Building Community, Building Resistance: Black Lives Matter-Toronto: An interview with Sandy Hudson

Salmaan Khan

In the past year, Black Lives Matter-Toronto (BLM-TO) has emerged at the forefront of organizing against anti-Black racism in the Toronto Area, adding a new chapter to the history of Black resistance in this city. Started initially by organizing vigils for Black people killed by police in the US and Canada, BLM-TO began to escalate their presence and activism by explicitly addressing anti-Black racism in Toronto and across Canada. In July 2015, BLM-TO shut down the Allen Expressway to call for justice for the deaths of two Black men –  Andrew Loku and Jermain Carby – killed by Toronto and Peel police. In March of 2016, BLM-TO set up a “Tent City” outside of Toronto Police Headquarters to protest the dismissal of charges in Andrew Loku’s death and to demand an overhaul of the entire Special Investigations Unit. Erected for two weeks, Tent City was led by Black and Indigenous communities. Most recently in July 2016, BLM-TO marched as the Honourary Group in one of the largest PRIDE parades in the world. During the parade, BLM-TO staged a sit-in with specific demands for PRIDE Toronto including greater funding for Black and community of colour events and spaces, and the elimination of police floats in the parade.

Through direct action, the creation of a three-week “Freedom School” for Black youth, and many other events and vigils, BLM-TO has struggled, and won, each time. They are not only successfully challenging the rhetoric of Canadian multiculturalism and the invisibilization of anti-Black racism: they are changing the conversation itself, gesturing toward Black liberation rather than inclusion. BLM-TO has been one of the most inspiring and radical movements in Toronto in recent years, and we are grateful that Salmaan Khan had the chance to sit down with Sandy Hudson – a founding member of BLM-TO – to discuss the recent surge in organizing against anti-Black racism in Canada as well as globally and, to hear her thoughts on tactics, community organizing, and solidarity work. You can find out more about BLM-TO and keep up to date with their actions and analysis at https://www.facebook.com/blacklivesmatterTO.


Sandy Hudson is a community organizer who has spearheaded anti-racism and anti-violence initiatives and is a founder of Black Lives Matter-Toronto. She is also a graduate student at the University of Toronto studying Social Justice Education, where her research focuses on anti-Black racism and decolonization.


How would you situate BLM in the history of resistance against anti-Black racism and radical Black movements?

The resistance began as soon as the brutalization of Black bodies began. BLM-TO is part of a legacy of resistance that has existed since the enslavement of Black Africans. A lot of people have characterized BLM as a new movement, but it’s really not. There has been no end to the different strategies for resistance within the Black community throughout the world and we come from that same line of people resisting. We are also connected locally to people who have been doing resistance movements in Toronto, like the Black Action Defence Committee.

What has been your experience working with other organizations in Toronto? What connections have you been drawing between other struggles and BLM?

For us, it’s crucial to make strong links with different Black communities, but we’ve also been making linkages with other communities of colour as well as Indigenous communities. For example, our connections with the folks who did a large part of the organizing in the Tamil resistance in 2009 has been really instructive and helpful in terms of learning from them through the solidarity that they have provided. Indigenous communities has provided a lot of support to us as well, and our chapter of BLM has put a lot of emphasis on the importance of decolonization in our work. We recognize that the current state of Black people across the world must be understood within the context of white supremacy, capitalism, and colonization. We’re deeply rooted in a decolonial frame of thought. There is no successful way to resist against colonization without partnering with Indigenous communities resisting interconnected issues.

Compared to the US, Canada is perceived as a bastion of diversity and multiculturalism. What has been the experience of BLM and the struggle against anti-Black racism here in Toronto and Canada more broadly?

A really frustrating assumption in Canada is that we don’t have racism here in the same way as the US, as though the 49th parallel is some sort of magic race barrier. It’s frustrating because part of the way in which Canadian anti-Blackness and racism operates is to compare itself to the really terrible situation in the US. Then Canadians get to say, “We are not like that,” when that’s not the case at all.

