What Black Lives Matter Taught Me About Protesting

Freedom fighting doesn’t happen by some twist of fate. It's a spark lit by daily indignities and humiliations

A crowd of protestors marches toward camera, carrying Black Lives Matter signs.
Jeff Bierk/Photo courtesy of Black Lives Matter Toronto

When someone asks me how I came to be an organizer, I am unable to articulate the precise moment that something fell off the shelf for me. It could have been being called a nigger, on the 63 Ossington bus, on my way home one day. It could have been the daily indignities of growing up in public housing. Or having immigrant parents who struggled to make sense of the constant precariousness of our lives. Or going through the system of group homes, women’s shelters, and foster care throughout Toronto. It could have been the increase in police interactions I experienced as a disenfranchised Black youth. Or an educational system that failed me in many ways, that connected me to both terrible teachers and amazing educators who gave me a glimpse into what learning and life could really be about. It could have been one, all, or none of these things that led me on the path to protest, but that I am here and will be for the rest of my life, I have no doubt.

I certainly never saw myself becoming an organizer—partly because, before my early twenties, I had no idea the role existed and partly because, if you had told me that fighting for change was something one could do, I wouldn’t have thought I was special enough to do it. I think there are some people who believe themselves to be special, or who are believed to be special, because they are remarkably smart, or beautiful, or tall, or tenacious, or whatever else we value in society. I had just enough of these qualities to get by, minus the height (which, through Prince, I am at peace with), but would never have thought myself special enough to fight for something massive, like changing societies and the conditions within them.

The thing is, for myself and many of us, organizing begins less as a choice and more as a compulsion—a compulsion informed by injustice, grief, rage, indignity, or most importantly, love. The need to do something, anything, because doing nothing is not an option—this is what everyone who does social justice work has in common. The work to focus and hone that grief, hurt, rage, or love into action starts a journey that can lead to organizing. And, while fighting for systemic changes you may not live to see can be one of the most difficult life paths, it is also one of the most rewarding.

Black Lives Matter Toronto, the first chapter of the Black Lives Matter Global Network outside of the United States, became my first real movement home. In 2014, Sandy Hudson put out a post on Facebook to organize an action around the murder of eighteen-year-old Mike Brown and subsequent nonindictment of then police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. This was the first time I had been in a room full of Black millennials with the purpose of organizing our own protest.

“While fighting for systemic changes you may not live to see can be one of the most difficult life paths, it is also one of the most rewarding.”

Though we didn’t know one another very well, we all understood that we had to steer the momentum of Black Lives Matter and the outrage over Mike Brown in the United States and connect it to local issues. Carding, the legal practice of police racially profiling random people whose names are then entered into a database, was devastating Black communities across Ontario. The practice was directly connected to the recent murder of thirty-three-year-old Jermaine Carby, a Black man who was killed by police in a suburb of Toronto only minutes after leaving his home. Neither the media nor the general public seemed to understand the connection between police brutality in the land now called Canada and police brutality in the United States. The coding of anti-Black racism in this country is more sophisticated than in the United States, and the colossal apparatus of mass incarceration in the US is often used to overshadow police brutality and racism this side of the border.

We had twenty-four hours to put together our rally for Mike Brown, Jermaine Carby, and a call to end the practice of carding. We weren’t thinking about the numbers on our Facebook event page as we laboured over collecting data to put on pamphlets we would hand out, contacting Jermaine Carby’s family to speak, and securing singers, a generator, a sound system, and an ASL interpreter. We wanted to ensure that we didn’t miss a single thing because it felt like so much was at stake—and so much was. Suddenly, one of our folks in the room mentioned that the online numbers were swelling and thousands were saying they were going to attend. Canadian media began contacting us for info, asking us if we were going to be “violent,” and calling us segregationist for using Black Lives Matter in the event name.

The night of the action, about twelve of us were working as leadership. The November day was so cold that, by the time folks started to show up, we already couldn’t feel our toes. Over 3,000 people stood with us for hours in front of the United States consulate, demanding justice. We knew that we had to keep going and spoke with the leadership of Black Lives Matter in the United States. We became an official chapter shortly thereafter.

