Arts·Pandemic Diaries

A Canadian activist in New York pleads: We must all be a part of the fight against anti-Black racism

"It's not good enough to not be the bully that lives below; we must address the damage that is happening from within."

'It's not good enough to not be the bully that lives below; we must address the damage happening from within'

Demonstrators denouncing systemic racism and the police killings of African Americans take to the streets in the borough of Brooklyn on June 6, 2020 in New York City. (Scott Heins/Getty Images)

Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.

On the night of May 30th, I was at the mouth of the Manhattan bridge, Lenape land, on the Brooklyn side, standing with strangers as we used our bikes and bodies to block a cavalcade of police officers preparing their next move. Following months of quarantining with my two roommates, leaving the house primarily to buy food, walk with a friend or two, or bike to an empty beach, it was scary and exhilarating to be around so many people. After a day of demonstrations across the city, thousands of activists had just taken over the bridge, making their way to Manhattan, with hundreds of us — of various genders and races, including me, a white dude from Canada who had arrived in New York nine years earlier — still protesting, unmoved by the police's pressure on us to disperse.

It was the second day of protests in New York City, in solidarity with the demonstrations in Minneapolis after the brutal killing of George Floyd. Our chants — BLACK LIVES MATTER, and HOW DO YOU SPELL RACIST: N.Y.P.D. — echoed off the buildings of downtown Brooklyn, cutting through the roar of sirens, helicopters, and music pouring out of car and apartment windows. My mask was wet from screaming and sweating, but I was not tempted to pull it down; none of the officers had on any personal protection equipment, with the exception of a few wearing face-shielded helmets.

The action began for me when a line of officers moved toward us, using the sidewalk and a nearby building under construction to create a triangle to contain us. It was a slow advance, until it was brutal: red and blue lights rotating off the top of cop cars illuminated the pandemonium as a trio of protesters I had been standing with broke away, running toward a side street while two pairs of officers followed. The remaining cops and us protesters were close behind, many of us still with our bikes. The three that had broken away were now a knot of limbs and yelps, as they used the scaffolding to steady themselves and fight back. The officers, as if playing some demoniac game of whack-a-mole, banged their clubs against the bars of the scaffolding near the protestors' hands, creating a violent ringing in the night. Beside me was a South Asian woman who had her phone out, narrating the action as her camera captured the scene. Barely registering her voice at the time, I can hear her now in my head: "White officer tried to hit a protester..."

We all jostled to get closer, to put our bodies between the police and the three people that had escaped. But then, as quickly as it had begun, our cloud of chaos dissipated. In my memory, there is a crackle of a cop's walkie talkie and a blur of sound about a mass mobilization. Is this possible? Or maybe the officers, satisfied with containing the runaway trio, peeled off to wreak havoc elsewhere.

Protesters denouncing police brutality and systemic racism exit the Manhattan Bridge after being stopped by police for hours during a citywide curfew in New York City on June 2, 2020. (Scott Heins/Getty Images)

What I do remember is finding myself amid a semi-circle of protestors soon after the officers had left. A few of us with water bottles were offering them to one of the protestors who broke off, a Black man now sitting on a sidewalk, holding his left hand close to his heart. A Black woman was kneeling beside him, asking to see the wound. I could not hear him crying — I could only see it on his face. One of the protestors, who had left the circle, came back running with a bag of ice, handing it to the woman. The man relaxed and exposed his wound. Under the yellow hue of a street lamp, dappled by spring leaves, I saw a gnarled finger, a knuckle where it shouldn't be, connected to a person who had just been trying to stand up to injustice but was now roughed up by brutality.

Before I left the huddle, I said, "Get home safe," attempting to broadcast a smile beyond my mask. Over the coming weeks I would come to learn that what we had experienced was a police tactic called kettling, in which officers surround and divide protesters. The goal is to de-power and separate the masses, with the terror and injury inflicted upon individuals being part of the process.

When cities across the U.S. started to order curfews in an attempt to quell the uprisings, many Canadian friends began to broadcast a kind of Canuck superiority in messages to me, or on social media — as if 100 people hadn't been shot and killed by police in Canada since 2017, the majority being Black or Indigenous; and as if Canadian activists from #idlenomore and Black Lives Matter had not been silenced in their calls for sovereignty and to defund the police.

