Janaya Khan and Sandy Hudson spearheaded a radical new civil rights movement that shines a harsh light on anti-black racism. The brains behind Black Lives Matter Toronto
Last March, in the bleak late winter, members of Black Lives Matter Toronto hunkered down outside police headquarters on College Street. It had been a lousy month for black people in Toronto. The city announced that the music festival Afrofest would be downsized due to noise complaints. A 21-year-old man named Alex Wettlaufer was shot dead by Toronto police near the Leslie subway station. And the Special Investigations Unit released their decision in the case of Andrew Loku, a South Sudanese refugee and father of five who was shot and killed by police. The SIU determined that Loku had threatened cops with a hammer and the officers acted in self-defence. They would not be publicly named.
Two of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter Toronto, Sandy Hudson and Janaya Khan, wanted to bring attention to these events and create a diversion for the community—something fun and beautiful in a grim time. Along with dozens of BLMTO members, Hudson, a grad student at U of T, and Khan, a boxer and trans rights activist, organized a hybrid art show–concert, kind of like their own mini Afrofest. The artists in their ranks brought fabric so everyone could decorate tents, each marking a different demand: one for resurrecting Afrofest; one for eliminating carding; one each for Loku and Jermaine Carby, a black man killed by Peel police.
On the night of March 21, the scene outside police headquarters seemed more like a party than a protest. BLMTO hung a banner scripted with “I KNOW THAT WE WILL WIN.” People played the jokey trivia game Black Card Revoked and sang along with Kendrick Lamar songs. Indigenous supporters tended flames in barrels. At around 9 p.m., Hudson—a charismatic orator with a gift for the well-placed eye roll—was down the street at Starbucks when she heard sirens. Alexandria Williams, a theatre student at York, sprinted to Starbucks from the police station: “They came for us!” she said.
Outside, College Street was thick with cruisers, and a line of police officers and firefighters moved into the crowd. What happened next is contentious. The police say that BLMTO had an illegal fire and were notified numerous times to extinguish it; BLMTO says someone from Toronto Fire came by and gave them the okay. Video shows some demonstrators halting officers in their paths. Other times, officers are seen shoving the protesters.
Demonstrators lay down; one reported being carried away by her feet and hands. Minutes later, officers in hazmat suits appeared, tossing a sticky, fire-retardant black chemical on a nearby stack of wood, setting off a sewer stench that made protestors gag. The crowd chanted a slogan familiar to anyone who had seen American BLM protests: “The whole world is watching!” The incident lasted about half an hour. After the police left, Hudson posted a Facebook request for blankets and sleeping bags. The response was immediate. As BLMTO hoped, camera crews arrived. The crowd swelled with people, up to 300 at one point. They were quickly cementing their status as the most visible activist group in the city.
What started as a one-night protest turned into a two-week sit-in. Volunteers brought hamburgers for the crowd. People dropped off donations, too, in person and online—$30,000 worth. A flatbed truck of DJs and rappers showed up one night. Hudson would sleep on the ground, then go home to shower before taking the subway to her job as a union rep for sessional instructors at York. She’d return every night. “I ate better there than I do at home,” she says. At one point, a handful of supporters showed up at Premier Kathleen Wynne’s house, leaving a wreath with a photo of Loku, as well as a water-filled wine bottle and a block of cheese—a macabre invitation to meet. The Toronto Police were called about that bottle.
On day 15, they moved to Queen’s Park, shutting down traffic en route, shouting through bullhorns for a review of the SIU. Finally, Wynne came down the steps of the legislature. With a politician’s deftness, she tried to make peace and offered a formal meeting. Janaya Khan stood nose to nose with her and said they had to meet publicly, not privately.
Wynne nodded. Then she went off script. “We still have systemic racism in our society,” she told Khan. “Anti-black racism,” a protester called out. “Anti-black and beyond, absolutely,” said Wynne. It was the kind of admission politicians almost never make. It’s too unsolvable, too messy, too incriminating. In the coming days, Toronto Police Association head Mike McCormack made the media rounds, denying the notion of systemic racism among police.
According to Hudson, Wynne’s acquiescence was no victory. She says that BLMTO were poised to move out that day whether or not the premier showed up. They packed their things, leaving one banner behind, swinging from a pole. “You are on notice,” it read. “We are not finished.”
