“All We’re Asking For Is Peace”

Scenes from the weekend’s Black Lives Matter protest

Toronto’s second straight weekend of anti-racism protests began on Saturday afternoon, when hundreds of protesters, most of them wearing masks, marched from Trinity Bellwoods Park to Queen’s Park. Hundreds more participated in a separate protest at Nathan Phillips Square. People from all backgrounds and walks of life talked about the opportunity to create real change in this historic moment of global anti-racism demonstrations. Here, protesters on why they took to the streets this weekend:

Kayla Harvard, 32, corporate project coordinator

“I grew up near Timmins. As a light-skinned mixed Black person in a community with only a handful of people of colour, I faced a different type of racism. White people bragged that they could tan darker than me. They’d question my enjoyment of hip hop and R&B. They’d use racist language they admitted they wouldn’t use around a ‘real’ Black person. On one trip down to Toronto for a basketball tournament when I was in high school, a teammate had the audacity to come up to me from her seat to warn me about not embarrassing the team by acting like I was Black, because I wasn’t. But I am Black. I’m proud of it. You can’t erase it or my history. Racism is real. As a Christian, I can pray, but I think there’s a point where I have to also take action. That’s why I’m here. The system is not broken—it’s doing exactly what it needs to do because it’s built on racism, whether people want to admit that or not. We need to restructure the system with that in mind.”

GB “Smiley G” Bennett, 19, rapper

“When I saw what happened to George Floyd, I cried. I was arrested when I was 17, and what happened to Floyd could have happened to me. When I got out of jail, I changed my life. I stopped robbing people and I stopped stealing cars. Now, I try to do positive things and inspire kids with my music. If I see a homeless person on the street, I get them something to eat. If they just need someone to talk to, I listen. I’m moving forward. But racism is still slapping me in my face. I’ll just be walking down the street in my neighbourhood in Malvern, and I get harassed by cops and regular people for things I didn’t even do. The guy at the corner store on my street eyeballs me every time I walk in. Every single time. I have mental health issues and I know what people see when they look at me: a Black youth with disabilities and a criminal past. If people just took the time to know me, they’d see I’m a good person. When I try to sleep at night, all I’m thinking about is racism. I’m terrified every day just because I’m a Black youth in the streets. If I paint myself white, do I get more respect? Why can’t people wake up? All we’re asking for is peace. We just want our mothers to not cry all the time, wondering if we’re going to get shot or not. Racism needs to be extinct.”

Suzette Dockery, 40, shelter manager at the Christie Ossington Neighbourhood Centre

“Coming here was important for me because I want to take a stand with my daughter, Shawna. She is the next generation and we don’t want to be going backwards anymore. We want to take a step forward. Not just for Black Lives Matter, but for all humanity. A march like this is important because this is a way we can unite and be heard. All Canadians need to be living as one, instead of discriminating against each other because of the colour of our skin.”

Abidin Kusno, 53, York University professor, with Hong Kal, 53, York University associate professor, and Leia, 8

“Racism is everywhere. It doesn’t just impact Black communities—racism is experienced by many minorities and people of colour. I’m from Indonesia and my wife is from South Korea, and our daughter was born in Canada. We have to play our part as a family in making sure Canada is a good place to live. And that can only happen if we struggle and work together to preserve the values that make Canada so great. That’s why it’s important we learn from history. My wife and I have experienced racism all our lives, and we want our daughter to understand that what happened in the past continues into the present. This is an important moment in this struggle, and my hope is our daughter learns from this experience and conveys these lessons to her own family in the future.”