Part of the way that Canadian anti-Blackness and Canadian racism works is to hide this information in the shadow of US racial violence; to obscure how serious the problem is here in order to pre-emptively pacify radical resistance because we become tasked with proving there’s a problem in the first place. And, when we find that there is very little data collected and kept about the many manifestations of systemic anti-Blackness in Canada, the state and the media take that to mean there’s no problem at all. It’s really frustrating.

Is Canadian racism different from American racism? Of course it is. Local context is important to consider when you’re doing any type of work concerning racism. But we should not be complacent in thinking that because racism here is different than in the US, that somehow racism isn’t a problem in Canada. People need to begin thinking about the specific ways in which white supremacy enacts itself on this land, whether it’s through police brutality or through basically maintaining a plantation system where Black people are imported from the Caribbean to grow and pick our food.[1]

In the US, there’s definitely popular knowledge of the roles that white supremacy and anti-Blackness play the history of the the country. In Canada, there’s a complete obfuscation of our colonial present and the ways it is tied to white supremacy. People in Canada have this idea that racism has not played a central role in our history. Canada is considered a safe haven, the end of the Underground Railroad. However, it is important to note that the first type of movement that could be described in a similar way to the Underground Railroad was with people moving from above the 49th parallel to below in order to escape the brutality of racism of what was then Upper Canada. As well, slave ships were manufactured here, there were plantations here, there were laws inscribing similar types of Jim Crow racial brutality that you saw in the US, and there were large movements of Black bodies throughout Canada and the Americas. At this time, if you were using sugar, cotton, coffee, or many other exports, you were benefiting from anti-Blackness and enslavement. Canadians generally don’t know these aspects of their history.

What would you say is the scope of the BLM movement in addition to challenges against police violence, and how does the movement to challenge anti-Black racism fit into wider struggles against social, political, and economic exploitation? Is it accurate to say that BLM started out focusing on police violence?

BLM did not actually start because of police brutality. The BLM movement in the US started as a result of George Zimmerman’s murder of Trayvon Martin. Of course, that was a form of state-sanctioned violence because in the end Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges, but in the beginning the state was not necessarily the focal-point of these specific organizing efforts. But Trayvon Martin’s death, as well as the many others that followed, became a catalyst for a new surge of Black-led organizing and also a symbol of how, not just the state, but society in general, viewed Black lives. So what’s our scope? While we did start the Toronto chapter around police brutality, our organizing has touched on many other issues.

Our very first action was a solidarity vigil for Mike Brown, but it was also very much about Jermaine Carby because those two incidents – Jermaine Carby’s murder by officer Ryan Reid in Peel Region and Mike Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Missouri – happened within a month of each other. We wanted to do a solidarity vigil for Mike Brown, but we also wanted to maintain a critique of Canadian invisibility of Black oppression because all the news coverage in Canada was about Mike Brown and the events in Ferguson. There was barely any news about Jermaine Carby even though there were protests over the strange circumstances of his murder by Peel police. We wanted to raise the issue that police violence against Black people happens here too. We were also invested in providing a space for the Black community to see one another and for people not to feel isolated. Our priority is always to our community, and not to speaking to the state because we know that’s not where the victories lie.

We did not intend to become an organization after that first action, but we did. We started working on all sorts of different things from the Freedom School, to workshops and popular education projects, to creating connections with different organizations to see how we could help provide for what was needed in the community. So, our scope is wide: we’re working on education, health care, access to legal supports and so on. Almost everything that you’ve seen us do is not us leading it, it’s people in our communities reaching out and telling us what they want to see happen.

Part of the narrative around organizing today is that we’re living in a neoliberal era where the masses are depoliticized and apathetic, but BLM has consistently challenged that narrative. What have been some of the difficulties in rallying community support, especially around an event such as Tent City?

