Just before 6 p.m. last Thursday night, Black Lives Matter Toronto took to Facebook to tell its more than 23,000 followers that organizers were taking a break after a painful week that started with delaying the Pride parade.
"Fam, like you, we are hurting. Our bodies ache, our minds full, and our hearts hungry for justice," started the post in response to inquires about local vigils for Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, black men in the United States shot by white police officers. "For us, this week has been filled with too many crowds, too many speeches, too many chants, too many …"
Within hours, a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas turned deadly, with five police officers killed, and comments on the Toronto chapter's post became a microcosm of the bitter racial debate radiating across North America.
"This is a very tense moment and I think we're feeling those pains of change," says Janaya Khan, one of the group's co-founders.
When BLM Toronto stopped the Pride Toronto parade on July 3, and demanded a ban on police floats and booths at future parades, it pulled off its most high-profile coup d'état, and catapulted the activist group to the forefront of a national conversation about anti-black racism, policing and the LGBTQ community. The question, now, is how the group intends to harness its new-found visibility.
It was a turbulent week for Khan (who identifies as gender neutral) and members of BLM Toronto. Pride Toronto executive director Mathieu Chantelois signed a list of its nine demands at the parade, only to publicly backtrack the next day. LGBTQ members of the Toronto Police spoke out against what they called an exclusionary ban, and the police union received a letter of support from Mayor John Tory. And BLM Toronto was hit with its worst backlash yet, a deluge of hateful e-mails and comments on social media.
The e-mails "suggested that we should die, using anti-black terminology and sentiments, and saying essentially because we are queer and black, we have no space in the LGBTQ community," Khan said.
The BLM movement has grown to nearly 40 chapters in the U.S, where it was created in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the deadly shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. As the only active Canadian chapter, BLM Toronto must contend with an underlying Canadian sentiment that anti-black racism is milder here than in the U.S., Khan said.
Vastly different population sizes play a role – 3 per cent of the Canadian population is black; 13 per cent of the U.S. population – more than 45 million people – is African-American.
"They say that Philando Castile and Alton Sterling doesn't happen here [in Canada]," Khan said. "But that's exactly what happened to Jermaine Carby and to Andrew Loku."
Mr. Loku, a 45-year-old father of five from Sudan, was shot dead by Toronto officers last summer while wielding a hammer in his apartment building, which rented affordable units for people with mental-health issues. In September, 2014, Mr. Carby, 33, was shot three times and killed by Peel Regional Police in Brampton during a routine traffic stop after police said he refused to drop a knife.
Those shootings were BLM Toronto's initial raison d'être. The group disrupted police board meetings. It blocked traffic at a busy Toronto road last summer for two hours to protest Mr. Loku's death. It camped outside Toronto Police headquarters in freezing temperatures for two weeks in March, demanding a review of the city's police watchdog system.
The shootings of Mr. Castile and Mr. Sterling last week, Khan said, have brought a "huge wave of empathy and understanding" to the contentious Toronto chapter. "There's been an incredible amount of people who said, 'You know, when you did this action, I was upset and shouted it down. But I realized I was wrong.'"
But the number of BLM Toronto's critics remains sizable. Talks with Pride Toronto have been non-existent, Khan said, since Mr. Chantelois publicly recanted on his signed agreement. And the head of Toronto's police union, Mike McCormack, has denounced BLM Toronto for its "sensationalistic and inflammatory" remarks.
"From our perspective, Black Lives Matters [Toronto] drives wedges, they don't build bridges. I would say they are very, very effective at alienating policing and driving wedges in communities," Mr. McCormack said.
Rinaldo Walcott, director of the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto and a supporter of BLM Toronto, said police have no "legitimate grievance" in the debate. "The police are one of the major symbols of why some of us in the queer community are marginalized and feel excluded," he said. "To turn around and make the case that this is somehow discriminatory against the police is really a false equivalence."
It's unknown whether Pride Toronto, which has kept quiet since last Monday, will uphold BLM Toronto's demands. In an earlier statement, Pride Toronto said it will host a public town hall in August to get community feedback. But Khan says BLM Toronto's seven core members, largely queer and trans youth, intend to hold Pride organizers accountable and to support communities that have "historically been most impacted by Pride."
"It's very difficult to feel like you've been seen for the first time and then see the push back that's happened," Khan says. "It's dehumanizing."
In the meantime, BLM Toronto will launch Freedom School this week, a three-week-long summer program that teaches Toronto-area children aged 4 to 10 about black Canadian history and political resistance to anti-black racism. And while Pride has dominated its talks, Khan says BLM Toronto will continue to probe the death of Mr. Loku and fight for an overhaul of the police's Special Investigations Unit.
For Khan, the fight has essentially become a full-time job. "I might be able to take off my Black Lives Matter shirt, but I don't get to take off my blackness," Khan said. "This will always be a fight."