Paul “Smiley” Evans, 48, caterer

“Nearly 30 years ago, one day after the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles, I became a victim of police brutality. It was my 19th birthday, and I was enjoying a lunch at the Promenade Mall in Thornhill. At the time, I wore a custom-made three-finger gold ring with my name on it. When I started heading out of the mall after lunch, I noticed security had called in the police about me. The police officers asked all these questions about my ring and then told me it was a prohibited weapon. I would have accepted a warning, but they tried arresting me when I attempted to leave the mall. I put up a fight that ended with me spending my birthday in jail. This is just one experience of many for the Black community. In 2012, I was also a victim of gun violence. I was working at a banquet hall near Dufferin and Rogers, and I was robbed and shot four times. One of the bullets hit my spine, and I’ve been partially paralyzed from the waist down ever since. The time for equality is now. If you look around at who’s coming to this protest, it’s not just Black people. You’ve got every ethnicity taking part. I’ve got 13 children in all, seven boys and six girls, and I have to stand up for my children and the next generation. Cameras are everywhere now, and the police can’t hide anymore. Things are going to change.”

Malachai Francis, 14, high school student

“My mother was abused by four police officers in Durham Region, and she’s always taught me that silence is ignorance. That’s why I’m here with my family. We’re tired of the injustice. I come from a background of slavery and police beatings, and I want justice for that. It’s really encouraging to see that it isn’t just my family and me who are speaking out. There are protesters here from all backgrounds. We just want to encourage people to stay positive, because change is coming.”

Aisha Muzhir, 25, youth settlement worker

“I moved from Uganda to Toronto when I was 10, and I immediately faced discrimination at school. I came in with a thick accent, and on top of that I was a Black female Muslim. Everywhere I went, I had to deal with being Black, being Muslim and being a woman in a society that discriminates against all three. So that’s why I had to come here today. Protests like this show the police that we are serious and that we are capable of protesting peacefully. I feel like our message gets distorted, so protests are also a valuable opportunity to speak directly to the police, so they can understand that all we’re asking for is equal rights. I want to see a Toronto where Black people can go into a store and not wonder if someone is following them. I want to see a Toronto where Black people are not being carded for the colour of their skin. I think we have a long way to go, but step one is protesting. We have to start somewhere.”

Kyng, 21, unemployed (left), with a friend

“I’ve had to watch a lot of loved ones suffer from police injustice. Police need to know that these injustices they’re perpetrating are being seen by their community. But we also don’t want police to feel like Black people are coming after them, which is how this is often portrayed. That’s why it’s important that they see it isn’t just Black people who aren’t standing for this anymore—there are White people protesting here and a lot of other diverse voices speaking out, too. When I think about the change I want to see in the world, I think about my son, Honor. He’s six months old, and I want him to grow up in a community where he’s not the first one who’s looked at when something goes wrong. I want my son not to be scared to know and live his roots.”

Kim Spizziri, 59, administrative worker from Alliston

“It’s amazing that people from all walks of life around the world are protesting and speaking out against racism. In Canada, we have our own issues with racism and missing Indigenous girls, and I just wanted to speak out, too. That’s why I made the drive with my daughter today. I think my daughter’s generation is going to really make a difference. If you don’t educate yourself, then you’re doing some wrong. We all need to stop racism and police brutality. And if somebody needs mental health care, qualified people should be there to help them. What happened to Regis Korchinski-Paquet is tragic. I felt horrible that this poor girl who had mental health issues was in distress and that the incident ended in her death. A mother lost her daughter, and that shouldn’t have happened. It breaks my heart. Why wasn’t a health care worker in the room with her? Why didn’t any of the cops have body cameras? If we don’t all come out and do something about it, nothing will change—and change needs to happen.”

John Wigham, 42, communications manager at an insurance company

“Systemic racism is a problem that doesn’t just impact the Black community—we all need to stand up and stop being silent. So even though we’re still in the middle of the pandemic, I felt I had to join this protest to show that I’m a White gay male who’s listening and standing with the Black community. As much as people want to say that Canada’s different than the U.S., we’re not. Racism exists here. I have Black friends who experience it every day. When I go shopping, nobody comes up to me to check if I’m going to steal something, but when I go with a Black friend, I’ve seen her being followed around. It’s not acceptable anymore. I don’t think we’ve ever had a movement against Black racism like this that has spanned the globe, all sparked by something that happened in Minnesota. There are countless Black deaths every month, so deaths like George Floyd’s aren’t rare or isolated. People are ready for a change. We should be looking at changing how we’re funding the police. Instead of spending as much as we are on policing, maybe the community would benefit more if we focused on education and improving services in impoverished areas. This would lift people up and help them, as opposed to maintaining the systemic oppression we have right now.”