Over the past year, Black Lives Matter Toronto has been a persistent finger in the chest of the city’s power brokers. They got a public meeting with Wynne in July, while John Tory sat by, silently taking notes. The city has since launched public community town halls to address anti-black racism. The Ontario government is undertaking an independent review of the SIU, and the Ontario Human Rights Commission has criticized the SIU for a lack of transparency around race-based incidents, stating unequivocally that systemic discrimination in policing is a reality.
What may be especially galling to career politicians and civil servants watching BLMTO’s ripple effect is that these loud, relentless agents of change are a bunch of kids. Most are under 30. They’re tech savvy and mostly queer or trans identified, with deep roots in student politics. BLMTO has a nebulous, decentralized formation in the model of movements like Occupy and Idle No More: there is no office, no phone number, no membership dues. A steering committee meets every couple of weeks in offices donated by other organizations. Members check in by Skype or Google Chat. They use social media to react to events that affect black Torontonians, pulling together huge crowds in hours.
Black Lives Matter started in Oakland, California, in 2013, a year after Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager in a hoodie, had been shot in Florida by George Zimmerman, a Hispanic civilian. Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter. In the midst of the despair and fury that gripped black America, the Oakland writer and activist Alicia Garza posted on Facebook: “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” Over the coming months, #blacklivesmatter became a declaration on social media. It didn’t fully coalesce in the 3-D world until fall of 2014, when a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of another unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown.
In Toronto, Sandy Hudson’s teen brother kept messaging her, asking her what they were going to do. She put out a call on Facebook and organized a vigil honouring Brown outside the American Consulate on University Avenue. She ended her posts about the event with the #blacklivesmatter hashtag. Hudson expected about 100 people. Instead, some 3,000 showed up. They stayed for hours, holding signs and chanting. And then, with a signature brand of action and artistry, they started pissing people off.
In the summer of 2015, to draw attention to the police shootings of Loku and Carby, BLMTO blockaded Allen Road, halting traffic up to the 401 for two hours. Last July, they stopped the Pride parade, forcing thousands of people to wait in the sticky heat until Pride executive director Mathieu Chantelois signed their list of demands with a giant quill pen (he later recanted and resigned). Older white columnists clutched their pearls after Pride. Sue-Ann Levy wrote that the group’s actions were “political correctness gone mad” and they should be called “Nobody Else Matters.” Margaret Wente seconded the motion, stating that Canada is hardly “a racist hellhole.”
One major charge against BLMTO is that they discriminate against white people. Some members allegedly refused to sell T-shirts to white people at Pride. (Hudson says this is untrue, that the shirts were kept aside for those appearing in the parade.) Then there was the controversial tweet by co-founder Yusra Khogali: “Plz Allah give me strength to not cuss/kill these men and white folks out here today. Plz plz plz.” At early rallies, BLMTO’s Facebook page listed rules for white and non-black allies, instructing them to “stand behind black folks” and “refrain from taking up space.”
In the grand scheme of things, white people’s feelings aren’t a priority for BLMTO. Their mission is much bigger: to dismantle anti-black racism in all its forms. The data paints a stark picture of inequality. Black youth make up more than 40 per cent of children in the care of the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, though black people comprise only 8.5 per cent of Toronto’s population. The incarceration rate for black people in Canada is triple their representation in population. And while the data on race and police violence is scarce—improving that data is another of BLM’s demands—one study from 2006 found that black and indigenous people are significantly overrepresented in police use-of-force incidents.
Part of the vehement response to BLMTO is because billboarding these truths is an affront to Toronto’s sometimes smug self-perception. After all, we’re the rainbow-hued living lesson for other places, the most diverse city in the world. But this group of young black people describe a different reality. According to them, we are not post-race but very much the contrary: our institutions, they contend, are fuelled by white supremacy. “Black people don’t experience this multicultural utopia you all talk about,” says Janaya Khan.
In a food court at York University, Sandy Hudson sips an Americano with a straw to protect her braces. She’d always wanted braces, but couldn’t afford them until a few years ago. Her hair today is in a loose, tumbling Afro. As we sit, a white woman walks by and stops to compliment her. “Oh, I love your hair! I just love it!”
