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Activist-lawyer at the centre of the recent anti-mask dust-up in Chinatown is already planning her next act
For Caryma Sa’d, the show will go on.
The activist-lawyer at the centre of a recent dust-up at Chinatown Centre Mall over an event that was supposed to feature her interviewing anti-mask celeb Chris Sky, has announced that she’s found a new venue downtown for her online show Caryma Rules The Night. Details of the time and place for what Sa’d has branded “The Pariah Interviews,” are still to be announced.
But “This time,” Sa’d writes in a tweet, “I’m moving with stealth and caution.”
To be sure, the event she helped organize with Sky did not end well. Sa’d had refused a request from Friends of Chinatown (FOCT) – and some of her fellow tenants at the mall – to cancel the event. Predictably, community and anti-fascist groups showed up to confront Sky and police had to be called to break up a number of scuffles.
Sa’d, however, is not making any apologies. And why should she? Her intentions were clear enough. As she told NOW before the lead-up to the event, “My agenda isn’t to platform his dumb ideas, but to further entrench division within the movement.” Only, the events seem to have ended up giving Sky’s cause more profile.
Sa’d’s online savvy has allowed her to amass a large following and make a name for herself not only in her chosen profession as a lawyer, but as an advocate for social justice causes when she’s not moonlighting as the guest host of her online show.
During the pandemic, she’s turned her considerable attention to disassembling the cast of characters in the anti-vax, anti-mask movement, and in particular, Sky, aka Chris Saccoccia. Sa’d has won admiration and some publicity for her efforts.
But after the havoc at Chinatown Centre Mall, some of her own political allies have called her out. They say she’s gone too far by giving a platform to someone like Sky, whose off-putting views go beyond your stock conspiracies and opposition to masks and vaccines. Her continued defence and characterization of protestors as the ones at fault, has led to more backlash.
The Canadian Anti-Hate Network, for example, posted an article on its site written by one of Sa’d’s critics accusing her of “parroting anti-anti-fascist talking points”.
To recap: Sa’d was scheduled to interview Sky as part of her 420 Cannabis Court outdoor comedy series that’s held a number of events in the mall courtyard. She says that 420’s marketing people contacted Sky about an interview without her knowledge but when Sky quickly agreed, she went along.
Seating for the ticketed event was to be limited to 25 people. Sa’d assured community groups who had expressed concerns that security wouldn’t be an issue. But that wasn’t good enough for the protestors who showed up a couple of hours before the scheduled start to set up a “silent blockade” in front of the staircase leading down to the courtyard. When Sky arrived around 10 pm with some of his supporters in tow and tried to force his way through the line, tensions rose. Video online shows scuffles breaking out and some individuals throwing punches.
To FOCT it was all very predictable. In a statement released the day before the event, they noted the violence at other anti-mask events featuring Sky, not to mention Sky’s and his supporters’ “overlapping participation in white supremacist, Holocaust-denying, racist circles.” (For the record, Sky is also facing criminal charges for alleged death threats made against the premier.)
The ensuing fallout seems to have played right into Sky’s hands. He and his supporters are using the fracas as more proof of an effort by the big, bad state to mess with their “freedom” and shut down dissenting voices. And therein lies the rub.
The incident spotlighted the age-old dilemma – does constructive engagement and shining a light on extremist views work as a disinfectant against them? Or is giving people like Sky a platform likely to bring more people who share his views out of the woodwork and attract more followers to his chaos?
Under normal circumstances, it would be hard not to sympathize with Sa’d. As a woman of colour, she knows what it feels like to be a target. Also, anti-racism activists seem to agree that ignoring extremism tends to allow extremism to fester.
But Trumpism has turned the tables on that idea. It used to be that you could count on the ludicrousness of notions like the earth is flat (another view held by many anti-maskers) to undermine people and groups who believe them.
Social media, however, has given anyone with an opinion the ability to share their views (no matter how foolish) with like-minded people. The so-called “echo chambers” in which these views are supposed to be confined online have grown exponentially during the pandemic. In the minds of many social anthropologists, the coronavirus has exposed another pandemic: the pandemic of stupidity.
Indeed, the views of the proverbial “Barbarians at the gates,” are not just floating out there in the ether. They’re dangerous. They have influenced the decisions of politicians and led to the deadly mishandling of the pandemic.
In the U.S., for example, vaccine hesitancy continues to mess with the economic recovery, and we are now seeing states having to go back into lockdown. A similar divide exists over the pandemic in Canada, with issues around wearing masks and getting the vaccine breaking along political lines. The political polarization is also at the root of the steep rise in anti-Asian and anti-Muslim sentiment during the pandemic, issues which should make Sa’d and some of her critics natural allies.
But the recent events around Sky are complicated by a back story. Part of that has to do with the fact that, as well as running her law practice out of Chinatown Centre Mall, Sa’d is part-owner of a scooter shop. Recently she also helped form an advocacy group for comedians, which have been performing during the pandemic at events put on by Sa’d in the mall’s courtyard.
Not all her fellow tenants, including FOCT, are enamoured with the idea that she was, in their view, “monetizing” what they describe as “communal space” in the courtyard.
Sa’d went to the mall’s board to ask permission to use the space and currently pays a fee for its use. But it didn’t end there for FOCT, which argues that the arrangement restricts the enjoyment of the Anti-Displacement Garden planted in the courtyard in 2019 as part of an art project “protesting the gentrification of Chinatowns across the country.” It’s another political wrinkle in a tale with lots to unpack.
From Sa’d’s perspective, FOCT’s opposition to the event wasn’t about Sky. She sees it as an extension of her fellow tenants’ efforts “to shut me down.”
In that vein, Sa’d released another one of her biting illustrations on Twitter this week. They’re usually used to poke fun at whatever madness the Ford government is up to. But this one seems to take aim at Sa’d’s critics. It depicts a woman about to be burned at the stake with the words “free expression” inscribed on it.
Sky, meanwhile, thinks he was set up and that Sa’d was behind it all. He appeared on the far-right website Rebel News last week, where he was asked about his social media posts from the past suggesting that six million didn’t really die and that the Holocaust is “the biggest lie.” Sky ended up cutting the interview short.