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Content warning: this article deals with difficult subject matter including anti-Black racism and police brutality. Out of concern for the safety and privacy of those who attended the rally, Arthur is not publishing any photos that might indicate the identities of protestors.
At around noon on June 2, approximately 1000 community members gathered in Millennium Park, marched up Water Street to the Peterborough Police Station and congregated in Confederation Park to join the global outcry for racial justice in response to the most recent string of Black deaths at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Toronto.
Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Tony McDade. Regis Korchinski-Paquet. Chantel Moore. These are just the most recent instances of racist extrajudicial killings in Canada and the United States. There is a long list of Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Colour (BIPOC) murdered by police, or murdered by white vigilantes who are then vindicated by police. For generations, police and their co-conspirators have perpetrated white supremacist violence, acts of racism big and small, with little consequence or accountability.
And while police brutality and the instances in which it results in murder are not new phenomena, what is unprecedented about the current iteration of anti-racist action is its scope. In the United States, there have been Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations in all 50 states and several of its non-state territories. In Canada, there have been actions in every province and territory.
In Peterborough-Nogojiwanong, this response was swift and resounding. As Said Jiddawy, a local performer, activist, and one of the organizers of the BLM rally, told Arthur, “the planning process wasn’t much of a process, but more like, a spark... someone had an idea and we just took it and ran with it.” The Facebook event page went live on May 30, just three days before the protest.
Jiddawy explained that the challenge the local BLM chapter faced was “obviously the time crunch and making sure that we would have enough supplies for everyone involved on the day of.” Organizing a protest during a global pandemic poses some unique challenges. The event page requested that people wear masks, and remain six feet away from one another during the rally. On the day of, most folks in attendance were wearing masks, but the sheer number of people in attendance made physical distancing difficult.
Jiddawy, fellow organizers M.A. and Angel Darkoh, and others were not expecting the magnitude of the response. Jiddawy disclosed that they were only expecting 20 of their closest friends to show up, but that they were “very honoured and impressed by the turn out.” Many showed up to protest, and some even volunteered their time before and after the event to help as needed. As Jiddawy told Arthur, “Once we made it official the community really came together and showed their support. It became less of a headache once people in the community started volunteering their time.”
As the event gained traction online in the days leading up to the protest, the Peterborough Police Service and the BLM rally organizers spoke about the police presence at the event. The Peterborough Police wrote that they would be in attendance and in uniform to “manage motor vehicle traffic” and “for the crowd's safety” in case more violent acts of protest did arise. The event page said explicitly that “this is a peaceful protest. Any violence will not be tolerated. We do not want weapons there.” The protest remained peaceful; the only weapons present belonged to police.
On the day of the rally, the police released a “Statement of Solidarity” writing, “The Peterborough Police Service wishes to reaffirm its commitment to bias free policing and the right for people to gather in peaceful protest. In a world where systematic racism has been embedded by a history of colonization, we understand that we must continuously reaffirm this commitment.”
“Peterborough Police need to understand that what they did could easily be looked at as performative allyship which is more dangerous to People of Colour because it paints an untrue picture to those watching,” Jiddawy said of the police presence at the rally. “In reality we know that it is the police who are using excessive force; it is the police who have again and again abused their power; it is the police who have racially profiled people. I believe that the police need to be defunded, retrained, and there needs to be accountability for past actions… Until these issues are looked at and policies are put in place to address them, the police do not belong in our society.”
This message was loud and clear during the rally, where the Peterborough Police Chief was present, keeping distance in front of City Hall. Chants of “No justice. No peace. No racist police” reverberated throughout the park.
Speakers stood on the monument and spoke stories of anti-Black racism passed down from their parents into the megaphone. The predominantly white audience listened to testimonial after testimonial of anti-Black racism in Peterborough. One speaker recited a poem. Another read a guide to non-performative allyship for white people. The speakers repeatedly acknowledged that the crowd was predominantly white, noting that this is the audience who needs to hear their words most: that white supremacy is an issue that white folks must eradicate themselves among themselves.