“Aww, thanks so much,” says Hudson, graciously.
Hudson refuses to call herself a leader of BLMTO. “I’m wary of the celebritizing process,” she tells me many times. She is working toward her master’s in social justice education at the University of Toronto, and words like “celebritizing” and “intersectionality” and “decolonization” roll off her tongue—it’s the vocabulary of millennial liberal arts grads that only sounds stiff to people over 40. When I mention that BLMTO has been criticized for rarefied academic language that can seem exclusionary, Hudson has none of it. She thinks the critique is condescending, an assumption that black people can’t handle complex language. “I would challenge anyone to find something that we have written or stated in an academic voice. Come fight me.” When I go through the site later, I realize she’s right: nothing pops up. Hudson doesn’t exactly gloat, but almost. “One of the best and worst things about Sandy is that she’s always right,” Khan says with affection.
Hudson was raised primarily in North York and she tells me the details of her past only reluctantly. “I’m getting uncomfortable,” she says many times during our interview. I ask about her upbringing, and she snaps: “What do you mean by ‘upbringing?’” She seems to think I’m seeking a victim narrative, flags of struggle along the path to activism. I think I’m asking her about her upbringing. Maybe we’re both right.
Hudson’s father worked two jobs: at Cara, putting food on airplanes, and in the kitchen of Baycrest Hospital. Her mother did laundry at Baycrest part-time. Hudson has synesthesia, seeing words and numbers in colour (she colour-codes all of her passwords mentally), and a prodigious memory. Her parents kept the house filled with books, and she read them all; the Baby-Sitter’s Club was a favourite. In Grade 4, Hudson began bussing to a gifted program in Denlow Park in Don Mills, land of mansions and multi-car driveways, where she was usually the only black kid in her class. She recalls nasty comments about her cornrows and shame when she pronounced words wrong because she’d taken on her parents’ Jamaican phrasing—she’d pronounce “ask” as “aks,” and enunciate every syllable in the word “vegetable.” Her mother told her: “You’re beautiful. Keep your head up. Look people in the eye,” and gave her a book called Girls and Young Women Leading the Way. Hudson read and reread those first-person stories of young female leaders. It was around the same time that she had her first activist moment: spearheading a recycling program in Grade 5. Always at ease on stage, she sang in choirs, performing at Roy Thomson Hall at age 12.
Hudson’s puzzle-solving brain led her to computer science at U of T. She was shocked to discover that tuition fees went from around $4,000 in first year to more than $6,500 in second. She was already barely making ends meet by taking loans and working multiple jobs, including as a cashier at Zellers, and subtitling films. She had to switch to sociology and political science majors, which were markedly cheaper. She also stepped into student government, becoming the first black woman elected student union president at U of T. Her victories were significant. When a group of students showed up at a Halloween party in blackface, Hudson held a town hall. She organized rallies to protect the transitional year programme, which has been a pathway to a degree for many minority students. She won that battle as well.
Hudson is a divisive figure, too. From 2012 to 2015, she was executive director of the U of T Students’ Union, or UTSU, a student advocacy group that represents 50,000 members. In 2015, she received around $277,000 in overtime and severance payments, a sum that added up to about 10 per cent of the union’s operating budget. In September of that year, UTSU sued Hudson, claiming she acquired the funds fraudulently. The suit alleges that Hudson filed for nearly 2,000 hours of overtime days after the election of a new government, and that two outgoing executives conspired to approve the payout. These executives were initially named in the lawsuit, but later settled with the union.Hudson, they claimed, had convinced them that she’d received legal counsel from UTSU’s lawyer, and the payout had already been approved.
Hudson countersued the union for $300,000 in damages and, in a statement of defence, denies the allegation of civil fraud and says she was entitled to the money. She also states that during her time on the executive she was “subject to inappropriate conduct and unwelcome comments by UTSU directors.” Neither side will speak about the case, which could take years to resolve. But a group of activists staged a sit-in on Hudson’s behalf last October, stating that she had worked tirelessly on behalf of black students for years: “She experienced incredible levels of anti-black racism and misogynoir.” An #ImWithSandy hashtag trended on Twitter that day.
