CBC News Jul 15, 2016
Reporter, CBC Hamilton
Reporter, CBC Hamilton
Black lives matter.
Three simple words. But rarely has there been such a divisive statement splashed over what feels like the entirety of the Internet. It has been adopted as an impassioned rallying cry for some, while met with eye rolls and vitriol from others.
In the wake of multiple police shootings of black men in the U.S., five police officers gunned down in Dallas, and Toronto's Pride parade halted in protest, there's no way to ignore the conversation.
Professional dancer Rodney Diverlus, 26, is the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto. He went to high school in Hamilton, and his family still lives in the city.
CBC News reached him in New York City to talk about his experiences as a black man, the violence he's seeing in the world, and why Black Lives Matter interrupted the Toronto Pride Parade to protest.
Q: How have the events of the last few weeks made you feel?
When you see cases of police violence, when you see these egregious cases of anti-black racism, it's upsetting, but it also reaffirms reality. These cases are enraging. They tug at not only my heartstrings but also the fire inside and the need to fight for justice. But the reality of the situation is this is the reality of living black — police violence, anti-black racism, state violence, these are things we all experience from growing up.
(There are) spurts of media attention and public attention, but they're the realities for us on the ground.
Q: You're in the U.S. right now — do you find that you're worrying more about interactions with police?
Absolutely. I haven't been back to the States in a long while … and as an adult man in his 20s, I'm in that age bracket that's the most vulnerable for police violence statistically. Especially in a city like New York, it is baffling how much police presence there is everywhere.
Mathieu Chantelois signs a list of demands from the Black Lives Matters movement as they stage a sit-in at the annual Pride Parade in Toronto. Diverlus can be seen to the right. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)
Whenever we walk down the street, the visible police presence is shocking. It's hyper-visible, they make themselves known, there's a tension that happens when large groups of black people pass by them. I think [the U.S.] specifically is very overt about their police presence and does it in a way that's in your face and not shameful, which is pretty scary. I find that when I'm here, I'm always looking behind my back.
And when I'm here, I'm really being cognisant of the way that I walk, the way that I talk, the way that I portray myself, with the realization that just the day before I came here, the police killed an unarmed black man in Brooklyn, and I'm staying in Brooklyn.
Q: Do you think that white people as a whole get that? A white guy walking past a police officer — oftentimes they end up saying, "I didn't do anything wrong, so I don't have to worry about anything" — and they assume that it's that way, or it should be that way, for any other race.
I think that there are people who haven't actually opened their eyes and opened their ears, to listening to people's experiences, and to kick themselves out of their personal experience to realize that their privilege and their skin colour affords them a certain amount of mobility and safety … and comfortability that a lot of people don't have.
I also think there are folks who know that it's an issue, but … aren't willing to do anything about it. A lot of people have read the statistics, a lot of people know that that's the reality. But they have either created a false narrative in their head that says "therefore if you are getting policed more often, it's because you deserve it," a blame the victim narrative, or they actually created a narrative in their head that says police are justified in the work they are doing, and that the police are doing this work to provide safety for them.
Q: What about back in Canada — do you find yourself worried about interactions with police here?
Yes, very much so ... I grew up in a working class neighbourhood, a very black and Latino neighbourhood in Florida, and a neighbourhood that was heavily policed. I moved to a working class neighbourhood in Hamilton, and went to school, but also went to work downtown, and interacted a lot with Hamilton police — not by my own choosing.
Coming to Canada, there was a belief in my head that things were better. And on the surface, things are better. But when I have had interactions with police, they have ended up in carding. They have ended up in situation where I have felt my safety is endangered.
Q: Some people have criticized Black Lives Matter for holding up the Pride parade. Why did you feel like it was necessary?
Pride is inherently political. The first Pride is a riot — and in a lot of places around the world, Pride continues to be a riot. We were following a culture of resistance that is inherent within Pride, which as a space itself is meant to be a political space. Queer people congregating en masse is political.
Queer people asserting their rights to dignity and freedom is inherently political. If you add on the intersectionality of being queer and trans and black, it's more appropriate to use that space to talk about racism and politics and violence.
When people say we hijacked the parade or took over the parade, that assumption negates the fact that that parade belongs to us as much as it belongs to anyone else — and by us, I mean queer and trans black people.
A lot of our criticism comes from non-queer people, whose only investment in the queer community has been the one Sunday, which says a lot. They think that the fighting for queer and trans struggles is coming to Pride for three hours in July. People can't actually fathom and understand that being queer and trans and being black also means you have an added layer not only to homophobia and transphobia, [but] it's racialized.
Q: The most prevalent criticism is the call Black Lives Matter made to exclude police officers in uniform at Pride. Should police and people of colour march side by side at the parade?
We have been co-existing for centuries, but that hasn't been at the control of black folks. I think the inherent institution of policing is anti-black. Policing as an institution if you look back historically and you look at the reasons they were created, a large proportion … has been to maintain and control black people.
Black Lives Matter interrupts Toronto Pride Parade
To be able to have that conversation, we have to think about, systemically, how to shift policing in North America. We're invested in that conversation. If we weren't invested in that conversation, we wouldn't be doing this work. We're invested in talking about what does safety for black people systemically look like?
If we are serious about having a conversation about ending police violence, I think that the onus is not solely on the black community to have that conversation … we still see a denial of anti-black racism within the police. That's the most basic, fundamental thing. If you want to come to the table and talk about how to end anti-black racism, you have to first acknowledge that anti-black racism exists within your police force — but we're not even seeing that. We're still at step one.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. For the full unabridged version, listen to Diverlus' audio interview in the player above.