Andre Saunders, 24, photographer

“I’ve never been good at acknowledging that racism is happening everywhere around me. I’ve tried to block it out my entire life, and I know there are people like me who are just trying to look past it or make light of it, but enough is enough. The injustices are just overwhelming. In the past, after a death like George Floyd’s, there’d be outrage and then things would quiet down. But this feels different. This is the moment when everyone should come out and work to end racism. I think going to marches and demonstrations is important so that people, especially Black people, can pay attention to what’s happening in our community. If you don’t know what’s happening, it’s just going to keep on happening. Then you’re technically part of the problem. Everyone needs to get involved by donating, signing petitions and spreading awareness; otherwise, we’re going backwards as a society. There’s no reason racism should be happening in 2020.”

John Vans, 30, basketball youth coach

“Black culture touches our lives in so many ways, and it’s despicable that we treat the Black community the way we do. We need to change our perspective to see that no matter who you are, you’re born with one heart and two lungs. We should embrace our differences while still remembering that we’re all the same. As a White person, it’s up to me and up to the White community to make it so that minorities and people of colour don’t have to put up with racism anymore. It’s exhausting that these people have to try to save their own lives. And I know that a lot of people feel uncomfortable when they hear things like ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but they should feel uncomfortable, because they’re getting uprooted from a system that protects them while it oppresses others. Of course change will be uncomfortable, but it needs to happen. The bottom line is that the people with bad hearts are always going to stomp on those with good hearts—unless we stick together. It’s very easy for those of us with good hearts to believe leaders on podiums telling us things they know we want to hear. We believe them because we want to think that these leaders are doing the right thing for once, but then we get stomped on again. We’re sick of it. We’re not going to put up with lies and fake promises that perpetuate a broken system. We need to wake up to the reality that only average citizens all working together will create change.”

Gareth Henry, 43, executive director of the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (second from left)

“At Black CAP, our motto for 31 years has been ‘Because All Black People’s Lives Are Important.’ This includes people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. We want to see every person treated with respect and our humanity restored. Some people say Canada isn’t as bad as the U.S., but we are truly free only when a Black person can walk down the street without being looked at differently. We’ve already paid the price. What happened to George Floyd has happened countless times. Many lives have been lost and many people have been brutally murdered. This is an age-old problem that has to be addressed. We must hold world leaders accountable to make sure the lives of Black people are protected at all times, no matter the cost. Our prime minister is leading by example, but the system is broken and needs to be fixed. So Trudeau has a responsibility to not only stand in solidarity with us but to do something to create change in Canada so all people can walk into a space and be treated the same way, regardless of skin colour. Until that happens, we’re going to stay in the streets and we’ll continue to challenge our governments and civil society.”

Dennis Van Hoekelen, 48, bike messenger

“Today is the 76th anniversary of D-Day. On that day, Canadians came together with the British, Americans and people from around the world to stop the Nazis. If that happened 76 years ago, and racism against Blacks has been happening for hundreds of years, taking a united stand against racism is long overdue. Toronto’s police officers need to think about the citizens they serve. The police need to take a step back and realize there’s a difference between a misdemeanour and a violent crime and how they should be handled—they also need to respect the consequences of the deaths they cause. Once they understand those things, maybe we can get closer to each other. But we have to start with protests like this one. We’ve been through this before, and I’m hoping that real change will happen this time. I’m optimistic because I’ve never seen protests against racism popping up all over the world like this before. People are even protesting in Germany about the death of George Floyd. I find that remarkable. It’s symbolic to me, considering how today is the anniversary of D-Day. Germans have moved on past their fascist history and are now fighting against racism. It’s a new world we’re creating together.”