Janaya Khan met Hudson in high school. Khan’s mother struggled with mental illness, and the family spent years in public housing and bouncing around shelters in the east end of the city. Eventually, Khan ended up a ward of the Crown, living in group homes in midtown and near High Park. During the holidays, Khan—who is gender non-conforming and prefers the pronoun “they”—had nowhere to go, and would spend Thanksgiving and Christmas at a friend’s house. Often, the friend’s cousin, Sandy Hudson, would be there. Khan recalled that Hudson was formidable, a bright, politically aware teenager. She was the person who encouraged Khan to apply to university rather than enlist in the Canadian Forces. Khan couldn’t afford the applications, and had to borrow the money from guidance counsellors at school.
Over the years, Khan had multiple run-ins with police. As a teen, Khan was called to the station and questioned about a fight involving a friend. Khan remembers being strip-searched. “It was the first time I was ever naked in front of another person.” No charges were laid. Another time, while living in Brampton, Khan grabbed a ride with a friend after basketball practice. They went to a McDonald’s drive-through and sat in the parking lot eating burgers, listening to music. Khan remembers looking up and seeing six Peel police cruisers speeding into the lot. Within seconds, Khan says, the car was surrounded by officers, guns drawn, yelling at the two teenagers to get out of the car. According to Khan, officers handcuffed the teens and pushed them down to the concrete. The weight of the police officer’s knee on Khan’s back was heavy, the ground cold, cheek on cement. An officer said that Khan’s friend, a young black man, had matched a description of someone they were looking for. It turned out the friend was the wrong guy. After a half-hour on the ground, Khan says, the officer unlocked their cuffs. The police drove off as Khan stood watching, stunned.
A few years later, Khan joined the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club, a space for women and trans people in the east end. Khan competes as a fly, bird-light at five foot three and 112 pounds. Some of the boxers from the gym also hold anti-oppression seminars, talking about racism, classism, sexism. They provided a new vocabulary, a political context to make sense of how blackness had shaped Khan’s life so far. Soon Khan was fighting competitively and leading seminars at other gyms.
Khan talks about all of this in a Toronto café, chewing on what looks like a little branch; it’s a licorice root, a health food staple. “De-stressor,” says Khan, leaning way back in the chair, arms crossed, like a kid in front of the principal. Body language aside, the 29-year-old Khan is quite open, with a rich, easy laugh and a musical voice. Khan has built a distinct brand, travelling the world delivering speeches on anti-black racism under the name Future, a nod to Afrofuturism, an art movement that imagines a utopian world where black women hold power and command respect. There’s a Janaya Khan website and YouTube channel; in one video, Khan patiently advises people how to have difficult conversations about race (“Having a black boyfriend does not mean you’re not racist”).
Khan’s high profile is partly by proxy. A year ago, Khan married Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of the American Black Lives Matter movement, who now goes by the hyphenate Khan-Cullors. Together they form a BLM power couple. They met online a few days after the Brown vigil in Toronto in 2014. Back in L.A., Khan-Cullors had noticed the BLMTO hashtags exploding online, and set up a call with their leadership. Sitting in a meeting room at Ryerson’s student centre, Hudson, Khan, Williams and a few others joined on a Google Hangouts call with Khan-Cullors. “They were all brilliant, but I noticed Janaya the most, of course,” Khan-Cullors recalls.
There was no directive from BLM proper about how the Toronto group was to proceed: local chapters are empowered to pursue local actions. Toronto is one of two international branches of BLM, which has 42 chapters all told. It’s also one of the most active and cutting edge, says Khan-Cullors. “They put black Canada on the map.”
Khan and Khan-Cullors’s relationship built slowly online, culminating several months later in a face-to-face meeting in Detroit. Now they live together in a house in Los Angeles. Khan Skypes or Google Chats into BLMTO meetings, and travels between L.A. and Toronto. Khan’s day job is executive director of a small trans-advocacy non-profit called Gender Justice L.A. As a member of BLM in the States, Khan has met Angela Davis and recently protested the Dakota Pipeline at Standing Rock. During one of our interviews, Khan and Khan-Cullors passed the phone back and forth, calling out to each other from various spots in the house and finishing each other’s sentences. They’re a little like Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver, Khan-Cullors says, only half joking: lovers and revolutionaries, meeting in the trenches. “Our marriage is a challenge to the institution itself: two queer black people who met through the movement getting married,” says Khan. Black people and gay people have both been denied the right to determine whom they marry. “It’s a political decision, and it’s love.”