Since I chose activism, ten years ago, organizing has evolved with the digital age. I went from being resistant to joining Facebook, in 2007, to having to set notifications on my phone to help lower my weekly screen time (because staying informed too often means staying online). The revolution of communication through the internet and social media has changed how we approach organizing, how we access one another, and how we share information. I still remember VHS, reader. Cassettes! CD Walkmans and iPods the size of your palm. Now, smartphones are the norm, and behemoth monopolies like Facebook, Apple, and Google shape what we know and how we know it. But movements have refused to be left behind and have harnessed the power of social media to support real action on the ground.

Witnessing and participating in direct-action movements like Idle No More and the Tamil shutdown of the Gardiner Expressway led to my becoming a leader in Black Lives Matter Toronto and the Movement for Black Lives. Even over those five years or so of experience, technology advanced and became more deeply entrenched in our day-to-day activities.

The digitization of information and concretization of instant-access culture has meant that organizers in the digital age must grapple with the reality of infinite content versus finite attention. The digital age has streamlined the process of mass mobilization: the coming together of hundreds or thousands of people demanding justice.

One of the best things about having access to one another through social media is the ability to potentially reach hundreds and thousands of people when staging a protest, rally, or some other call to action. But mobilization in itself means nothing if it’s not rooted in a larger organizing strategy to shift power structures.

We are the first generation to have these digital tools, and in many ways, we are building the plane as we fly it. Still, there is something remarkable in being tasked with bringing our twentieth-century models of organizing, activism, and direct action into the twenty-first century, of creating the blueprint for winning in the digital age.

By 2016, Black Lives Matter Toronto had grown into a full-fledged movement. We had established our core team, an ally team, a volunteer and membership platform, and several targets with rolling direct-action tactics. Here is the reality: while many people see the posts and hashtags when a person is killed by police and think that those are the work (and while those are certainly part of it), the necessary unseen work is a years-long project that requires sophisticated strategy and consistent effort for the visible campaign to succeed. Confirming the name(s) of the officer(s) involved, securing any and all video footage associated with the event, fundraising for the family, pushing back against law enforcement, and putting pressure on media, elected officials, and the Special Investigations Unit are all part of long- and short-term strategies that we know to utilize when police kill our people. And, the more we organized against brutality throughout the city, the more antagonistic law enforcement officials became toward us.

In 2015, we shut down both sides of Allen Road, an expressway in Toronto, over the murder of Andrew Loku, a forty-five-year-old man from South Sudan. Police killed him in his own home over a noise complaint. The following year, as the Special Investigations Unit was in the process of ruling on whether police had acted within policy to kill a man—in a matter of seconds, while he was in crisis, over a noise complaint—we pitched our tents in front of the Toronto Police Service headquarters. This was not meant to be a weeks-long action that extended from March to April, but direct-action strategies require adaptability. When the tents were pitched and small, contained fires were lit to keep the freezing weather at bay, Toronto police used an extreme amount of force against the people present. Police arrived wielding batons, with some wearing hazmat suits as they threw chemicals on the fire, and kicked, punched, and dragged organizers, elders, women, and children off the premises.

“We are the first generation to have these digital tools, and in many ways, we are building the plane as we fly it.”

We used the violence as a moment to amplify our urgent call to action. People used social and independent media to capture the police brutality that night, and we called for more people to join us in front of the Toronto Police Service headquarters. In the following weeks, the police cut the power to their external outlets so we could no longer access electricity from their buildings. They also used force any time tents were pitched or fires were lit. Yet, despite their efforts, we stayed for twenty-one days. We turned our protest into an occupation and created rapid-response infrastructure to make it sustainable, including a legal team, harm reductionists, clothing donations to keep people warm, a food team that made five hot meals a day, a fundraising team, a programming team that focused on entertainment and spirituals, and a healing justice area.

