- Written by Mary Yohannes Mary Yohannes
- Published: 14 February 2017 14 February 2017
They wear their anger, heartbreak and helplessness like it’s stitched into their skin. They come together somber, arms lowered and crossed at the wrist, shoulders back, staring straight ahead for the brothers and sisters they’ve lost. The only thing they share is their blackness.
This video depicts the peaceful protest that happened on Aug. 20, 2016, for the BLM movement, organized by a group of Calgarians at City Hall.
Dressed in black, with the ironic words “black man walking” labeled on his shirt, 29-year-old rapper, Kay Layton, steps down the middle of the group to deliver his spoken word poetry titled “blacklist,” - a piece he wrote for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
He raises his head and starts, “I’m not provoking violence, but I’m not promoting silence...”
On Aug. 20, 2016 at 7 p.m. a group of Calgarians gathered at city hall to peacefully protest police brutality in the U.S. and to show support of the BLM movement. This begs the question: Is Black Lives Matter relevant here? Black lives should matter in Canada, because black Calgarians have felt the corrosive effects of racism in their daily lives. Racism is not just an American problem, it’s a Canadian problem too, according to the young black Calgarians interviewed in this article.
The BLM movement campaigns against police brutality and systemic racism that many in the black community face. It started in the U.S. after George Zimmerman, who shot and killed unarmed 17-year-old, Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges back in July of 2012. Patrise Cullors, an American artist and activist in LA, used the hashtag: #blacklivesmatter on Twitter which gave a name to the movement.
Since its creation in 2012, the movement has spread around the world and has various chapters set up in different states and countries - including Toronto.
Toronto has gained a lot of media attention in regards to BLM. In 2015 there had been three black men killed by police, according to the Toronto Star. According to the Guardian’s count, 266 Black Americans have been killed in the U.S. by police in 2016.
And as the numbers stagger upwards, another name getting added behind the hashtag - the digital world’s version of a tombstone, another video posted to show the horrific events, the begging, "please don’t shoot,” "I can’t breathe,” ringing in your ears, the press conferences with the mother, the wife, the son wailing at the loss of their loved one, black people feel that pain. Black Canadians feel that pain - even though it’s not their friends, fathers and brothers, that are dying.
Slowly the movement has trickled into Calgary.
Kay Layton has gained global recognition for being one of Calgary’s finest rappers. We meet early in October at Waves Coffee house on 17th Ave. He’s pensive as he sits across from me, drinking his white hot chocolate and thinking about all the police killings in America.
“We rally, we march, we cry, we riot and we do it again. At what point? It’s just a helplessness at this point. I think everyone feels that same built up frustration when they see another hashtag of the week or they see another video come up,” says Layton.
“But at the same time, those moments are like vindicating for the 50, 60, 70 years of people that were getting killed that never had anything. Now at least we have video...it’s a gift and a curse, because we [are] dying at the same time, but it’s a gift that we’re able to expose it in the way we can now.”
Although the issue of race is dealt completely differently in Canada than it is in America, black Calgarians do feel that Black Lives Matter is needed here also.
Being black in Calgary, as Layton puts it, “has never been life or death.” With more than 32, 985 black people in the city of 1.2 million, many of the Black Calgarians I’ve spoken with can say they have never feared for their life simply because they were black.
But being black in Calgary is exhausting.
It wasn’t until he came to Canada at five years old, from Zimbabwe, Layton realized he would be treated differently for being black and that being black was, at times, unfavourable.
The first time he was called “nigger” he was five. It was from another kid. On a playground in Calgary.
“I’ve always said that we come from the Alabama or like the Mississippi, of Canada this is as white as it gets, so the struggle is real. Not only are you trying to create noise with something, but you’re trying to create noise with people that don’t understand what the noise is about, ” -Kay Layton
As a young teenager he had to listen to his mother explain to him because he was black he had to work three times harder to get half of what his white peers got. At the time, he didn’t understand what she meant.
But as he grew up as a young black man in a overwhelmingly white city, he understood what his mother meant. It was the looks he got at the convenience store or in the elevators where women would hold their bags a little bit tighter to their bodies when he stepped in.
According to research done in the black community in Peel, a city in southern Ontario, black boys face more racism than black girls.
Yet, 14-year-old Chidinma Agu also has faced her own share of racism.
“There are instances where, of course there are times where I’ve been at the mall and you can see people looking at you like you’re going to steal something or things like that.”
