Thousands fill Centennial Square for Black Lives rally

Organizers of a rally against anti-black racism on Sunday issued a challenge to the thousands of people who gathered, asking them to speak up when they encounter racism.

Asiyah Robinson, one of three organizers, told the crowd the event was about listening to black voices and turning outrage into action.

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“I want you to feel committed. I’m holding you to this. If you see something, I want you to remember this moment. And if you don’t feel comfortable engaging, learn how,” Robinson said.

Centennial Square overflowed with people attending the Peace Rally for Black Lives, with some spilling onto surrounding sidewalks, streets and an adjacent parkade.

Robinson, along with Vanessa Simon and Pam Buisa — all black women living in Victoria — organized the rally.

The crowd’s cheers and chants could be heard from blocks away as a series of speakers recounted their often difficult, dangerous and demeaning experiences as people with black skin.

Encouraged by the speakers, the crowd roared “black lives matter” repeatedly. They yelled “shame” when they heard first-person stories about mistreatment, threats and physical harm.

Many people in the crowd held homemade signs saying, “Black lives matter” and “If all lives mattered, we wouldn’t be here.” Others held up messages about defunding or abolishing the police. With COVID-19 pandemic warnings still in effect, most people in the crowd wore a face covering and made an effort to not get too close to other people.

Rally organizers told the crowd they were gathered to stand up against police brutality and anti-black racism.

Simon, who organized a similar event last Monday, said she threw together the first rally at the last minute to connect with others in Victoria’s black community at a time of widespread grief and outrage sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“I have always felt alone. I’ve always felt that belonging was challenging for me,” said Simon, who told the crowd she was adopted and grew up in a white family in White Rock.

“I dealt with racism inside my home, as well as at school,” she said.

Buisa, a rugby player who moved to Victoria from Ottawa-Gatineau to pursue her Olympic dream to represent Canada, said Monday’s rally was the first protest she had ever attended.

“The reason for that is because I was scared. I was scared to stand up publicly to say I’m black and I’m proud,” she said. “We can’t be scared anymore. ... We cannot be okay with what’s happening.”

Buisa said she wears the maple leaf every day in her training with Rugby Canada.

“But first of all, I wear my skin. I can’t detach myself from that.”

Robinson, who grew up in Freeport, Grand Bahama, led an exercise to illustrate common injustices experienced by black people and people of colour. She asked everyone in the crowd to raise a fist if they had ever seen videos of violence perpetrated against people who look like them, if someone had ever questioned their abilities because of the colour of their skin and if they’d ever been marked as suspicious and followed in a store.

Robinson asked those with their fists down to look around to see how many people around them could relate to those experiences.

She said those who had never experienced racism couldn’t understand what it feels like, but “you can do something about it.”

Organizers asked on- and off-duty police not to attend the event, because their presence can be triggering for many in marginalized communities.

“That’s not to say that we’re not going to have a conversation with them, because it needs to be had. We will be inviting them some other day, but today is not that day,” Robinson said.

Police closed a section of Pandora Avenue, Douglas Street and Government Street to give the crowd space to spill into the road. A few officers were stationed where the roads were blocked off and there was a police presence in the area, but officers largely kept a distance from Centennial Square.

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Thousands of people are expected to gather at Centennial Square Sunday afternoon for a rally to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Peace Rally for Black Lives is also billed as a vigil for George Floyd, a black man who was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer on May 25. Derek Chauvin, the officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while Floyd said he couldn’t breathe, and witnesses begged him to stop, has been charged with second-degree murder.

Video footage of Floyd’s death has sparked protests across the U.S., Canada and the world against police brutality and the killing of unarmed black people at the hands of police officers.

The Victoria event’s three organizers said the rally is a chance to bring the black community in the city together and a call to action for allies.

“This is an opportunity for me to be present within my blackness and my blackness alone. It’s an opportunity for me to meet my community. It’s an opportunity for me to mourn with my community,” said co-organizer Asiyah Robinson.

Vanessa Simon organized a similar rally and vigil on Monday and was amazed at the crowd that turned out. She said Sunday’s rally sends a message to the black community that they’re not alone and is a reminder to others that racism exists in Victoria.

“Even though things are less aggressive here, racism still happens here. And there is a black community here,” she said.

Organizers are asking people to wear black for solidarity or white for peace.

While many of the protests in the U.S. have seen hostile interactions between police and protesters, organizers Robinson, Simon and Pam Buisa said they’ve spoken to Victoria Police Chief Del Manak, who expressed his support for the event.

“He reached out and it was amazing to see that show of support,” Robinson said.

But they’ve let the chief know they’d prefer if he didn’t attend the rally, because his presence even out of uniform could be triggering for people.

“What it came down to was that this event is for black people. It’s for Indigenous people and for those marginalized communities that have constantly been oppressed. And sometimes, yes, by police, and by the systemic racism, and by the problems that we have in society that these institutions promote,” Robinson said. “And so, it was important for us to make sure that this event is honouring black voices, and therefore making blacks feel safe, and therefore ensuring that police are not involved.”

Manak said he personally reached out to organizers to gauge their comfort level with him attending.

There appeared to be a miscommunication between organizers and the police chief, who was under the impression organizers were happy for him to attend as long as he was out of uniform.

“It’s something that I believe quite strongly in. But I didn’t want to do it without their blessing and support,” Manak said.

He said as a south Asian man he has been subjected to racism and discrimination throughout his life, although he said it happens less frequently now than in the past, in part due to changes in society and because he’s in a position of power.

“But I still have it when I’m not in uniform and people don’t know what I do for a living,” Manak said.

That lived experience gives him a different perspective that many police leaders don’t have, he said.

Manak said he hoped to listen to and learn from the community in order to turn this moment in history into a learning opportunity for the department.

“How does that translate into what I take back to our organization, and what is going to change? And I’ve got some ideas,” he said, adding he plans to speak on the issue at the Greater Victoria Police Advisory Committee meeting next week.

As with all large protests, uniformed police officers will be present “to ensure the protest is safe, peaceful, and lawful,” Manak said.

The rally is scheduled from 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday at Centennial Square.

 

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