LGBTQ locals think it’s fine for queers to protest the police, but only if they’re white.

I won’t get into why BLMTO stopped marching. Many have already explained why it was important for the sit-in to be an inconvenience. It’s impossible to deny the tactical brilliance behind a peaceful civil act that makes multiple politicians and powerful corporations stop dead in their tracks. When else has the head of anyone’s country been physically immobilized by a movement led by Black queer and trans locals? The usual run-arounds, email chains, and responsibility ducking that executives do when faced with large-scale organizational reform is impossible in a standstill watched by hundreds of thousands.

Instead of revealing any fault in BLMTO, the sit-in and its aftermath has revealed a major flaw in LGBTQ communities: alliance with Black lives ends when respectability takes precedent.

Many who claim to be allies say they don’t support the group’s tactics. They are failing to recognize BLMTO’s strides for truly intersectional community-building.

The group already has a track record for stepping in and addressing intersectional woes when others won’t. Last July, Andrew Loku was shot by police in his own home. The father of five and former child soldier lived in community housing that supported those with mental health struggles. No corporate or grassroots mental illness initiative sought justice after his death—but BLMTO did. None took action when it was decided no charges would be laid against the unnamed officer who shot and killed Loku; BLMTO did that too. Mentally ill and mad Black lives were not the focus of any corporate mental health awareness campaigns (Bell, let’s talk about that next year). BLMTO made sure to hand out flyers stating its support for those lives specifically at a vigil held for Loku.

The Toronto Police Service is an institution that wields power legitimized by law and societal perception. With Loku’s death, along with many others, police power is made even more apparent when cops march in Pride alongside those who live in fear of them every day.

Our identities are not singular: many of us who marched on Sunday could not have cared less about the half-hour delay. We did care about the implied threat that lingers whenever we are flanked by cops on patrol or stand near cops in close range. Our violent, harassing, and demeaning encounters with police officers in the past have endangered us far more than those in our communities who are unarmed and questioning authority.

If police continue to murder and disproportionately target Black individuals, which include Black queer and trans people, allies must do their part to support BLMTO. As Pride Toronto gauges public reaction, allies must make clear, with their bodies and voices, that they aren’t happy with how complacent the organization has become with police cooperation.

Chantelois has said that approving BLMTO’s demands will be up to Pride Toronto’s membership, which is open for the public to join, either by volunteering or donating $10. Once accepted, Pride Toronto members will be able to take part in decision-making and discussions that Chantelois says he and the executives can’t do alone. If allies hope to stand with BLMTO, becoming or educating Pride Toronto members about why the demands are important could be crucial in making sure the police ban passes.

But it’s still not a surefire solution. BLMTO organizer Janaya Khan has told CP24 that there was “never a community consensus” about police marching in Pride in the first place.

Alliance takes many forms. It can be financial, or through other active contributions to the movement that can be made year-round. Organizing is labour, with many facets unpaid or undervalued. This includes when BLMTO members take unpaid time to teach those on social media about Black issues, host workshops, handle logistics, make spaces accessible for those who are deaf and/or have disabilities, and feed and clothe their community members.

Being an ally also means recognizing when queer and trans Blackness isn’t consumable entertainment. The same parade BLMTO halted had an Orange Is The New Black float, which was met with loud cheers from adoring fans. An actress on the float depicted a character in the show that died in circumstances similar to several murders Black Lives Matter has protested against in the U.S.

Does alliance mean believing everyone and everything involved with BLMTO is perfect? No. Anyone is capable of hurting others. No collective is perfect because they’re made up of fallible human beings. But criticism from even well-meaning allies does more harm than good when peering from the outside in. It’s nowhere near as valuable as the valid concerns held by those who are actually Black. Those in organizing capacities need to continually be held accountable by their own communities for what they do for their most marginalized, not by those who are not directly affected.

Standing with groups like BLMTO, should not end when the parade is over and the Facebook threads simmer down. When it matters most, Toronto can make it clear to Pride Toronto and other LGBTQ organizations that Black lives matter to everyone.