Activism and the End Goal

I had the pleasure of attending Toronto’s Pride Parade this year and, for the third year in a row, marching with Mercy for Animals, one of the over 180 participants walking alongside so many other great organizations. For someone who hated parades even as a kid because of the crowds, it’s a testament not only to how much I believe in the work MFA is doing but to the genuine fun that is the Pride Parade. Obviously it was not always this way – Pride Week in Toronto evolved from the now-infamous 1981 Bathhouse Raids, where Toronto Police violently raided and arrested over 300 people from the LGBT community. It was only this year that the Toronto Police Chief issued a formal apology for those actions.

My brief and privileged experience with the Pride parade is this: it is more than “fun”. There is a spirit about it that I find very, very special.  As I stand there each year with my animal activist crowd, waiting in our assigned section for the parade to begin, I look around at the other groups there: everyone from women’s rights, to churches, to healthcare organizations, to groups I’ve never heard of, to massive corporations. As I take in everyone’s signs, costumes and banners, I can’t help but smile. Where else in the world can I be publicly standing in solidarity with The Rainbow Conservatives to the Canadian Foreskin Awareness Project to Amnesty International? Where else would we all ever be gathered so openly, and so freely, but at a Pride event? That’s part of what I think makes it so special – that for one day, no matter what your cause may be or whose justice and liberation you’re marching on behalf of, for those few hours we are all there for one purpose; to celebrate what has been achieved so far and to celebrate our shared hope that more can be done – not just for the LGBT community but for any group who remains oppressed or underrepresented.

As positive as my experience has been, I’m well aware that I get to enjoy the “good years” of Pride and my experience with it has not been everyone else’s. Nothing drove that point further home than when the Toronto-branch of the organization Black Lives Matter halted this year’s parade for half an hour to stage a sit-in protest, addressing some of the issues they continue to face within the Black trans and queer communities and demanding that the Executive Director of Pride agree to sign a list of nine conditions before continuing on with the march.  The photos of him agreeing to the terms are awkward at best and I’m not sure what else could have been done under the circumstances.  Pride Toronto didn’t know about the planned protest (obviously) and Black Lives Matter in Toronto called the moment, “a win.”  Among one of their demands was the, “Removal of police floats in the pride marches and parade”.

At the time BLM staged the protest, we were still waiting for the parade to proceed far enough so our section could join.  Pride parade is a very well-oiled logistic machine and after waiting more than 90 minutes in one spot, we figured something was up – maybe a truck had stalled or our Prime Minister’s presence started a riot.  After two hours, we heard that Black Lives Matter was staging a protest and that’s all we knew.  I could see flares in the distance but we were too far away to see or hear anything else.

No one minded waiting.  Some people ended up leaving because of the heat but no one seemed particularly bothered by the delay.  Only a week earlier, I had read that Black Lives Matter in the U.S. decided to withdraw from the San Francisco Pride Parade because of the increased police presence that the organizers arranged due to the shootings at an Orlando nightclub not even two weeks before, shootings that targeted people within the LGBT community and cost 49 people their lives.  The increased police presence at the San Francisco parade meant that attendees would have to pass through security screenings and to quote a spokesperson from BLM at a press conference on their decision to withdraw:

“The San Francisco police department has proven time and again – by racially profiling and murdering black people, black trans people – that they cannot keep us safe,” said Shanelle Matthews, a spokesperson for Black Lives Matter, at the event. “We know that some people will feel safe at Pride, but we will not.”

I completely understood that and though it’s unfair they had to withdraw since they’d done nothing wrong, I’ve also no doubt that an increased police presence does not mean the same thing to everyone and I admired BLM for making such a difficult call:

“For us, celebrating Pride this year meant choosing between the threat of homophobic vigilante violence and the threat of police violence,” said a statement from Black Lives Matter,… “We had a tough decision to make, and ultimately we chose to keep our people safe by not participating in any event that would leave our communities vulnerable to either.”

So when we heard that BLM was staging a protest at Toronto’s Pride parade, I wondered if it was in solidarity with their community in the U.S.  It wasn’t until after the parade was over that I read the full details about what had happened – about not continuing with the parade until the Executive Director of Pride signed their list of demands, demands which included removing all police floats and community booths from the event altogether (Toronto Police often do recruiting at Pride).  Again, I understood as best as a white, privileged, straight, cis gender woman can whose never had to face police profiling and/or harassment can.  I kept thinking of what the spokesperson for BLM in the U.S. said: “We know that some people will feel safe at Pride, but we will not.” A sad and terrifying truth but one I don’t doubt for a moment.

But I still wonder if, in the long-run, it was the best decision to stage a protest at Pride. Had I been the Director of Pride, spearheading one of the biggest events in North America, with tens of thousands of people in a concentrated area, with schedules to keep and performers to coordinate, suddenly caught off-guard by a group of invited and honoured participants bringing this massive undertaking to a standstill, what I would do when faced with that same ultimatum (which is essentially what it was): Do this or this won’t happen. I don’t know what I would have done but what were the choices?

1) Sign and continue

2) Don’t sign and try to negotiate

3) Don’t sign at all and risk escalating an already uncertain situation.

Most of the press the following day (and all of this week) has been centered on the actions of Black Lives Matter and what’s actually going to happen with that list of demands, especially after the Pride ED stated that he only signed to keep the parade moving.  I’ve read and listened to several points of view from journalists and activists and I can see both sides: BLM wanted to get people’s attention, make a statement, and demand their rights, which is the point of a protest.  Others didn’t think it was the right place to do it and demanding that police floats be excluded was a step backward in terms of improving relations between the two groups.  As one openly gay Toronto Police officer wrote in response to the protest: “Exclusion does not promote inclusion.”

My big question – and this goes for any display of activism – what is the end goal? What I’m learning from the animals rights movement is that attention isn’t necessarily progress, and shock and awe is not necessarily “a win”.  While the actions of BLM at Pride have certainly created discussion, a lot of the opinion seems divided.  And though every social movement will always have its detractors, is creating further division just to get your point across worth it?  The demands of BLM still feel like an ultimatum to me rather than an invitation to work together to find a solution. Which I know is not what they asked for – they asked for very specific requests to be met, not more meetings. But it’s that fine line of activism: having to live in the world while simultaneously trying to change it. And putting one person on the spot, in front of thousands of people, to meet your demands at a massive public event is a BIG gamble.  Imagine if our little group of 120 animal activists staged a sit-in at Pride and said we’re not moving until everyone goes vegan?  I mean, WE get where we’re coming from and WE know the issues animals are facing but the public – the very people we hope to one day reach and educate about the ways in which animals live and die for our food – would think we were crazy and dismiss any of our points outright, no matter how valid or noble they were (and, whether any movement wants to admit it or not, you need public opinion behind you to a certain degree for significant change to occur). Just as I don’t believe you can ultimately conquer violence with more violence, I also don’t believe that forcing people to bend to your will creates lasting change because now you’re imposing your agenda on someone while simultaneously asking that they stop imposing theirs on you.  It’s counterproductive and you risk creating more division than unity in the long-run.

I’m still processing this one.  Half of me is applauding the leadership of BLM for taking a stand and speaking up for what they believe in – public protesting is democracy in action and it’s crucial that we exercise our right to do so or nothing will ever change. But the other half of me wants to shake them gently around the shoulders and ask, “Why did you choose to do it at Pride? Why did you choose to protest at one of the few events in the world where but for a few hours, real peace and acceptance seem to be real? Why did this end up being about only you instead of all of us in this together?”

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