Thousands honour lives lost to police brutality and racism at Calgary vigil

The names of people killed by police brutality echoed through Calgary's Olympic Plaza on Saturday afternoon, where thousands gathered for a candlelight vigil to mourn and honour victims of racism and police violence.

'We want people to be safe, hear our message, go home and apply it'

Calgarians raise their fists in solidarity at a Black Lives Matter vigil on Saturday. It was the fourth event of its kind held in the city in one week. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

The names of people killed by police brutality echoed through Calgary's Olympic Plaza on Saturday afternoon, where thousands gathered for a candlelight vigil to mourn and honour victims of racist injustice and police violence.

Trayvon Martin. Sandra Bland. Philando Castile. 

It wasn't just American names on the list.

Olando Brown. Abdirahman Abdi. Pierre Coriolan.

The crowd chanted the long list of names while raising fists, signs and cellphone lights into the air. 

"My hopes are that people will become mobilized and start applying anti-racism in their day-to-day lives," Adora Nwofor, one of the organizers, said.

Adora Nwofor is one of the organizers of the Black Lives Matter vigil. (Colin Hall/CBC)

The Black Lives Matter event was the fourth held in Calgary this week, and one of hundreds across the U.S. and Canada ignited by the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who was killed when a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes while he lay unarmed and handcuffed, telling the officer that he couldn't breathe. 

The charge against Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis officer who dug his knee into Floyd's neck, was recently upgraded to second-degree murder, and the three other officers involved — Thomas Lane, J. Kueng and Tou Thao — were charged with aiding and abetting murder.

This is not anything new. What's new is that we've all got cameras in our pockets and we're able to document what's happening.- Tanesha Cromwell

While organizers mourned Floyd's death they also wanted to share an important message — racism and police violence are Canadian issues too. 

They called for policing reform and for police to collect data on actions taken against people of colour. 

"This is not anything new. What's new is that we've all got cameras in our pockets and we're able to document what's happening," said Tanesha Cromwell, who is Black and Miꞌkmaq. Cromwell read a land acknowledgement at the beginning of the demonstration.

"You can log on to pretty much any social media platform and you can see posts by the public. They are showing police who are going around being destructive … they are instigating violence, they are pepper-spraying children, they are destroying medical supplies where medics have tents set up to help the injured. These types of things to just silence us because we are asking for equity in society."

"System racism has been going on forever," said Philip Neilson, who owns a medical spa in Calgary. "My business partner is white ... just finding a location for my spa alone, I had to send her to every place because every place turned me down.

"They didn't obviously come and say, 'hey, it's because you're Black.' But as soon as I sent her alone, we got our location."

Organizers also reminded those in the crowd to take precautions to avoid spreading COVID-19. Most of those in attendance wore masks, hand sanitizer was handed out, and Xs were marked on the ground to remind people to stand two metres apart.

"It's unfortunate COVID-19 is killing people, it's disproportionately killing marginalized people ... we want people to be safe, hear our message, go home and apply it," Nwofor said.

Police estimated more than 4,000 people were in attendance.

Hundreds of people gathered in downtown Calgary to protest against police violence and racism in June 2020. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Earlier in the week, Calgary Police Service put a statement on its Facebook page addressing the relationship between the police force and the communities it serves. 

"While we are proud of the relationships that CPS has built in our city, we don't for a moment believe we are perfect. This world is big, but we know what is happening in the U.S. is being felt far beyond their borders," the post said.

"We are always one incident, one moment of broken trust, one tragedy away, from experiencing a shift in the foundation that we have built with those we serve. Every single interaction that an officer has with a citizen needs to be rooted in our values of respect, compassion, honesty, integrity, fairness, courage and accountability."

Many on social media have pointed out that the statement did not specifically condemn the actions of officers in the U.S., or specifically address the issues of racism or police brutality.

Calgarians march for justice

3 years ago
Duration 2:59
As many as 2,000 Calgarians took to the streets Wednesday afternoon as part of the YYC Justice for All Victims of Police Brutality protest.

Organizers asked members of CPS not to participate in Saturday's vigil.

"One cop participating, kneeling and chanting for pictures, will not create the change we need," said Nwofor, to cheers and whistles from the crowd. "Especially when you are silent participants of a corrupt system otherwise."

Protests have grown over the course of the past 10 days in the wake of what videos of many U.S. demonstrations have shown to be increasingly aggressive tactics by police, including deployments of tear gas and rubber bullets.

There was only one small disturbance at Saturday's event in Calgary, when a counter-protester was led away by police.

Attendees called for police reform and honoured people of colour killed at the hands of police. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

Hundreds also attended vigils in Banff and Lethbridge on Saturday.

In Banff, a protester accidentally discharged bear spray that was in their pocket but police said nobody was injured and nobody was charged.

'A path for the generation to come'

Kay L, a local hip-hop artist and activist, said Calgary's protests feel historic.

"We haven't seen movements like this, or protests like this or rallies like this ever in our city's history I think," he said. "It's really going to set a path for the generation to come."

Nwofor said she was heartened by the size of the crowd but said there's still so much work to be done.

"This says that people are ready to have the conversation. They're ready to see what's happening. But if I'm going to be honest, Bill 1 shows us that they don't actually want to apply the things, because they keep silencing with legislation, with laws, without giving opportunity," she said.

Bill 1 is legislation in the works targeting Alberta protesters, that could see people arrested, fined up to $25,000 or jailed if they are found to have blocked, damaged or entered "essential infrastructure," for example people who protest on a highway.

"We're going to create a fever pitch. There's going to be emotion. But what we really need is for all those people to hear us," Nwofor said, adding that she wants to see people speak up and be actively anti-racist until it's the norm.

Thousands met in Calgary's Olympic Plaza on Saturday for a vigil in support of the Black Lives Matter movement honouring victims of police brutality. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

With files from Terri Trembath and Erin Collins