Despite her young age Agu is a confidant young black woman and proud of her roots, something she says her Nigerian parents instilled in her at a young age. She’s obsessed with Grey’s Anatomy, Pretty Little Liars and fashion trends.
In her living room her mother tells her to take off her black adidas cap for the photos I’m taking. She rolls her eyes at her mom and smiles, “but it’s part of the look, mom.”
Growing up she felt the sting of racism in subtle ways. For the most part though the 14-year-old feels like there are others who carry more of a burden.
“I mean, I haven’t really been discriminated on as much as I possibly could’ve as a black woman, but there were times where there was a lot of discrimination.”
The 10th grader was on her way home from a convenience store run in Calgary’s Wentworth neighbourhood in the SW, when a group of teenagers drove past her, rolling the window down, they screamed out “negro.”
To Agu though this was not the worst of racism and for that she feels lucky.
“I’ve always said that we come from the Alabama or like the Mississippi, of Canada this is as white as it gets, so the struggle is real. Not only are you trying to create noise with something, but you’re trying to create noise with people that don’t understand what the noise is about, ” says Layton.
The struggle is the fact that black people in Calgary cannot speak about their experiences being black and the injustices they face without being met with dismissive and at times hostile attitudes.
Over the last two years, Agu has been more aware of how her race plays a role in her interactions with others. As a result she’s found herself constantly having to question whether interactions were racially motivated.
“I’m questioning if they’re saying that because I’m black, are they saying that to make it known that I’m black, or they think I’m not as good as them? My mind just works in a way that I’m always questioning everything in racial sense.”
Layton, on the other hand, differs. He says it’s not he who doubts himself on whether the incident was racist or not, but his white friends do. Often times they make it seem as if Layton provoked the hostile behaviour.
“There’s a feeling all black people have when it is racial that you can’t explain, we just know. We don’t need to hear the ‘N’ word to know that it was racially motivated,” says Layton.
Layton says he has experienced many incidents where he was racially profiled, from being denied entry to clubs to being pulled over by police.
During his early twenties, Layton says getting into clubs in Calgary was very difficult. He describes ‘colour counts’ that were in place, once the club met their quota of coloured people, others in the line would be turned away.
Racism was always in the shadows of all these interactions, the bouncers wouldn’t say they were not allowed entry because they were black, but because they were wearing the wrong shoes, or they were at capacity, or that their jeans were too “urban.”
“There were certain times where we would know, we didn’t even try to dress up, but we knew we were going to get turned away. Or like when we get to the club we know we gotta split up. Like there will be eight of us going but we split up into groups of three, or something, because we know that eight of us can’t get into the club,” says Layton.
“My homeboys that are white, they can go in a group of 10 for someone's birthday or something and there are no problems. So these are the differences we can see, they’re visible, in front of us, but no one’s ever said ‘no, you’re not allowed in here because you're black.’”
These instances have always left Layton and his black friends feeling frustrated.
“After you went to work all week and you spent your pay check on your outfit and you can’t wait to go out, to meet people, you’re hyped for the night and you get turned away every week. Every week.”
Interactions with police didn’t fair any better for Layton.
“There was one point, I think between my ages of 18 to 25, in the northeast we got pulled over on a weekly basis. We just knew it was part of life. At some point we knew we were going to be pulled.”
There was one instance in particular that sticks out in Layton’s mind. He’s 20 years old in a car with a group of his friends, close to his house, they’re listening to some music, anticipating their weekly run in with a police. Shortly after an officer pulled them over. They unroll the window waiting for the cop to get out of his car and make his way over. He bends down a bit and looks each one of them in the eye. He tells them that there was a black vehicle reported with a driver smoking pot, did they have any pot on them?
They tell him they haven’t and then the cop says something that leaves Layton and his friends in shock.
“Can you guys go to a different part of the city? There were going to be a lot of cops coming up and down this street, if they see you, they’re going to think you look suspicious. So if I were you guys, I would just go to a different part of the city.”
This incident was a block away from Layton’s house in the northeast and the officer was telling them they shouldn’t be there.
“I’ve been pulled over with my white friends and see the way the police talk to them, and I've been pulled over with the homies in the car and the way they talk to us is very different. Our interactions with the police are very different.”
Nyabuoy Gatbel is a 23-year-old developmental studies student at the University of Calgary. When she thinks about the Black Lives Matter movement in Canada she thinks about Africville in Eastern Canada, what happened to the slaves that escaped America only to be forced into poverty in Canada.
