Toronto the surreal. A radical black youth group asks a white Jewish lawyer to help them get a permit for a Queen's Park rally at which the keynote speaker will be a purported anti-Semite.
As speeches pierce the humid midday haze on May 15 with zingers like "Multiculturalism is genocide" and references to the Ontario government as a "white supremist racist government,"a couple of white guys hand out flyers promoting a rally in support of jailed Amercian black activist Mumia Abu-Jamal, an event endorsed by, among others, a group called the Alliance of Concerned Jewish Canadians.
God, I love this city. And yet I leave the Black Youth Taking Action's Education Not Incarceration rally, which goes ahead at Queens Park with portable mics despite losing its permit, feeling ill at ease.
This isn't to be one of Toronto's good days.
The morning of the rally, Black Youth president Nkem Anizor and her colleague Yafet Tewelde of the Black Youth Coalition Against Violence hold an intense press conference to address the growing storm over their decision to invite controversial Black American activist and New Black Panther chief Malik Zulu Shabazz to the rally.
Both B'nai Brith and the Canadian Jewish Congress alerted authorities last week to their concern that Shabazz might contravene Canadian hate laws if he were to speak at the rally and a lecture planned for that evening.
The dozens of assembled journalists expect Shabazz at the press conference, too, but buckling to pressure, authorities hold him at Pearson, refusing to let him into Canada, apparently because of an alleged minor misdemeanour five years ago.
True, Shabazz is not some benign dude. According to the U.S. Anti-Defamation League (ADL) website, he has claimed, among other things, that most negative stereotypes of blacks have been propagated by Jews.
In introducing his mentor, the known anti-Semite and founder of the the New Black Panther Party, Khalid Muhammad, at a rally, Shabazz is quoted on the site as having said, "We want to bring on a man who gives the white man nightmares. We want to bring on a man who makes the Jews pee in their pants."
Although most of the quotes on the ADL site show Shabazz to be more an anti-Zionist than an anti-Semite, when the New Black Panthers refer to Jews on their own website, something they do quite often, they always put the word Jew in quotation marks.
Perhaps as disturbing as all this is the New Panthers' promotion of violence. The group's website proclaims that "all Black People should unite and form an African United Front and arm ourselves for self-defence.'
How all this squares with Tewelde's coalition against violence or Anizor's goals of amassing a voting bloc of 10,000 black youth by the next provincial election to help repeal the loathed Safe Schools Act, stop the Brampton super-jail or create black-focused curriculum, is anyone's guess.
The supercharged press conference, which has many mainstream media dropping their jaws (at one point Anizor tells the assembled there were never Jewish slaves in Egypt), only adds to the confusion.
Anizor is visibly angry when announcing the Shabazz no-show. "We wanted to have a rally dealing with black youth issues for the upcoming provincial election," she says. "Now it's turned into a battle between the Canadian Jewish Congress and the BYTA."
Anizor, it seems, refuses to accept that the many disturbing quotes attributed to Shabazz are accurate. "Look, every time you speak the truth about black people you are going to be misquoted," she said. "You need to ask the CJC why they are up in our business."
It's a good question. The permit granted for the Queen's Park rally on May 8 was revoked May 11 after the news spread about Shabazz.
Lawyer Peter Rosenthal was asked by BYTA if he could help get the rally back on the rails, which he did. He draws a firm distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. "I am Jewish and I'm an anti-Zionist, but I hate anti-Semitism," he says. "I don't know what Shabazz is. Some of what he is purported to have said is anti-Semitic, but he also says he has been misquoted."
The CJC's Len Rudner disagrees with Rosenthal's contention that some in the Jewish community conflate anti- Zionism and anti-Semitism. "Criticism of Israel is not in itself anti-Semitic," he says. "But it edges into anti-Semitism when the focus becomes an obsession."
That said, it is hard to believe B'nai Brith, which worked to bar Shabazz, could see this as any sort of victory. Here you have a group of young, energetic and angry black activists. Like it or not, they are Toronto's next generation of black leaders. Does the older, much more experienced, politically savvy Jewish community have nothing better to offer than a show of their vaunted power?
Inviting Shabazz was a mistake, but only one of many, along with Queen's Park's revocation of the rally permit and the feds' decision to bar Shabazz from the country.
I doubt I'd like this guy, but I'd like the opportunity to find out who he is and what he stands for.
And if all this isn't enough to make this a dismal day in Toronto, the scheduled lecture to be held at Ryerson later in the evening, which was to go ahead despite Shabazz's absence, is abruptly cancelled by the Student Union after several threats are e-mailed suggesting that the event will not be safe if it goes ahead.
Nope, no one gets to hold their head very high today.
Additional Audio Clips
Nkem Anizor explains decision to invite Malik Zulu Shabazz tothe Education Not Incarceration Rally
Anizor explains what the rally is about
Q and A's with journalists at the press conference on Tuesday morning May 15 : Clip 1
Man in the muddle
Black Panther or hate-filled provocateur? The rap on black nationalist Malik Zulu Shabazz.
Born Paris Lewis, Los Angeles
Graduate Howard University law school
Member Defiant Giants rap group (Rise, Black Man, Rise) before joining the Nation of Islam and, later, the New Black Panther Party
Organizer Million Man March (1995); African Black Holocaust And Nationhood Conference (1995); Million Youth March (1998, 2003)
Dubious distinction Campaign aide to former DC mayor Marion Barry
Mentor Anti-Semite and former Nation of Islam national spokesperson Khalid Abdul Muhammad
Philosophy Race-driven social justice and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories
The curious part Named young lawyer of the year by the National Bar Association (1998)