Over 200 people gathered in the south parking lot of the Innisfil Recreation Complex on Saturday afternoon, for an anti-racism rally.
The rally, organized by three young local women, Aleesha Gostkowski, Angela Bratton and Cassandra Amanyangole, was not only a reaction to the May 25 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a white police officer, but an attempt to shine a light on the systemic racism that is present in countries around the world – including Canada.
Thanks to donations from the public, the organizers were able to offer free water, face masks and hand sanitizer to the crowd, asking them to “social distance” in the circles drawn two metres apart on the parking lot’s asphalt.
The protesters carried signs that bore heart-felt messages: ‘Stronger together.’ ‘Black Lives Matter.’ ‘One race – Human race.’ ‘My skin gives me privilege I didn’t earn. Their skin gives them hate they don’t deserve.’ ‘No justice, no peace.’ ‘Enough.’
And they listened to the experiences shared by a series of passionate speakers.
“The fact that you are here shows that you do care,” said Shak Edwards, founder of Shak’s World, who emceed the event.
Among those taking their turn at the microphone was Errol Lee, teacher, singer and motivational speaker. He led the crowd in singing ‘Lean on me,’ and an original song, “We care - Black lives matter,’ and setting the tone for the rally.
It wasn’t all speeches. For eight minutes and 46 seconds – the length of time Officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck – protesters stood, kneeled or sat in silence, “to honour the life that brought us all together,” said Edwards.
“Eight minutes and 46 seconds. If that’s not murder, I don’t know what is,” she said. “Enough is enough.”
Floyd’s murder was the catalyst for the rally, but not the message. “It is about moving forward,” said Edwards, urging all present to take a stand to end racism. “Each and every one of you needs to hold their neighbours, their friends, their family accountable.”
Shelley Skinner, co-founder of Making Change and the Uplift Black Youth in Simcoe County Program, told the crowd, “As a Black mother of Black children in this community – honestly, it’s terrifying. All they have to do is walk out the door and someone sees their skin colour and decides they are a criminal...”
It is time for a change, Skinner said.
“I have done everything I could to make other people comfortable. I am done with making other people comfortable,” she said, calling on Innisfil residents to challenge racism, and end the violence against Black lives, the LGBTQ2S community, Indigenous lives and other racialized people.
“We are not okay. We are done,” she said. It's not enough to not be a racist," she said. “You have to be actively anti-racist. You have to be actively fighting for change.”
Her own online comments on Black Lives Matter sparked a hateful reaction, she noted - which shows “we’ve got some work to do. We’re not done. We’re not even started… we’re fighting for equity.”
Several speakers shared their personal experiences with racism in Innisfil.
Edwards’ family moved to Innisfil when she was only eight, and she and her siblings faced bullying and racism in the school yard, she said.
“We were made fun of every single day,” because of their skin colour, their hair. At the time, her name was 'Shanicka' - and defending her name resulted in her suspension from school "20 times," as she fought the bullies.
She didn’t come back to Innisfil until Grade 12, when she changed her name to Shak.
Joy Adams, describing herself as a “mother of two, business entrepreneur, community builder and leader and minister” put Floyd’s murder in context: “It represented 400 years of oppression, systemic racism and police brutality,” Adams said. “Enough is enough.”
She said that as a mother, she is fearful for her children. “They might be in the wrong place at the wrong time, just because of the colour of their skin.”
The video of Floyd’s murder, she said, was overwhelming. “It’s like I was suffocating. I could not breathe.”
As for those who say “all lives matter,” Adams said, “Yes, all lives matter, but the fact is that Black people are losing their lives.”
After years of being quiet about racism in Canada, Adams said, “I will not shut up. I will not sit down. I will not back down… My voice is important. Today is about change, because things have to change.”
She called on community allies to continue to work to eliminate the systemic racism in the educational system and the justice system, “long after ‘Black Lives Matter’ is no longer trending,” and dismantle systems based on inequality.
Adams told the rally, “A change is coming, not just for Blacks but for everyone. Where there is no justice, there is no peace… We want peace in Ontario. We want peace in Canada.”
She concluded, “When you witness racism, speak up. Don’t turn a blind eye.”
Speaker Tiffany Smith described herself as a business owner, volunteer and mental health advocate, and promised, “I will do whatever I can to make Innisfil a better place.”
Not all reactions to the Black Lives Matter protests have been positive, she said. “Racist behaviour in the community this past week has left me speechless and broken. Being Black is not a crime. Being Indigenous is not a crime. Mental health is not a crime. Police brutality is a crime.”
She shared the message: “We are awake. This is just the beginning.”
At the rally were local politicians Mayor Lynn Dollin, councillors Ken Fowler, Kevin Eisses and Bill Van Berkel, and Deputy Mayor Dan Davidson.
Davidson prepared a statement, read by Smith. He said that when people learned he was gay, they “started treating me differently. From friendship to hatred overnight? I was the same person… My Black friends, they can’t hide like I could. They face hatred from day one.”
Since the death of George Floyd, Davidson said, “now everyone sees the true face of racism. This is a time where we can change the system.”
“If we don’t become united, if we don’t make change, any of our children could be the next George Floyd,” said speaker Jennifer Kaplinksi, accompanied by her adopted son, who is Black.
She told the rally that she had been physically attacked by racist neighbours while pregnant with her bi-racial daughter. Now, she said, “Our family is united. We are white, we are brown and we are Black… We have to unite as a world. Now is definitely not the time to be silent. Now is the time to speak up and create a world of peace of unity. We need to end this war, this disease that is racism.”
Organizer Cassandra Amanyangole said that the first time she ever heard the “N-word” was when she moved to Innisfil, at the age of 10. She didn’t know what it meant, when children in an Innisfil playground used the racial slur.
Now, at the age of 20, she said it was proof that racism is learned: “Their parents told them that that’s what you call Black people.”
As the rally wound down, Errol Lee called on all of those carrying signs to come up on stage to share their message, and join in another song.
“We’re making the world a better place just by being here and caring about Black lives,” Lee said.
“From this point forward, it’s about the future,” said Shak Edwards. “Go home and be the change, so we don’t have to do this again in a few years.”