John Tory fails Black Lives Matter test

The mayor emerged from last Saturday's meeting with black community reps bloodied by his mishandling of Black Lives Matter demands, but what exactly does the group want to achieve?


On Saturday, April 23, 20 other members of the black community and I were invited to City Hall for a private meeting with Mayor John Tory and Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders. I attended despite great trepidation.

I worried that my involvement in the hastily called (and somewhat clandestine) meeting would be wrongly interpreted as a kind of betrayal. 

After all, it’s Black Lives Matter – Toronto (BLM-TO) and its supporters who have been trying for months to get the mayor to sit down for a public meeting to discuss our demands for racial justice, and here we were – academics, community organizers, lawyers, former politicians, youth workers and social entrepreneurs – people who had not made the recent sacrifices BLM-TO had, agreeing to a private sit-down in the quiet corridors of civic power without them.

Several commentators suggested via social media that those of us who attended were engaged in “plantation politics.” And that we had played into the mayor’s divide-and-conquer strategy, allowed him to discuss the very important matter of systemic racism behind closed doors. Shame on us.

But we weren’t there to undermine Black Lives Matter, nor were we there to get caught up in the mayor’s political machinations. Rather, we wanted to let Tory and Saunders know, if it hadn’t already become painfully apparent to them, that their responses to the group’s demands have been entirely inadequate. 

We told them the only way to regain a degree of respectability and legitimacy in the eyes of the black community was to hold a public meeting that includes BLM-TO as soon as possible.

The meeting with Tory was shot through with emotion. One participant managed to express the collective mood in the room when, in search of a way to describe the turmoil he was feeling, said he “felt like screaming.” Given my barely contained outrage, I would have joined him had he proceeded to do so.

One person after another shared their utter dismay at even having to attend such an awkward gathering. There was plenty of heat. 

After accepting that there was no easy way out of this box, the mayor agreed, despite expressing great personal discomfort, to a public meeting at some future date that will include BLM-TO. Then he closed the meeting by saying, “I’ve received the message.”

The meeting was called by Tory out of fear and responded to with bewilderment. Presumably, the mayor must be shocked that this manifestation of black rage is messing with his otherwise manageable agenda. He seems completely rattled by it all. As he told television cameras afterward, “I guess I have to admit that I was taken aback by their [BLM-TO’s] approach.”

Chief Saunders took a slightly different tack. His responses to those of us who criticized his woeful handling of BLM-TO’s concerns were much more defensive. 

Pleading that the constraints of his office and the law make it difficult for him to address the group’s demands for more transparency, he acted like a man up against inelastic ropes. 

When asked pointedly by one participant at the meeting why he never left police headquarters to talk to the protesters, even just to say “I hear you,” he replied without a hint of embarrassment that no one from the black community had asked him.

The chief seems way out of his capability zone these days. He appears not to have any real sense of what to make of the folks who camped out in the cold for two weeks beneath his office window. He kept referring erroneously to the group as “Black Lives Matters.”

Unable, or unwilling, to show genuine commitment to the immense challenges before him, Saunders seems content to let police union head Mike McCormack do all the talking on behalf of the police service.

***

Black Lives Matter has entered a crucial stage.

Like many social protest groups before it, BLM-TO will soon have to decide how to reach the policing reform goals it’s trying to achieve.

Is it attempting to galvanize the black community and other social movements focused on bringing about systemic change against anti-black racism, or does it want to remain a noisy but effective protest group that wins mostly symbolic concessions? There is an enormous difference.

Admittedly, I’m not that inspired by piecemeal, mostly symbolic victories any more. Probably because the story of black struggle is strewn with them: a comprehensive report here, a public inquiry there an oversight body established today, an equity committee set up tomorrow. What these various wins have amounted to is hard to discern. Whatever they have wrought, they have not altered the racial landscape in any fundamental way if you review the indices of health and well-being in this city and read who’s at the bottom.

Social movements are broad. They attract and utilize diverse individuals and resources they employ a range of tactics in response to changing circumstances on the ground they garner support across lines of race and class and, while they usually start among the grassroots, their demands are typically carried through to a point of execution by those who can either access or seize power. Most relevantly, they almost always arrive at critical junctures where it becomes necessary for their leaders to enter into private meetings.

This is what concerns me about BLM-TO. So far, I’ve not seen any evidence that anyone in its ranks might be willing to adopt new tactics and undertake multiple activist modes and postures to transcend the limits of protest to achieve power.

What kind of power? That, again, depends. 

In the U.S., Black Lives Matter chapters advocate Campaign Zero, “a comprehensive package of urgent policy solutions, informed by data, research and human rights principles,” which if achieved could radically change policing and, by extension, the health of black communities. 

Others in the U.S. inspired by Black Lives Matter have decided to run for elected office. 

But in today’s political climate, doing things quietly, and without bombast, doesn’t seem to make the grade, because of our deep – and valid – distrust of those who hold power. Transparency and openness have become our foremost demands. Everything must be brought out into the open. If it’s not exposed to daylight, we don’t trust it to be good for us.

However, history provides clear examples that social change on a massive scale has always been won with a mix of both the visible and the invisible, both the resounding and the hushed.

In the 1960s, when the civil rights movement entered its most radical and youth-driven phase with the Congress of Racial Equality and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee conducting sit-ins and freedom rides to challenge segregation laws across the Deep South, organizers like Ella Baker and Septima Clark worked quietly behind the scenes to broaden support for the movement. At the same time, strategists like Bayard Rustin and Stanley Levison privately advised Martin Luther King on private negotiations with state and federal officials. 

At the height of the struggle for democratic freedom in South Africa in the early 80s, Nelson Mandela entered into secret negotiations with the apartheid government to start the process that eventually resulted in the ANC’s taking power in 1994. He did so, it is said, despite the great distrust and anger of comrades who had served decades in prison alongside him.

This is not to say that Black Lives Matter should simmer down, come off the streets and abandon its in-your-face tactics because people like our mayor find them unnerving. That would be a misstep.

But nor should the group eschew – when the time is right – opportunities to participate in private dialogue that may yield meaningful change. 

I’ve gotten over my uneasiness about the meeting. I’ve concluded that activists should never be afraid to discuss matters behind closed doors, so long as they’re wholly and unreservedly committed to fighting anti-black racism, as was the case last Saturday.

Neil Price is executive director of a non-profit consultancy in Toronto and author of the Community Assessment Of Police Practices report on carding.

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