This past Sunday, over 10,000 Montrealers poured into the streets to express their outrage over the excesses of the police in the United States and here in Canada.
This, despite the ongoing public health crisis that makes such gatherings risky: protesters weighed the factors and calculated that the risk of unchecked police violence tipped the balance.
The demonstration was peaceful, with people brandishing creative signs, banging on drums, and chanting slogans of anger and sadness. I gave a speech to kick off the protest, in which I highlighted the systemic nature of the current crisis.
But that systemic aspect was denied at a press conference given by Premier François Legault the following day. When asked about the protest and the demands made of the government, Legault acknowledged the problem of racism, but seemed to dismiss it as the work of a few bad apples.
Let me remind the premier of the nature of systemic racism. It is not about acts committed by individuals. It is more insidious and pervasive, seen in the refusal of responsible authorities to take appropriate action to remedy the situation. The killing of George Floyd is a case in point; in what amounted to a lynching for the digital age, police officer Derek Chauvin was able to asphyxiate Floyd while three fellow members of the police force looked on.
The lynching of Floyd was a display of brute power and a brazen assertion of expected impunity on the part of someone who was tasked to serve and protect. It’s worth considering whether the police officer involved would have been prosecuted had there been no public outcry.
We have been asked to accept the platitude that there is no systemic racism in Quebec. This, while the CAQ has been pounding on the levers of our constitution since elected, in order to avoid inevitable Charter-based court challenges to laws, including Bill 21, which bars certain public employees from wearing visible religious symbols like the hijab. If we remain in this stage of denial in Quebec, we have a long road ahead before we are able to address systemic racism in this province.
Towards the close of Sunday’s rally, police officers crouched down on one knee, protesters expressing surprise and hope at this apparent gesture of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. A few moments later, the police sent tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd — they had been crouching to put on their gas masks. The cynical nature of dispersing a peaceful rally against police brutality with violence must be roundly denounced.
When our mayor, Valerie Plante, tweets hashtags supportive of the movement, after having declined just last year to expand a body cam pilot project with the SPVM, we have to call it out. When Legault denounces racism while instituting Bill 21, when the SPVM expresses sadness at the killing of George Floyd then preemptively resorts to dangerous crowd dispersal methods, we have to call it out.
The dystopian nature of our current predicament does not go unnoticed.
We will not let authorities in Quebec engage in #BLMwashing by covering regressive policies in a thin veneer of solidarity. This province has a long history of revolutionary change that can be drawn on in times like these. We demand that our leaders follow up the beautiful expressions of solidarity and sentiments of togetherness with direct action to improve the treatment and condition of Black people in Quebec.
Frères et Soeurs, Brothers and Sisters,
Remember Bill 21? Looks like we’re all wearing face coverings now. We’re meeting at a time not to rejoice or celebrate, but to mourn and protest. This pain and anger we feel is the culmination of a long series of wounds. There have been too many killings of black people at the hands of authorities, with impunity. THIS. MUST. END!
For those of you who have been searching for the meaning of systemic racism, here it is! The reluctance to take massive and appropriate action to reverse this pattern on the part of those in power IS systemic racism in practice, whether it is in Minnesota, Georgia or Quebec!
Systemic racism isn’t just about what those with power do; it’s also about what they don’t do; it’s about who they protect and who they don’t protect; it’s about who they advocate for and who they don’t advocate for; it’s about who is shown leniency and who is shown aggression; it’s about who they choose to prosecute and who they choose to set free.
We MUST be alert about the systemic nature of the crisis we are currently facing — because this is not a random string of tragic incidents, periodically raining pain & grief into our lives. It is a long-standing unwillingness to react adequately — and make no mistake, that unwillingness is backed by power.
All of this is taking place while we’re dealing with a serious public health crisis, one which disproportionately affects people from marginalized communities. We are already suffering. We are dealing with job loss, sickness, isolation, and fear. In that context, we must unite. We must set aside old rivalries and conflicts, and help each other confront these challenges, collectively.
The other day, US President Donald Trump used the killing of George Floyd to justify the deployment of the national guard against protesters. It is this type of perverse rhetoric, which upholds the strong and punishes the weak, oppresses the oppressed, and rewards the oppressor, celebrates bigotry and denigrates peacemaking, that we must categorically oppose. I am not a Christian, but I believe that we are fighting against principalities of darkness. Whether that darkness is found in our police departments, governments, businesses, organizations, wherever it is, we must fight it. We can and we must do better, together. We must hold anyone with power accountable to fight this oppression.
In this country, we tend to observe events in the United States as though they don’t happen here. It is happening here. From Bony Jean Pierre, to Abdirahman Abdi, to Regis Korchinski-Paquet, black people are being killed by police with impunity. We cannot credibly take shelter in ignorance any longer. If we are to reach a better tomorrow, we must redefine je me souviens as never again.