Black Lives Matter’s Controversial Protest Helped Pride Get Back to Its Political Roots

Despite the outrage, Pride has always been about marginalized groups having their voices heard.

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Jul 6 2016, 7:16pm


Black Lives Matter activist Janaya Khan organizes a sit-in during the Trans Pride March in Toronto. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Eduardo Lima

There were many firsts at this year's Pride Parade in Toronto. It was the first time that a sitting prime minister marched in the parade. It was the first time that Pride events lasted an entire month throughout the city. And, for 24 minutes, this celebration of social justice was tested by a political action within its own community.

The disruption of the parade by the Black Lives Matter movement was a perfect storm. It was textbook civil disobedience and served as a stark reminder of how far and how little we have progressed.

A couple days before the main event, was the Trans March. Black Lives Matter also led that march and were holding a banner displaying the photo of 26-year-old Sumaya Dalmar.

Dalmar, a 26-year-old Somali trans woman, was found dead on February 22, 2015 in Toronto's east end. Toronto police later ruled it was not a homicide but gave scant details, leaving many questions unanswered.

Sumaya Dalmar worked at my restaurant, Banu, on Queen Street West, and she was the first trans person that I got to know. Although I am a member of the LGBTQ community, my relationships with trans people before Sumaya were mostly acquaintances with whom I had pleasant but trivial exchanges with. It was only through my relationship with Sumaya that I became privy not only to her struggles—with her community, with police, with her family—but to the struggles of other trans people.

After working at the restaurant one summer night, Sumaya was jumped on a side street in the gay village by four men and brutally beaten while walking home. I will never forget that beautiful face made black and blue. I will never forget her bloodied and puffed eye.

I remember her hesitancy in going to the police but I urged her to do so, convinced that they would find the four men responsible for beating her up and although she gave perfect descriptions, Toronto police never found them.


Black Lives Matter leads the annual Pride Parade in Toronto. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mark Blinch

Only 26, Sumaya Dalmar had a lot more life to live and when I saw her face on the front of the Trans March rally banner held by Black Lives Matter activists, I knew that this Pride was not going to be like all the others and for 24 minutes it wasn't.

Those 24 minutes have had an impact that's lasted well beyond Sunday's parade. The outrage in reaction to a brief moment of social protest has been astounding. Twitter and Facebook pundits have been offering up their own hot takes on the validity of the group's actions and weighing in on when social disruption is and isn't acceptable. The protest led nightly news on Monday and Tuesday night and most mainstream media has painted a picture of an exclusionary and reactionary group that is only concerned with garnering attention for themselves.

A columnist for the Globe and Mail called them "bullies," the Toronto Sun said they committed "sabotage" and even the Toronto Star, the city's most left-wing newspaper, said BLMTO should "rethink" their tactics. The general consensus—among the media and the comment sections that accompanied them—was that the action was not at the right place nor at the right time. But where else should a group that includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and trans people voice their concerns but at an event for LGBTQ people? The Santa Claus Parade?

When the sit-in was being staged, some bystanders began to boo as Black Lives Matter member, Alexandria Williams was speaking. Williams gave a quick history lesson to the impatient crowd.

"We fought for you. We threw bricks for you. We got locked up for you. We made Pride political. We made Pride something. Don't you ever forget your queer histories. Don't you ever forget who made this possible," Williams said.

The tragedy is not just that queer black youth are being told that their concerns have neither a time nor a place at the Pride parade but that the liberation movement of the LGBTQ community is now being whitewashed and diluted. The tragedy is that people are more upset that the police float may be excluded from the parade than they are about police violence. That is a problem. The inclusion of a police corrections bus in the Pride parade is problematic on so many levels. These symbols cannot be made benign with sprinkles of glitter. These vehicles are used in the deportation and detainment of LGBTQ people of colour who have come to this country seeking refuge.

People who disagreed with the actions of Black Lives Matter don't know much about the movement. In fact, much of the backlash charges them with conflating issues. One person actually wrote to me, "Why don't they do this at Caribana?"

When did the LGBTQ community not allow for the intersection of identities and the intersection of causes?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gets splashed with water as he waves a flag while taking part in the annual Pride parade in Toronto. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

On August 26, 1979, Albert Johnson, a black Jamaican immigrant, was shot to death by Toronto Police in his home. He was unarmed. Two of the three police officers stood trial for Johnson's death but were later acquitted. Toronto's black community mobilized and on September 1, 1979, over 2,000 protesters demonstrated in front of Toronto police's 13 Division.

Two years later, Albert Johnson's widow, Lemonica Johnson, spoke outside Toronto police's 52 division at a rally organized by various anti-racism and gay rights organizations. Following the Toronto Police bathhouse raids, in which 289 men were detained and brutalized by police. Johnson joined the rally against the police's actions and she spoke about marginalized communities coming together in a common struggle against police violence and harassment.

No one told Johnson that this was not the right time or place for her to voice her issues. No one told her to keep her blackness at home, which is effectively what people were telling queer black youth at the Pride parade this year.

Why was there room for multiple identities and multiple causes 30 years ago but not on Sunday? Why did queer black youth get booed and have water bottles thrown at them as they claimed a space for themselves? Can we no longer resist and revel at the same time?

Another first this year was the Toronto police deciding to apologize for the 1981 bathhouse raids. Their perfect PR ploy was interrupted by Black Lives Matter activists who reminded them that there is no pride in policing.The raiding of queer spaces by Toronto police did not begin and end in 1981. In fact, there were many more raids on gay clubs and bathhouses after the 1981 bathhouse raids. Including a 1996 raid on Remington's Men of Steel and a September 14, 2000 raid on a women's bathhouse. The women's bathhouse committee refused to accept the Toronto Police's apology.

It took 34 years for the Toronto police to apologize for the 1981 bathhouse raids that gave birth to the LGBTQ movement. Will it take another 34 years for the Toronto police to apologize for the arbitrary detaining and systemic carding of black people in this city?

Every social movement meets resistance, particularly when it is effective, and the Black Lives Matter movement is one of the most effective social movements of the 21st century. They shut down the Allen Expressway ; held court outside the Toronto Police headquarters; and when Premier Kathleen Wynne would not meet with them, they went right to the steps of the Ontario legislature until she came out to hear their concerns.

Social movements are not tidy nor pretty nor polite. They are not a 9-to-5 gig. They are meant to disrupt and defy, agitate and alarm—and Black Lives Matter has done just that.

I hate to break it to the dissenters but Pride is political, and beneath the beads and glitter, it always has been.

Follow Samira Mohyeddin on Twitter.

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