I don’t think that we are as depoliticized as some would say. As someone who grew up in poverty, I think that people in poverty are aware of their social and political condition. I think that it’s very difficult for them to know what to do with this awareness, especially when you’re spending every waking moment trying to figure out when the next meal is coming, or how you’re going to pay for the next bill. I think that people know their material conditions even if they don’t necessarily have the terms to fully explain it to you. I think for us what has been successful is two things: first, we’re really accessible, which is scary because we know that law enforcement is monitoring us, but it’s good for the community because they feel like they can reach us whenever they need to or want to, and they invariably do. Second, we consciously provide several ways for people to plug in to our mobilizations. So, it’s not as though if you couldn’t make it out to Tent City or to the blockade of Allen Road then you wouldn’t have a place in the action. When we’re doing any action we try to think of many different people in our community: how could people who are parents contribute to this? What type of programming could we have to allow people who are elders, people who are in the religious community to contribute to this? What if people are working all the time? Is there a simple way that they can show their support or contribute?

I think Tent City was a great example. People did all sorts of tasks during that action. It was so great, it became very emotional in the first few days because we didn’t expect that type of response from the community. That’s a pretty risky action to set up camp in front of Police Headquarters. We weren’t sure how people were going to respond to it, but we were committed because it was a necessary action. The responses ranged from people who owned cupcake shops saying, “I can’t come but I want to be able to deliver you these cupcakes,” to organizations saying, “We don’t know what we can do, but it’s really cold out here, and we can rent you some vans to warm up at night,” to someone showing up, who I had never seen before, saying, “I didn’t know how I could contribute because I can’t stay, but I went out and I got 50 umbrellas because it’s going to rain tonight.” There were thousands of people who contributed to the success of the Tent City action and made it what it was, which I think is really important to note.

In terms of direct action, what have been some of the strategies or lessons learned from some of the protests that have happened?

I think one of the most important things is that when we are doing a direct action, we are clear about our demands and we try to make sure that the demands speak to many people. It’s necessary for any direct action to be something that people can latch on to and really connect with. But direct action has never been our sole focus. Our focus in our actions is more to do with what would the Black community feel about this? How can we try and unite our community or better yet strengthen community even more through this action? And what would make our community feel safe during this action? When Tent City ended it was the same day that Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne came out to speak to us and people thought, “Oh, they’re ending because they won a meeting with Kathleen Wynne,” which was not at all the case. We decided to end on that day because we spoke to the people who were in Tent City and they told us, “You know, we feel good about this, we feel like we’ve made a community, we feel like we now have different people to connect to and different ways of communicating with one another, and we’ve created links between the elders, the Deaf, queer, and trans communities.”

Every action that we’ve done – Tent City, blocking Allen Road, our first vigil, the Baltimore solidarity action, the Eric Garner solidarity action – has been about community growth. “Growth” in terms of entrenching connections between people to make our collective power stronger. For example, because we were at Tent City all the time, we needed to make it a kid-friendly space. We also needed to make it a space where people felt they could create it as their own. So we had art in the space, we had people create things there, and we had a sound system so that people could play their music or just get on the mic and help contribute to the space. Another example is the Allen Road blockade: it was started as a rally at a park so people could have other ways to contribute in addition to blocking a major highway. Not everybody can shut down a highway or feel comfortable doing that, so we needed to develop other ways for people to contribute as well. In the neighbourhood, and around the area, people were distributing posters in order to show their support. We had a place at the park where people could stay if they didn’t want to join the rally. There was painting that was happening at the rally. And when we went down to Allen Road, we gave out streamers for people to play with to help contribute to the event and to make it really feel like it was theirs. It’s about creating and entrenching these links so that we can be stronger in the fightbacks to come. Though it may seem in the media that the focus only to make demands on the state, our focus has always been on protecting and celebrating our community.

What have been the best strategies in terms of working with official institutions or politicians? Has it been effective? Is there wisdom in being a revolutionary organization but at the same time taking these steps to work with people, to make these connections? How do you balance the two?

I think there’s one thing that we’ve had to come to terms with: in any type of movement against police brutality with the urgency of protecting and trying to end the brutalization of Black bodies, you must in some way make demands on the state. You can organize all kinds of alternatives, but that won’t stop police officers from immediately focusing on your communities and attempting to brutalize you.