“The Canadian government destroyed their communities, made everyone go on welfare, put everyone in these weird ghettos - so we weren’t welcomed in Canada. It’s not, again the racism is subtle, but we’re not 100 per cent welcome. There are people in this country that will never get a job due to the colour of their skin,” says Gatbel.
As a black woman and a black woman with brothers, she understands Layton’s experiences with police, as she’s dealt with similar instances.
“I’ve dealt with police who’ve tried to hurt my brothers and I’m just like ‘no, you’ve got the wrong people.’ I think people have to stand up and say no that’s not how you deal with us.”
According to a study done by the Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association (RMCLA) some people of colour feel police treat them unfairly due to the colour of their skin through a process often referred to as “carding.”
Carding, or check-up slips as the Calgary Police calls them, is when “suspicious” individuals are stopped, questioned, and documented with no offence being investigated by police. That information is then collected and kept on record in a database.
According to the RMCLA, between 2010 - 2015, District 5 in Calgary’s NE, which has the highest rate of visible minorities, had 35, 360 check-ins. The northeast had the highest rate of checkups despite not generating the most crime in the city.
“[The findings] lead us to believe that there were some problems at the Calgary Police Service,” says Kelly Ernst, Director of the RMCLA.
District 3, which is in the northwest and has fewer minorities and a higher rate of crime, had only 21,024 check-ins in that same time period.
Ernst explains at events hosted by the RMCLA, they’ve been approached by people of colour who have had experiences with being carded “more times than what they thought to be reasonable and certainly were stopped for no other reason that for what they thought was because they were identified as a person of colour.”
“We don’t know if that’s true or not, but the stats seem to suggest that there is some validity to differential treatment in neighbourhoods,” says Ernst.
Despite this, Calgary Police Chief , Roger Chaffin, rejected the idea city police were racially profiling in an interview with the CBC. Although it is an issue that will be looked into more.
This practice of carding gained a lot of controversy in Toronto. Carding is in Calgary as well, but the police hope to "modernize" it and say they will not be randomly stopping people on the street.
Const. Raul Espinosa, a member of the diversity resource team handling the African portfolio for the Calgary Police Service, said in a telephone interview he doesn’t understand where the fear of these “check-ins” is coming from, the police are just doing their job.
“It’s an investigative tool, it’s not walking down the street and every Joe I see or everybody of a certain demographic or of a certain ethnicity I see, I’m going to stop them and say ‘hey, let me see your ID’.”
Espinosa says his interactions with the African communities has not changed or been affected by the Black Lives Matter movement, noting that the movement hasn’t been as active here.
“Things have been quiet here that’s not to say that there aren’t problems, but I think we’re in a lucky spot in a lucky space. It’s good to be a police officer in Calgary.”
In Calgary, no one can remember the last time the police killed a black person. Recent shootings have all been white people. Statistics on race are not kept according to the organization that investigates police shootings.
Obviously the issues of race is not as has hostile here as it is in the U.S.“Out here [racism] is still there, but America is just a whole different world like they had the Klan, they had slavery, they had Jim Crow laws, they had such a crazy history that isn’t quite the same as our history in Canada,” says Layton.
In the last decade Calgary has made great strides towards becoming a more inclusive and progressive city. The problem is not, nor has it ever been police brutality, but the perceived surveillance that comes with being black. And black Calgarians feel that it’s about time we’re addressing it.
“We feel it on the skin, racism, we feel it on the skin it pokes us and it hurts us. In the States they feel it right down to the soul, it burns all the way to their soul when you talk about racism because it’s actually in them, in their blood,” says Layton.
At the back of the first floor of one of the University of Calgary’s libraries, Gatbel explains that BLM is important not only here in Calgary, but all over the world.
“It’s not easy being black in Canada, it might not be as intense as it is in America, but it’s not easy. It matters just as much because it doesn’t really matter where you go in the world black lives aren’t really respected.”
“This movement that started in the States is really birthing a new a reality, a global conversation about what have we been doing to black bodies and how do we change?” says Gatbel. “What I hope to come out of this is that we come up with constructive ideas that will change how we view each other forever. There will come a time where after the protest what's next?”
So what is next for the BLM movement in Calgary? Black Lives Matter is a movement that started in America, but it’s gone global because oppression of black communities is still happening. Although it started because of a terrible situation, it is starting a dialogue we need to have.