As protesters gather outside, sold-out crowd greets Linda Sarsour with cheers, laughter
Palestinian-American activist says Brian Bowman is 1st elected official to try to silence her
Inside a packed room at the Ukrainian Labour Temple in Winnipeg's North End Friday night, Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour began by addressing the controversy surrounding her appearance there.
"It is I — I am the drama that you heard about before you got here. This is it," she said, arms outstretched, to laughter and cheers from the crowd.
Outside and across the street, a few dozen protesters, many holding Israeli flags, denounced Sarsour and the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, which organized the panel that included Sarsour. For weeks, the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg and B'Nai Brith have called on the council to disinvite Sarsour over her past comments, which they say promote anti-Semitic tropes and question the foundation of the state of Israel.
Earlier this week, Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman joined them in calling for Sarsour's removal.
"Finally an elected official has done the right thing. An elected official hasn't been afraid to stand up and say what needs to be said," said Ron East, one of the protesters.
"It's crazy. and it's all because they're bringing into the city a person who should not be allowed to have a platform here, unless somebody else has a balanced platform to counter the assertions that she's about to make inside that building."
Inside the building, Sarsour asked the crowd at the sold-out event to give her a chance to speak for herself.
"[I hope] that you give me a chance and allow me to define myself and not base who I am on the words of others who do not know me, have never had a conversation with me," she said.
At a news conference earlier in the day, Sarsour said Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman's call for her to be removed from the panel was unprecedented.
"Never have I received a mayor of a town, an actual sitting elected official, that has actually wanted to deny … me my right to speak," she said.
The event, titled Sorry Not Sorry: Unapologetically Working for Social Justice, was forced to relocate from its original venue at the Seven Oaks Performing Arts Centre at Garden City Collegiate after complaints about Sarsour.
Friday's panel also included Quebec-based writer and activist Nora Loreto and Chantell Barker, head of restorative justice with the Southern Chiefs' Organization, with University of Winnipeg politics professor Shannon Sampert moderating.
'A balanced approach'
East questioned why the panel didn't include someone with a pro-Israel point of view.
"This was never about de-platforming her or not giving her an opportunity to speak. It's about a balanced approach to these things," he said.
The Social Planning Council held the press conference earlier on Friday with Sarsour, along with representatives from local Jewish and Palestinian organizations, to voice their support for her.
Sarsour is one of the organizers of the Women's March in the United States. Despite the opposition she has faced, Sarsour said at the press conference she was excited to take part in Friday night's event, which she said would focus on organizing social movements across communities and celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Social Planning Council.
"I'm not happy about the controversy, but I'm also not immune to it, and I've seen much worse before," she said. "I've been targeted by the son of the president of the United States of America, so I think I can take a little mayor from Winnipeg."
'Not the sign of good leadership'
Harold Shuster, with Independent Jewish Voices, an international organization of Jews who are critical of the Israeli government, denied allegations that Sarsour is anti-Semitic. Shuster called Sarsour an "anti-racist" who is advocating for the rights of Palestinians who have legitimate grievances against Israel.
"In a city plagued by racism, for the mayor, who has campaigned on and succeeded in building bridges, to lend credibility to such an attempt at silencing a marginalized anti-racist voice like Sarsour's is beyond shameful," he said.
Sarsour gave a hug to her fellow panelist Nora Loreto, who told reporters she is no stranger to controversy herself.
"We see the right [wing] organizing in this country, and working very hard to intimidate people. It works, is the problem. It works for far too many people," Loreto said.
Sarsour said she was shocked by Bowman's call for her to be removed from the panel, considering they have never spoken. She suggested he should engage local Palestinian groups to hear their point of view.
"For him to make an uninformed decision just based on one group`s pressure, or based on one individual, a few individuals, is not the sign of good leadership, in my opinion," she said.
- A previous version of this story quoted Sarsour as saying she had been targeted by the president. In fact, she said she had been targeted by the son of the president.Apr 27, 2019 8:59 PM CT
With files from Ahmar Khan