In between speakers, the crowd would burst into chants of “I can’t breathe” and “Say their names!” The organizers instructed protestors to engage with the information booth and scan QR codes that had been posted around the park to get more information about how to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
Two sisters, Shaela and Alicia, recounted stories of police brutality and anti-Black racism in Toronto that had been passed down from their father. They pointed out that very little has changed in recent decades, that Black folks are still being made to live in fear of police brutality, and that this must change: “I don’t want my kids, 32 years from now, doing exactly what we’re doing here.” The narrative these two women shared forced listeners to reflect on Canada’s own anti-Black racism, and how white supremacy and colonization not only shape our nation’s history, but its present, too.
Jiddawy shared some insights from fellow organizer, Jarrod Williams, about how Canadians often think of racism through the American lens: “Since the 70s and the birth of multiculturalism, Canada has reconstructed a narrative that suggests pluralism, diversity, and to use their term - a mosaic. However multiculturalism is a policy that disregards Canada's place in the legacy of Black enslavement, which effectively renders the subject of racism invisible.”
Williams went on to share some statistics, including a study by the Ontario Human Rights Commission that showed that Black people, Black Muslims, and Black queer people in Toronto are 20 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than their white counterparts.
“As long as there is silence and no visibility of what happens in Canada racism will maintain its place of power and uphold the idea that whiteness is superior, particularly in spaces like the media and politics that refuse to acknowledge systematic racism.”
To find out more about what our local representatives had to say about racism in our community and in our country, Arthur reached out to Member of Parliament for Peterborough-Kawartha, Maryam Monsef, for comment. She thanked the rally’s participants for ensuring “today's act of solidarity in our downtown was safe and incredibly powerful.”
“I am proud of our community for our strong rejection of anti-black racism and systemic discrimination, as well as for the strong leadership of those who have been doing anti-racism and anti-oppression work for decades… Those before us fought hard, and society has come a long way. But we have a long way to go still.”
In regards to how her government is responding to the issues of anti-Black racism and police brutality in Canada, she wrote, “My colleagues and I are aware of our privilege in this moment… What Peterborough said today, and what is being heard in these global protests, is that people are ready for a new social contract. I hope we continue to build on this momentum and action and have meaningful family and community dialogues about what that new social contract ought to be.”
She went on to highlight local organizations who are already doing anti-racist, anti-oppressive work, like the New Canadians Centre, and the Community Race Relations Committee, but did not offer any specific commitments on behalf of her government.
At the municipal level, Mayor Diane Therrien has also responded to the Peterborough-Nogojiwanong BLM rally. In her statement to Arthur, she details the anti-oppressive efforts that have taken place under her leadership: Peterborough becoming a member of the Coalition of Inclusive Municipalities (50 cities across Canada that publicly state their City and Council's commitment to combating racism, homophobia, and all forms of hatred), as well as the recognition of National Indigenous Peoples Day and Black History Month, which was not done by previous councils.
She also wrote about the complex position she finds herself in as someone who “strives for equity, anti-racism, and social justice” but is simultaneously a member of the Police Services Board. In her statement, she speaks candidly about this tension, writing that “being deeply involved with institutions that have - and continue to - harm BIPOC folks disproportionately is unnerving, though I hope with more diverse voices and perspectives around the table we can make positive change.”
On the matter of the Peterborough Police Budget - and how it has steadily increased year after year - Mayor Therrien said, “Proper funding for social programs, childcare, and community based solutions is crucial. Council is starting our budget deliberations this week and I will be sure to bring the issue of the police budget up to highlight the concerns around the increase.”
The City of Peterborough will hold its first public consultation on the upcoming budget on June 24.
And while holding our local political leaders accountable is important, it is just one part of what allyship for non-Black folks looks like moving forward. For those striving to be allies to Black folks, Jiddawy recommends starting small: “Micro-level things like hearing someone say a racial slur and correcting them, expanding the racial makeup of your private circle, and actively listening to your Black brothers, sisters, and nonbinary siblings.”
For the organizers, the main priority moving forward will be translating the enthusiasm and momentum around the rally into a “vibrant, ongoing and self-affirming movement.” They know this will take a lot of time, planning, and support for the community and have set up a GoFundMe to facilitate the growth of their movement and to support BIPOC in our community.
In less than a week, their GoFundMe has almost doubled its initial fundraising goal of $5000.