By this time, we were under constant surveillance by police, from being followed home after actions to having our social media activity monitored. It was a given that, if we were organizing a protest, rally, or event, police would be stationed in unmarked vans and on horseback in the surrounding area, in full-on riot gear. As our power in the city increased, so did the level of state violence and surveillance.

Every time I recall some of the most beautiful and transformative direct actions I’ve taken part in, I also think of the terrible conditions that informed their necessity. Direct action never just happens by some twist of fate. It is a spark lit by hundreds of people tired of the indignities, of the daily humiliations, of continually having to push back against a system that is not failing but rather operating by design to oppress marginalized people.

When the organizers of Idle No More put out a press release explaining who they were and why they came to be, outlining their values and their commitment to grassroots organizing, they were ensuring that no one political organization could speak for the many. Much like the Tamil shutdown of the Gardiner Expressway a couple of years earlier, this set a precedent for digital mobilization as the statement was shared widely across social media and activists ceased being dependent on traditional media to cover their stories. Their clear, decentralized stance made sure that they were not owned by funders or political agendas bound to corporate interests. Idle No More’s commitment to Indigenous practices and a grassroots model of organizing ensured a diversity of tactics required to meet the attack on the environment and the abuse of treaties.

Janaya Khan, a leading organizer of Black Lives Matter Toronto, speaks into a microphone as a fellow protestor holds it up.
George Talusan/Photo courtesy of Black Lives Matter Toronto

On December 30, 2012, as part of a day of nationwide actions, a group connected to Idle No More blocked the Canadian National main railway line between Toronto and Montreal near Belleville, Ontario, for hours. Every time an action took place, it elevated the message of defending the land and respecting the sovereign rights of Indigenous people.

Sharing stories on social media played a pivotal role in amplifying Idle No More’s message. Too often, the media does not report on Indigenous people and their experiences, and when it does, it is too often inaccurate or inauthentic. This is especially true outside of major cities. I understood then that, for Black people, there was no other population more closely linked to us through the hideous process of colonization than Indigenous peoples in Canada.

I learned about a call to action in Toronto both from friends and, online, via Twitter and Facebook. We made a massive circle around the fountain of the Eaton Centre, in Toronto, and began a round dance led by the Indigenous women in the group. I looked up and saw that the same thing was happening on the two levels above us. It was beautiful. I am always humbled and amazed when we come together, despite having every reason not to, because we believe in a better world where the strength of a people is not determined by how much suffering they endure.

The death threats, harassment, and attacks from police; the swinging pendulum of public opinion; and the surveillance we endured took on a new level of intensity following our action at Pride 2016. Reporters, police, and police sympathizers began cyberstalking some of our team members, doxing us and sleuthing our online profiles in an effort to weaponize posts we made days or even years ago. Our security culture changed dramatically following this action. We stayed firm, held the line, and rallied people behind us. Before long, we began to receive more support for our unapologetically Black action as our narrative strategy took effect. Because our action began rooted in organizing with and for community, we were not alone. Together, we won.

Five years into Black Lives Matter, the movement has become global. What started out as a Facebook post to reach out to other Black people who were grieving turned into a vision with a movement actualized around it.

The work of redirecting power can take you out if you aren’t careful. Having a team is one of the most important aspects of sustainable organizing and effective direct-action strategies since so much of this work requires trust. The Tamil shutdown of the Gardiner, Idle No More, and Black Lives Matter laid a foundation for me that has translated to every place in the world I have been since. Freedom fighting is a universal language, and I am humbled by the ferocity of my team and of those that influenced and continue to influence us.

Thank you to all the revolutionaries out there who have put their lives on the line, on- and offline, because they believe enough in freedom to fight like hell for it.

Excerpt from Until We Are Free: Reflections on Black Lives Matter in Canada edited by Rodney Diverlus, Sandy Hudson, and Syrus Marcus Ware © 2020. Published by University of Regina Press.

Janaya Khan
Janaya Khan is a lecturer, author, and co-creator of Black Lives Matter Canada. Their public speaking has taken them around the world and they have been featured in Vogue, The Cut, and Love Magazine. Janaya currently serves as program director for Color of Change and resides in Los Angeles, California.

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