80K and counting: Call to 'Be The Change' reverberates from digital anti-racism rally

The rally opened with five black men silently taking a knee for two minutes and 53 seconds — the length of time George Floyd was unresponsive as an officer knelt on his neck.

Black and Indigenous speakers talked about personal experiences in Tuesday event

Speakers opened the digital rally by taking a knee as a symbol of how George Floyd died. (Deborah Bibaud)

The rally opened with five black men silently taking a knee for two minutes and 53 seconds — the length of time George Floyd was unresponsive as an officer knelt on his neck.

"I see him die — I see myself die. I see my sons maybe dying. Because what age do they go from cute to a threat?" said Jesse Lipscombe, organizer of Be The Change, a digital rally held Tuesday night in Edmonton that united black and Indigenous voices.

With more than 2,500 viewers tuning in live and more than 80,000 views by Wednesday morning, Lipscombe said he hoped people were not just popping in to share a hashtag.

"When you look like me, you don't have that opportunity just to find the exit door … and say 'I'm out, it's uncomfortable, I don't want anymore.' I can't do that. This doesn't scrub off," Lipscombe said. 

"I have to live with this, as do all the black and Indigenous and all the people of colour every, single day. And it is a lot."

Floyd, 46, died in Minneapolis last Monday after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes, sparking protests in U.S. and Canadian cities calling out police brutality.

The officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with third-degree murder.

'I'm already trying to survive a minefield of a life'

2 years ago
Duration 2:22
Be The Change Rally organizer Jesse Lipscombe talks about the death of George Floyd and his lived experience as a person of colour in Edmonton.

Personal experiences of racism

Rather than the typical street rally, Lipscombe, who pulled the event together with help from people in Edmonton and Calgary, opted for a digital demonstration to respect the rules of physical distancing during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking against a backdrop of iconic images of the civil rights movement, speaker after speaker shared personal experiences of overt and systemic racism — being physically threatened, called a "squaw," interactions with police over frivolous or false allegations, and the cumulative toll of micro-expressions of racism. 

Albertans were urged to become politically involved to improve government representation and hold officials accountable. Speakers also called for a ban on the Confederate flag, often used by white supremacists.

But speaker Sterling Scott, an Edmonton comedian, said change doesn't begin in the streets fighting with police — it starts at home.

"It begins in your Christmas dinner, fighting with the weird uncle [who] says all kinds of things," or calling out friends when the "n-word" is dropped, Scott said. 

"The narrative in your house is that we are not human and as long as you are allowed to dehumanize us, well then it's easy to kill us and nobody complains."

Edmonton comedian Sterling Scott says the fight to end racism starts at home. (Deborah Bibaud)

Scott said nobody in Canada has been more disrespected than Indigenous people.

"Every last one of you watching right now has heard the negative and dirty stereotypes said about both black and First Nations and you said nothing," Scott said, punching his fist to punctuate his words.

He talked about how police and government officials show up as allies of events like Pride Week or the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, compared to Cariwest Festival where he one year saw five armed police officers walking through a crowd that included many children. 

'Systematically plots his demise'

Speaker Taneya Rogers described her teenage son as smart and handsome — a boy who makes a great omelet, solves a Rubik's Cube in under 15 seconds and will still run through the sprinkler with his younger siblings.

"My 15-year-old son is black and he stands six foot three inches tall, and as a mother I am scared," Rogers said with a heavy sigh.

"How do I prepare him for a system that at its best barely tolerates his presence and at its worst deliberately and systematically plots his demise?"

Against a screen image backdrop of protesters, Taneya Rogers talked about preparing her 15-year-old son for a system that barely tolerates his presence. (Facebook)

Academic and advocate Katherine Swampy described a government system built on oppression and institutional racism.

In addition to her own five biological children, Swampy said she is a mother of 11 "because I am doing my part to get our Indigenous children out of care.

"They keep taking our children," Swampy said. "Because that system was not built to help us — it was built to enforce genocide."

Katherine Swampy described a government system built on racism. (Facebook)

Lipscombe credited fellow speaker and mental health advocate Ethan Woodham with inspiring him to continue speaking out despite feeling emotionally drained.

Woodham posted a video last week to express his anger, fear and exhaustion in the wake of Floyd's death and share his own experiences in Edmonton.

"I get followed around stores, I get cops coming over, slowing down when I'm walking through parking lots, watching where I'm going," Woodham told CBC.

"I've had cops pull behind my vehicle while I'm parked … at work, my place of business, sitting behind me for 15 minutes while I'm on a phone call."

Throughout Monday's live broadcast, viewers posted messages of sadness, solidarity and gratitude, shared their own experiences of racism and vowed to act.

More than 300 videos have poured in, along with messages of gratitude from as far away as Vietnam, after Lipscombe asked viewers to record themselves describing how they intend to fight racism.

Knect Entertainment also streamed the event in every major city in North America, Lipscombe said.

'This death is certainly not part of the profession of policing'

2 years ago
Duration 2:02
Edmonton police Chief Dale McFee released this statement in response to the death of George Floyd and ongoing anti-racist protests.

In a video released Tuesday, Edmonton police Chief Dale McFee described Floyd's death as criminal and called for accountability.

He said it's the job of police to walk shoulder-to-shoulder with the black community, to ensure their voices are heard and that the events around Floyd's death lead to "much-needed change."

At city hall, Mayor Don Iveson said on Monday that he would ask for an update on work done by EPS to combat racism at the next commission meeting.

"I'm also confident the Edmonton Police Commission also sees the need to continue building confidence in the Edmonton Police Service's work with the community — to ensure that we are all aligned in addressing and opposing hatred," Iveson wrote.

Some anti-racism advocates who have long called for police reform around carding and other policies, criticized city and provincial officials for not speaking out or acting sooner.

Dozens of protesters also gathered at the legislature and marched through downtown Edmonton Tuesday evening chanting black lives matter and calling for police to be defunded.

Another anti-racism rally organized by Equity For All is scheduled for Friday night at the legislature.

(CBC News)