The organizing we do is out in the open – its strength depends on it. So demands on the state are combined with working with people and building those links. That is a serious commitment that will never change. We share our analysis (through letter writing or petitions) with the media and our Facebook in part to educate the people on the racism of the state.

Balancing the two is vital. Because there are two outcomes of public campaigns or actions: either you’re out-maneuvered by the government and “proven wrong”; or your campaign successfully reveals the oppression of the state. And once these things are visible to the community you can build and work with their frustrations and desire to do something about it. This leads to stronger community organizing and stronger mobilizations in the future.

Can you speak on the importance of working with Indigenous peoples in the struggle against settler colonialism?

I really critique the way that colonialism is commonly understood, because for us there is no way to work on our issues without working with Indigenous people in their struggles. Within BLM-TO, we believe that if we’re working against anti-Black racism, we need to have an understanding of where that comes from: colonization. Colonization placed people in a hierarchy with Black and Indigenous peoples at the bottom, and the ways that colonization has affected our two communities is very different. The white supremacist concepts of “pure blood” Indigenous people, of “one drop” Black people, and dual settler desires to expand the availability of workers while reducing the number people who have claim over the land – these are only some of the ways that both Black and Indigenous people have been brutalized.

And so, if we are going to fight against colonization, we need to do that holistically. Our allied struggles need to understand that the unique yet connected situations that Indigenous communities and Black communities are engaged with stem from the same process of colonization. This point is absolutely essential because if we don’t embed an anti-colonial critique in our work against anti-Black racism, we risk hurting our movement at the same time. We would find ourselves entrenching the same logics that contribute to our own oppression.

What are the difficulties that arise when building these kinds of broader coalitions against white supremacy and colonialism in spaces that also tend to reproduce white supremacy and anti-Black racism?

We can have relationships with different communities, but there also needs to be a specific movement for anti-Black racism because of how much white supremacy relies on the idea that Black people are at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. The logic of white supremacy permeates throughout all racialized communities where people of colour may think, “Well at least we’re not at the bottom. Black people are at the bottom and we are not like them, so we’re closer in proximity to whiteness.” Any anti-racist movement needs to acknowledge the role that anti-Blackness plays in a white supremacist world, otherwise they run the risk of recreating a white supremacist logic in their own organizing. For example, if you don’t recognize the way that Black Palestinians are affected differently then what does a victory against Israeli apartheid look like to you? Does that victory look like a situation where Black Palestinians are still treated in problematic ways by the Palestinian community or by Israeli settlers? Is it a victory against Islamophobia if Black Muslims are still living in worse conditions than their non-Black brothers and sisters? It needs to be understood that – and this is obviously contextual – anti-Blackness is a phenomenon that exists throughout the world, throughout different races, throughout all communities.

What advice can you share on the importance and strategies toward building horizontal struggle and the importance of it in any movement challenging oppression?

The way that this state works is that it makes it hard to organize against it, and oftentimes the people who are most able to so have certain privileges that other people just don’t. Or maybe they just risk everything, including their own health and bodies, to do this work. So it’s important to organize not just horizontally, but in what BLM-TO co-founder Janaya Khan characterized as a spiral model of relationships and organizing. This spiral relationship means to be able to step back and ask others to step in. To give organizers space, and allow them to move around depending on their capacity and what’s needed. It also requires being conscious and deliberate about recognizing where each of us might have different strengths and weaknesses. We must be clear about who is able to do more visible outside work, and who need to take a break or be protected in moments of vulnerability. Allowing people to shift in or out of certain roles and responsibilities in healthy and balanced ways that allow them to survive in the world around them.

That has been something that I think we were doing kind of unconsciously at first, but now we’re doing it very consciously. I’ve worked in other movements where you feel guilty if you’re not doing everything that you can at every waking moment to contribute to this resistance. In BLM-TO, I don’t think we have that with each other.

How do you think a commitment to anti-oppression politics that centers queer, lesbian, and trans women’s voices has strengthened the movement?  