NYPD officers block the exit of the Manhattan Bridge on June 2, 2020 as hundreds protesting police brutality and systemic racism attempt to cross into the borough of Manhattan from Brooklyn hours after a citywide curfew went into effect in New York City. (Scott Heins/Getty Images)

Similarly, when COVID-19 first hit, many people assumed that I would move back to Canada, and for a moment, I was lured into thinking about life with better access to health care. But I am here, teaching and building community with others, and as long as that is true, I am aware that my body is one of the most valuable things I have and that the least I can do is use it in concert with others for a better world. As the powerful protests continue — across North America and beyond — it is my hope that Canadians move away from feeling "better" because they are not in the United States, and instead reflect on the violence that occurs above the border. It's not good enough to not be the bully that lives below; we must address the damage that is happening from within.

As the powerful protests continue — across North America and beyond — it is my hope that Canadians move away from feeling 'better' because they are not in the United States, and instead reflect on the violence that occurs above the border.- Theodore Kerr

Living amid the dual pandemics of systemic racism and the novel coronavirus, under a corrupt administration that has allowed conditions to steadily worsen, has been intense, exhausting, and empowering. What I could feel from the protests was that as much as we were out there for George Floyd, we were also releasing anger and grief over the premature deaths of so many Black people, from Emmett Till to Tony McDade, Sandra Bland to Islan Nettles; over the uneven burden that COVID-19 was having on Black communities, Indigenous communities, and communities of colour. I was also processing the news coming out of Toronto about the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet. Civil unrest was a way that people figured out how to be in the world that night, pushing back against any notions of the "new normal," knowing too well that the old normal persists.

But it wasn't the only way. As I rode home from the bridge and past two more demonstrations, I found myself hearing something I had not heard in months: the simmering sound of social gathering. Teenagers giggling in the trees talking about things, I assume, not fit for Zoom or nearby parents; families standing around in parks over food and small fires, consoling one another over job losses; and lovers, leaning over car doors, finding one more reason to stay smiling at each other, their eyes free for a moment from the endless scroll of suffering and outrage on social media. That night, from my bike, I saw how after months of sheltering in place, the protests broke open the world, providing cover for people to gather. It was the space we needed not only to check in and witness each other, but to ask what we were going to do to best support one another, and how we were going to ensure that all of the sacrifices made in the name of public health would continue while showing up to protest anti-Black state violence. These moments, like the standoff at the bridge, were their own rebel yells in the early days of the American Spring 2020. They were the sounds of survival, and a way to imagine going forward.

Protesters denouncing systemic racism in law enforcement march in defiance of a citywide curfew on June 5, 2020 in New York City. (Scott Heins/Getty Images)

Upon getting home that night, I found out one of my roommates had crossed the Manhattan Bridge and was documenting the protesters taking over SoHo, Union Square, and the West Village. With him still in the streets, we made a deal, over text, that for every night we don't get arrested, we get ice cream. Since then, not only has New York City had over 50 consecutive days of protests, our freezer has been full. As the Minnesota City Council has voted to disband their police force, activists have started encampments in Seattle, New York City, and Philadelphia demanding greater transparency in local government, and activists have raised alarm around the use of federal law enforcement in Portland, my roommate and I have gotten softer in the middle, and have not been arrested.

But that first night as I lay in bed, I was unsure what the future held. I kept hearing the Black Lives Matter chants in my head, seized by this idea that cops must fall asleep replaying the night in the heads too. In those involuntary moments of self-reflection before sleep, they must hear our voices, see our faces. How do they make sense of it? How do they justify their connection to death and suffering? It is a question that should be on all our hearts, but certainly some hearts more than others.

Finally, after listless hours, sleep took over. In my dream, I hovered over Brooklyn — a night heron's view of calamity, kettling, questioning, and caring.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Born in Edmonton, Theodore (Ted) Kerr is part time faculty at The New School, a writer, and a founding member of the collective What Would an HIV Doula Do? With co-author Alexandra Juhasz, his book, We Are Having This Conversation Now: The Cultural Times of AIDS, is forthcoming from Duke University Press.

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