Article by Hilary Beaumont
They might have marched out of a history text. In a scene nearly indistinguishable from a 1960s civil rights protest, a multiracial crowd of nearly 300 people stalled traffic Tuesday evening as they walked down Spring Garden Road. The rally was a show of solidarity with protesters in Ferguson, Missouri where 10 days ago a teenager lost his life.
On August 9 Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old, was walking down the street with his friend when Darren Wilson, a white police officer, confronted them. It’s unclear exactly what happened next but Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson, said the officer pointed his gun at Brown and when it was over the teen lay bleeding on the pavement. He had been shot six times including twice in the head. He was unarmed, and witness accounts suggest his hands were above his head when he was shot. The event spurred protests and calls for justice in Ferguson.
In Halifax, African-Nova Scotian community leaders and young people led the rally holding a banner that read, “Black lives matter,” and chanting, “Who are we? Mike Brown!” White Halifax residents followed behind echoing the chants and carrying signs with supportive slogans, including “Black is not the problem, your fear is.”
Demonstrators share stories of racial profiling
As he marched down Spring Garden Road McFarlane Njoh called, “How many more youth?” and the crowd answered, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” He carried a sign quoting Martin Luther King: “Injustice everywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Njoh said he attended the rally because he was racially profiled and assaulted by police. “I want to speak out and let people know that even though Ferguson might seem far away, police brutality is something that’s right in our own backyards.”
It happened to him when he was a new Canadian immigrant living in Calgary. He was on a road trip with friends when their car broke down. It was dark out and they were stranded so he called 911. Police ran the licence plate and found the car had been reported stolen. His friend had taken his parents’ car without telling them, but Njoh didn’t know that at the time.
“We were sitting in the car and the next thing I know there were about six cruisers gathered around the car. They were screaming at us, ‘Come out!’ and they all had guns drawn.”
Officers pulled him out of the car at gunpoint, slammed his head down in the snow on the pavement, kneed him in the back and arrested him. He was held in a cell for the rest of the night.
“I do know one thing for sure: we were all black in that car, that’s why we were treated that way.”
“I called for help. I gave them all the licence information and registration.”
“That experience changed the way I perceive the police.” Previously he thought of them as pleasant, and he still does, but now he questions that perception.
“Shoot first, ask questions later”
Beatrice Douglas-Simmons, who also attended the march, held a pink sign over her head that said, “Yes I’m racially profiled.”
As you get older the stories of racial profiling accumulate, she said.
Like the time she was driving with a friend and an RCMP officer pulled her over to ask what they were doing and what was in her bag. “I said, my lunch, I just came from work.” The officer let them go.
She has heard racist comments in university, including one from a professor. At work her supervisor once told her, “You don’t talk, monkey, until I ring your chain.”
She has been followed in stores. When she went to buy a car one time, no one attended to her, even after she asked for service at the desk and waited for 30 to 40 minutes.
She could go on.
“You have to move forward. You can’t live your life by what someone thinks of you.”
“I’m here because I think this person, Mike Brown, he was discriminated against and I think he didn’t deserve to get what happened, he didn’t deserve to die. There’s no reason for that. It’s like shoot first and ask questions later.”
Evangeline Downey walked on ahead of the demonstrators, chanting with them. Her sign paraphrased author James Baldwin: “To be black in America is to be in a constant state of rage.”
Downey said she had been assaulted by the RCMP and had experienced systemic discrimination from both the RCMP and Halifax police. She attended the rally because black men are over-represented in prisons, she said.
The teen’s death sparked the rally in Halifax because people can relate to the feelings of injustice in Ferguson, she explained.
“What the Mike Brown [shooting] has done for a lot of people is just sent them over the top.”
“People are upset, they’re very upset. You can’t hold people down. Not just black people, white people are enraged, all the different people. You look out there. Everyone’s enraged.”
As the rally reached a small park near Casino Nova Scotia, the demonstrators formed a circle. As he marched, Tendai Handahu had thrown his fist in the air. Now he spoke over a mic.
When you call someone the N-word, that’s prejudice, he told the crowd. “When you are benefitting from the work of our forefathers and you are not prepared to let go of that advantage, that’s racism.”
“It’s 2014 and we are still asking for you to look at us as humans. We’re still asking for you to value black lives.”
He questioned whether blacks would be able to rise up and converse as equals, or whether white society would forget the protests since Ferguson and return to the status quo.
As the rally officially ended, about half the crowd dispersed, but some lingered to share their stories over the mic. A thinning but substantial crowd stayed where they were to listen.
As ugly and soul-destroying as overt racism is, the quiet, unexpressed variety is equally insidious, perhaps even more so to society, because it lurks and hides, affecting, yet unable to be called out and confronted. Saw it while working in pharmacy in HRM. While we rarely saw and served blacks, the professional contempt for First Nations was egregious and continuous. It was manifested in clenched lips, greater scrutiny of prescriptions they presented, and icy personal interactions, in contract with relaxed ones with whites. It didn’t help that government-issued regulations on cost-covered medications contained ugly bias. One phrasing surprised and shocked even my lawyer son. It referred to their “enhanced entitlement.” Still remember son saying with disbelief, “It actually said that, in those words?!” Yes, it did.