Khan-Cullors gave birth last year to a baby boy that the couple are raising together. They think a lot about what it means to be parents when a black man, Carnell Snell Jr., was shot dead by police five minutes from their home in Inglewood. “Revolution is no longer a question of ending something but beginning something,” says Khan. “When you’re in the bubble of first laughter and new teeth, it brings clarity. How much safety can I provide for a black child in this moment?”
There have always been people defending and celebrating blackness in Toronto. The Calypso Carnival, a forerunner to Caribana, was a celebration of Caribbean culture as well as a fundraiser for the Canadian Negro Women’s Association. The Black Action Defense Committee started in the ’80s after the police shot a mentally ill black man named Lester Donaldson. In fact, the idea of a special investigations unit was originally proposed by the BADC and its charismatic leader, Dudley Laws, who died in 2011.
For decades, the faces of black activism in the city were alpha-male leaders: people like Laws, with his white beard and beret, and the lawyer Charlie Roach, who helped found Caribana. In BLM, the members who appear on the front lines, wielding the bullhorns and working the cameras, are usually women—queer, cisgender and trans.
Style is a sacred tenet of BLMTO. Hudson designs T-shirts and the website. During the sit-in last March, Khan released a fundraising mixtape called A Love Letter in Song to Black Community. Their actions are inherently theatrical. The strength and impact of BLMTO is its inborn understanding of social media, and how to create visual moments to lure an audience raised on selfies and Snapchat. “Black people are constantly treated as spectacle,” says Khan. “We’re watched and yanked out of cars. So we know how to facilitate spectacle. Selma wasn’t chosen by accident. It looked good, that bridge.”
When BLM was invited by Pride Toronto to be the honoured guests at the parade this summer, the members immediately started art-directing their appearance. Williams helped with the costume design, and others hand-sewed capes and shorts in black and gold, accessorized with chain mail detailing. They carried mini coffins, covered in hand-painted designs by BLMTO members and artists Syrus Marcus Ware and LeRoi Newbold: memorials to the trans people who had been killed that year, and the murders in Orlando. “We wanted to celebrate death,” says Williams.
The issues they were protesting at Pride weren’t very sexy: the presence of police in booths and on floats, which makes black people feel unsafe; the lack of black deaf interpreters; inadequate funding for black stages. But they began with a Vegas-worthy effect: rainbow-coloured smoke flares. Williams was front and centre in short-shorts and a cape, bullhorn held high.
BLMTO’s Pride protest infuriated many Torontonians. The organization was condemned on Twitter: how dare they hijack and politicize a party they were invited to? Death threats poured in. There was talk of lynching—someone wanted to hang Khan from a tree like an apple. Williams couldn’t ride the subway because people would yell obscenities, calling her a fucking racist. They checked in with each other about safety daily. Even now, the location and time of their meetings isn’t public.
BLMTO’s experience of blackness isn’t local or bordered. Ravyn Wngz, a queer, trans dancer who joined the steering committee last summer, went to a predominantly black high school in Atlanta. The principal used to announce over the loudspeaker: “We have word of KKK activity today, so be careful on your way home.” Rodney Diverlus, a jazz dancer who grew up in Florida and Hamilton, describes living in a state of suspicion in both places. He gets the bouncer’s full search at Toronto clubs while his white friends get the hand-wave in. Security guards lurk in his shadow while he’s buying exfoliant at Shopper’s Drug Mart. Slow-moving police cruisers have followed him home, and officers have carded him without explanation.
Hudson argues that Canadians focus on how bad things are in the States. “We ignore the realities of what black people are going through here,” she says. “Don’t tell me there’s no link between stop-and-frisk and carding. White folks are always saying to us, ‘Prove it.’ We don’t have to prove it. Our community knows.”
