At the Black Lives Matter Toronto protest, art is on the front lines

Protesters describe how visual art, music and dance helps keep spirits up

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Black Lives Matter T.O. protesters hold signs outside Metro Toronto Police Headquarters. (Andrea "Dre Ngozi" Roberts)



On Tuesday evening outside Metro Toronto Police Headquarters, a multi-coloured array of tarp covers food and supplies. The steps of the headquarters are decorated with candles, balloons and flowers, which are drooping from the rain. The walls are illuminated with posters, some with bold illustrations, others with bold words: "They Tried to Shoot Us," "Black Love," "Black is Beautiful." 

 "It doesn't matter that they take away that fire. Art is that fire." - Alix Mukonambi, representative, Sacred Women International

A small white and gold Black Lives Matter flag flies boldly atop the Little Glenn bronze statue. I'm moved by the amount of thought, creativity and consideration that the Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter has put into curating this rapidly erected tent city. It doesn't take long to realize that art has become a central component to the space and the movement.

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The 'Little Glenn' bronze statue outside Metro Toronto Police Headquarters holds a Black Lives Matter flag. (Ruthie Titus)

The folks present for this peaceful protest are a combination of organizers, supporters and allies as well as homeless individuals who have been invited to take advantage of the food, body warmers and other resources.

Following the March 16 announcement that the annual festival of African music and culture Afrofest would be shortened by the City of Toronto from two days to one (a decision that was overturned Wednesday) and the March 18 announcement by Ontario's Special Investigations Unit that the unnamed officer who shot 45-year old civilian Andrew Loku last July used justifiable force, Black Lives Matter Toronto decided to take action. A rally held at Nathan Phillips Square on Sunday evolved into what is now the tent city occupation outside police headquarters.

Louis March is the founder of Zero Gun Violence Movement and has been organizing in the Black community for decades.

"We fought against police brutality in the 70s, 80s and 90s. And it still continues. There has not been enough change. There has not been enough accountability," he says. "This is not new, this is a continuation of a problem that has existed for many years in the city of Toronto."

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Black Lives Matter TO protesters in rain gear gather outside the Metro Toronto Police Headquarters. (Ruthie Titus)

Jordyn Samuels, a supporter of Black Lives Matter Toronto and creator of Journeys in Equity, an organization that promotes anti-oppression and equity through workshops, told me about a man who had come by earlier that day to share some of his artworks with the group.

"They were paintings of people who had died from police brutality 15 years ago. And nothing has changed."

Those who camped out overnight are reeling from the violent confrontation that occurred with police on Monday night when they forcefully extinguished a fire that had been created on Sunday by indigenous elders to keep protesters warm, and to serve as a point of connection and building.

"It was a pretty intense interaction. People had fallen, they were dragged, they were pushed to the side, shoved very violently and it was jarring," said Anthony Morgan, a human rights attorney who is present as an observer along with eight other legal professionals. "There were children involved, also elderly folks. This happened on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and it's absolutely appalling. Some people made statements and official complaints to the police."

Morgan also noted that in spite of this incident, he has observed the way that art has facilitated channels and strategies to respond and continue resisting.

"There are pictures being painted, beautiful creations on the ground, posters been put up. There's been dancing, music, sing-alongs. It is sustaining us through the cold, through the fear when those officers came out. While it was a moment that was frightening and destabilizing and angering and frustrating, still we have the music playing. Still we have people dancing. Still we have people singing along for hours at a time."

Alix Mukonambi is a representative from Sacred Women International, an organization that was asked to come in and create a healing space at Sunday's rally and has been present since.

"The resilience has been showing everywhere, with all these brilliant artists, young and old coming and sharing and feeding the spirit and mind. It doesn't matter that they take away that fire. Art is that fire. For us to keep that spark and to maintain it, that is key. That art is the most powerful tool to bring together folks from all cultures, to have these channels to positively transform the rage that we righteously have."

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A fire burns as Black Lives Matter TO protesters sit outside Metro Toronto Police Headquarters. (Andrea "Dre Ngozi" Roberts)

As the sun went down, Black Lives Matter Toronto organizers Yusra Khogali and Alexandra Williams got on their bullhorns to share updates and information. Utilizing strategies of call-and-response core to all African storytelling and exhibiting the kind of swag only a generation raised on hip-hop can bring, they started leading chants, which had been created via freestyling sessions around the now-extinguished fire, accompanied by drums and punctuated with dance moves.

Eventually the organizers put down the bullhorns and went back to work. The speakers were turned up and Beyonce's "Formation," Janelle Monae's "Q.U.E.E.N." and Rihanna's "Work" provided the soundtrack for everyone else to sing loudly, dance boldly and exist unapologetically.

"There was this moment when we were dancing, all of us together and just loving our blackness. After being brutalized, we made loving art," said Jasbina Justice, a supporter of Black Lives Matter Toronto who has been protesting since Sunday. "We're talking about healing. They're gonna try to frame us as basically these angry folks that are just anarchy-savages, but we're just here peacefully loving each other.

"With all this anger and hate we could experience, we just want to be able to say our lives matter."​

Black Lives Matter TO is holding a rally on Saturday, Mar. 26.

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