Q&A with Sandy Hudson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto

Carolyn Turgeon
Daily Brew

[Photo courtesy of Sandy Hudson]

The Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter (BLM) formed in 2014, around the time of its vigil for slain Ferguson teen Michael Brown. Members rallied around the death of Jermaine Carby in Brampton, Ont., another victim of a fatal shooting by police. 

Sandy Hudson co-founded the movement in Toronto, mobilizing the first Canadian faction of the U.S.-born initiative. She’s a part-time grad student at the University of Toronto and her activism experience comes from many years of involvement in campus politics “with an anti-racist lens.” 

On Monday, she and members of Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) wrapped up more than two weeks of protests outside police headquarters, which began in Nathan Phillips Square as a reaction to the Ontario Special Investigations Unit’s (SIU) decision to not press charges against the officers involved in the fatal shooting of Andrew Loku. They camped, they marched and they endured some belated winter weather.

Now they’ve packed up and gone home, following Premier Kathleen Wynne’s agreement to a public meeting and the Toronto city council’s unanimous decision to ask the province to review the SIU through an “anti-black racism lens.”

Hudson and her Toronto chapter have felt support from their branches in the United States, as well as burgeoning forces within Canada. She says she’s heard from Vancouver’s chapter, which only formed in the last three weeks. She is well aware of Montreal’s branch, which protested Wednesday over the death of Jean-Pierre Bony. Other larger Canadian cities, like Ottawa, have started holding their own BLM events, according to Hudson.

The 30-year-old grad student, who’s pursuing a master’s in social justice education, spoke with Yahoo Canada News about the recent progress with local and provincial politicians and why her co-founder Yusra Khogali’s infamous tweet about trying not to kill “men and white folks” has sparked so much public attention.

Q: Premier Wynne agreed to meet with BLMTO and prompted you to pack up the tent city outside Toronto police headquarters. Is that a big step for the movement?

A lot of media is reporting [that] Wynne gave us the impetus to pack up, but that’s not the case. Our primary objective in doing a tent city was always to invigorate our community. We wanted to show people that they had power when they got together.

We had always said that when the community felt like this tactic was no longer useful, that we would move on to something else. It just so happened that it was also the day that Wynne announced that she’d be willing to have a public meeting.

I feel that that’s the very least she could do. It’s the decent thing to do. It’s the thing that she has a responsibility to do as a politician, is respond to her constituents. I don’t want people to think that BLMTO has won… Now is the time that we really have to be scrutinizing what our decision-makers are doing.

Q: What about Toronto city council’s unanimous motion to ask the province to review Ontario’s SIU, is that seen as a victory?

Both the city and the premier have acknowledged anti-black racism in their statements. Now that [they have], they have a responsibility to act and do something about it. 

The city council really shirked all responsibility, to try to [put the focus on the provincial government]. For a long time, the province had skirted criticisms on this front, and they do hold a lot of power with respect to the accountability measures and how the system is set up to allow these things to happen. But [Toronto] has responsibility as well and could be taking action.

The province is now saying they are going to do a review of SIU and police services, which I think is great. But there have been reviews. We really need to take a look at not just reviews, but action.

Q: You’ve called tent city a “community,” what experiences there reflected that? What sort of support did you have from other minority groups?

We never expected the overwhelming outpouring of support and community-building that we eventually had. There was a day where I came back [to tent city] from work, I walked in and somebody handed me a hot chocolate. Somebody handed me a plate of food. I was often eating better at tent city than I was eating at home.

It was raining that day and somebody who I’d never met before just walked into the camp with like, 50 umbrellas. I was moved to tears about how committed people were, having heard about us and wanting to support us.

A lot of that was brought on by other racialized groups. The Sikh community donated a lot of the meals. There was the Muslim community, the Asians for Black Lives Matter, the Palestinian community, there was so many different groups. Additionally, we had such a great indigenous presence all the time. They were prepared to use [their indigenous] laws to protect us. It was really a beautiful exchange between our two groups.

[Photo: Paige Gallette]

Q: Why has transparency been so important to BLMTO, from demanding that meetings with politicians be public to wanting the names of the police officers who killed Andrew Loku to be released? Why do you think politicians have resisted public meetings?

The black community makes up eight per cent of the Toronto population and even less of the Ontario population. In order to justify inaction, they need to deflect from the actual issue and they are trying to make us seem unreasonable in our requests [of public meetings].

Why shouldn’t this be transparent? This is supposedly a democracy. Anything that these politicians have to say behind closed doors should be available to the public.

I’m not an elected representative of black people in Toronto, and neither is anyone in my group. We are a group of people who were frustrated and enraged and facilitated a method for people to express their anger in an organized and mobilized fashion. 

Many of us happen to be students. We need to hear from teachers, lawyers, social workers, parents, working class community members, people who are living in poverty. That can only happen in a public community. 

People are going to be angry. They have a right. Anger is a very important form of communication. I don’t think that any politician should shy away from that. Much more important than the way people are communicating information is the information itself.

Q: What do you think of BLMTO being compared to Occupy Toronto recently, in terms of strategy and attitudes?

I don’t want to position ourselves oppositional to Occupy TO. We did submit a very clear list of demands that we put everywhere. If you’re missing the demands, I just don’t know what you’re paying attention to.

Since our inception, we’ve been trying to get politicians to pay attentions to this. For two years. We’ve gotten nowhere. In that time, people have died.

I don’t know if sleeping outside for 15 days is really that aggressive. Not taking an action like that would be irrational. 

Q: You’ve declined to comment on Khogali’s tweet, but do you feel that the resulting media attention has affected your movement’s message?

If you take a look at the comment sections of all the news stories that have come out, what they’ve really activated is the white supremacists dredge of our society. They never wanted justice for black people and they never will.

The guy who released the tweet, Jerry Agar, if you take a look at his history of tweets and radio reporting, he is an Islamophobic man. I think it is interesting that he sought out a tweet from one of our Muslim members [Khogali], and then asked for comment from her and another member who has a Muslim-sounding last name.

This is a man who had an interview with Canada’s first hijab-wearing reporter and said he was fine to sit across from her, but if she had covered the bottom half of her face, he would not allow her anywhere near his studio.

He has a vested interested in delegitimizing a movement for justice and anti-black racism. I don’t know why the media would allow themselves to be completely manipulated by such filth. It’s disgusting and unreal but it has exposed the racism within Canada’s media. The media landscape in Canada is a very white one.

Q: What are the next steps for BLMTO? 

We’re going to consult with our community. In the next 300 hours [following the pack up of tent city], we are giving an opportunity for decision makers to let us know what their plans are. They must be honest and concrete in an attempt to end anti-black racism in policing.

We now have the contacts of hundreds and hundreds of people that we can mobilize in response to inaction. It would be better for them to just do what needs to be done.

This interview has been condensed and edited.