What’s new is that there is now a way to prove at least some of it: cameras documenting crimes have dramatically changed the relationship between police officers and black people. YouTube makes it impossible to deny that people of colour die at the hands of police: Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile in the U.S.; Somali-Canadian Abdirahman Abdi killed in Ottawa. This new accountability puts police on the defensive, feeling unjustly vilified as a group for the bad behavior of a few—the same complaint black people have been lodging for years, under surveillance and overrepresented in the criminal justice system.
Tension between Toronto police and BLMTO is indisputable. Mark Saunders has yet to meet with the group (nor would he speak to Toronto Life about them). In July, after five cops in Dallas were killed by a black sniper at a Black Lives Matter protest, and seven were injured, Saunders released a letter stating he’s willing to sit down with anyone. He also took veiled aim at BLMTO: “What I am not interested in is monologues from those with nothing to offer except abuse and insult.” In a December interview with the Toronto Star, he again complained about BLMTO’s rhetoric, saying that some of their language crossed the line—specifically, calling the police officer who killed Andrew Loku a “murderer” in interviews and on social media. He reiterated that it would be unlawful to release the names of officers involved in Loku’s shooting, since no criminal charges had been filed. The TPS claims that they have arranged two meetings with representatives from BLMTO, and the activists have cancelled both times, asking for a public meeting.
And yet policing reforms are underway. A report from the Toronto Police Service’s transformational task force, released in late January, announced plans for a “culture change.” The recommendations include shifting to a collaborative, community-based model—the return of the neighbourhood beat cop. Saunders has explained that part of the system change would involve acknowledging bias, which is as close as the city’s first black police chief has come to publicly recognizing racism in policing. Ostensibly, BLMTO achieved its biggest victory last year, when Ontario announced new provincial regulations meant to reform carding. But BLMTO doesn’t believe the reforms go far enough. They want the practice completely banned and data collected through carding destroyed. Police say that the data is tied up in lawsuits and must be preserved.
The distance between the police and BLMTO is getting wider. In January, at their annual general meeting, Pride Toronto leaders agreed to the demands that BLMTO laid out at last summer’s action, including the edict that police no longer appear on floats or in the parade. It’s not quite a victory either way. Exclusion on one side and silence on the other, braided together with a history of conflict, doesn’t look too much like progress.
Maybe this very idea of “progress” is an old person’s concern. For better or worse, BLMTO has moved black issues out of the activist echo chamber, but the same media that have seized their compelling imagery love to freeze-frame the members yelling, snarling, dangerous. This is where BLMTO’s theatricality gets tricky: their brand can inadvertently reinforce the stereotypes they’re challenging.
BLMTO members are impatient. They’re sick of the endless onslaught of government reports and police inquiries. The way they see it, our current institutions are inherently suspect, and possibly not worth saving. Their methods focus on action, disruption, attention. There have been no incidents of violence at any BLMTO gathering. I ask Khan if there is a call to militancy within the movement, and the answer is no: they practise peaceful protest. “So far,” Khan adds.
Critics decry their tactics for playing into the kind of identity politics that set up the appetite for that president next door. They are impressive mobilizers—the city’s most political flash mob. BLMTO’s presence doesn’t compete with the black rights organizations that have been on the ground in Toronto for so long—they’re a bullhorn for the same issues—but they mostly steer clear of the community-building that sustains long-term change. “We’re the platform, not the movement,” says Khan. And no one understands platforms better than people under 30.
Last fall, I went to hear Sandy Hudson speak at an event at Ryerson. The headliner was the poet Dionne Brand, a veteran queer black activist from the boomer generation. She thanked Black Lives Matter and read a poem in their honour: “This continuing fight is one that is needed. Out of self-love, admiration of our history. Out of the need to save our lives.” Hudson took the stage, striking in a tall green and yellow head scarf. She was at once regal and casual, leaning loosely on the dais and slowly scanning the crowd, face by face. She immediately kicked off a singalong: “I believe that we will win,” turning it into a round, back and forth. When it ended, Hudson stood very still, holding the room in silence. “It’s a very beautiful time to be black, is it not?” she said, and the crowd erupted in cheers. “My god—I mean, together we’re creating new knowledges, new ways of knowing, new ways of being together, as though we’re in the midst of a new global black renaissance.” She continued, “It’s magical that you can go through so much devastation over and over and over again and still believe that you can win this magical future.” She got a standing ovation.