Many resistance movements of the past have fallen apart because they didn’t take care of everyone in our community or they devalued the decision making ability of particular identities while making them do most of the work. Part of our resistance is imagining a different future and that’s not the type of future
that we want to live in. And so when we look back at some of our elders’ movements and have critiques of previous Black liberation movements, one of the problems we see is that there are people and identities that have been missing from these movements. We must have a very deliberate trans, feminist politic and must center trans voices, as well as make sure that people with disabilities are able to get involved. We know that Black trans women and people with mental health issues or disabilities, whether visible or not visible, are often more targeted and brutalized by police. Those people have to be involved and very central to the decision making process. They have to be visible in the movement. They have to see themselves represented across all the BLM chapters. That is what is different about this movement versus past Black liberation movements. It’s not “some of us now, the rest of us later.” We all know how that works out! It’s all of us now and that means the most urgent and vulnerable are centered, otherwise we’re going to fuck it up.

What would you say to organizations and groups wanting to stand in solidarity with BLM? What criticism would you have of them in terms of approaches that have been taken?

That’s big. One thing is for folks to ask us what we need. So many people just assume they’re helping by doing the same kind of assumed solidarity work that has been done for years but that isn’t necessarily helpful to our movement. Is it helpful to go to a bunch of workshops and say the same thing over again for zero dollars? How is that providing solidarity? People will say, “Well, we’re educating our community!” And that’s partially true, but you may also just be trying to appear close to us. Let’s imagine a different scenario: you’re a labour union that has money and power. You can use your access to a union to give us money (yes that’s important), but you can also say, “There’s someone in our office who is particularly interested in this, we should grant them a paid leave to do this work.” Instead of only doing that for elections, we should be doing that to help out community organizations too. If you see people being brutalized and a fire being put out during the coldest months of the year during our Tent City action, maybe instead of saying, “I’ll write a letter!” say, “Can I offer you some people to help you out down there?”

So what can you do to help? For your readers, absolutely help us by donating, that’s really important. All of our resources are community based; we don’t have membership fees. Continue to do that, but also ask us what we need and be creative with what you can offer because traditional forms of solidarity are often draining and not helpful. Also, think about whether you’re in it for the right reasons. Do you want to seriously provide some solidarity? Because there might be some harsh conversations that come out of that. Take your ego out of it.

Where now? What’s the future for BLM and BLM-TO specifically? How would you like to see it grow and develop?

I don’t really know what comes next because so much of this is driven by our communities, so really it depends. We’re going to keep working on the specific issues that we’re already committed to, but we remain flexible to our communities’ needs. I’m excited that we’re doing a Freedom School for kids this summer that focuses on empowering and critically educating Black youth. And we want to keep making connections with different Black communities as well. There’s no real endgame for us. We’re just going to continue to fight for Black liberation, which we know is going to be a long project. We don’t necessarily know what that is going to look like in the end, but we know what it doesn’t look like. It doesn’t look like the world we have right now.

I’m also really encouraged that BLM chapters are emerging in Vancouver and Montréal, and we’re reaching and connecting with other radical organizing around the world. It’s exciting to see that.

Here’s a hope that I have personally: to see our struggle become even more globalized in focus, which requires a deeper understanding of how our struggles are connected across many different places. I hope that this could have some sort of effect on the ways that borders affect Black people throughout the world. I think the power that lies there is massive and awesome. This kind of organizing was happening in some ways in the ’60s and early ’70s in a way that really scared state forces. I think the power in that is so real and necessary. That would be my hope for the future.


Notes

1. 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker program, wherein thousands of indentured labourers are recruited from populations in the global south, including in Mexico and the Caribbean. Upon arrival the temporary workers find themselves in precarious working conditions and are denied any possibilities of permanent residence (despite many years of work) or labour protections otherwise available to Canadian citizens. Migrant workers are also tied to their employers by their work permits and cannot change jobs; they can be sent home by their employer at any time, leaving them vulnerable to employer exploitation.

2. Tent City was a protest and encampment initiated by BLM-TO outside Toronto Police Services headquarters in downtown Toronto. It began on March 20th 2016 and lasted 2 weeks.