Estimates suggest nearly 10,000 people marched in Burlington on June 4th.
When I reached New Street, the start of the march had already passed out of sight to my left on its way towards City Hall. To my right I could see a solid mass of people coming towards me for as far as the eye could see, far beyond Guelph Line towards Walkers. I felt like checking the GPS on my phone. Was I really still in Burlington? When I walked back along New Street an hour later, the stream of people was still coming, finally starting to dwindle, but still unbroken, as far as the eye could see.
If there has ever been a political protest a quarter the size of yesterday’s Black Lives Matter Solidarity march in Burlington, I would be astonished. Earlier in the day, I checked the march’s Facebook page. 600 people had expressed interest, and 400 had promised to attend. Pretty impressive. With luck, given the way these things tend to pan out in practice, I thought they might get around 300. I condescendingly thought the organizers should be proud.
Multiply 300 by 10. And then double it. Add another three thousand. The latest estimates are that nearly 10,000 people attended. In Burlington. In middle class, comfortable, prosperous, and, in most neighbourhoods, still overwhelmingly white Burlington. It felt like not a single person under 25 was sitting at home.
The marchers were overwhelmingly young, from high school age to no more than thirty. There was a scattering of older people, some of them parents there to make sure their children were safe. Some more middle aged or senior locals watched from the side of the road and clapped, not willing, understandably in the midst of a pandemic, to be part of a crowd. A few cars squeezed by blasting their horns in support. An elderly lady in a mobility scooter cheered loudly and waved her hand-made banner from a street corner.
At City Hall there were no speeches – or none that could be heard. No stages or PAs where civic leaders could – do what civic leaders do. Yes, some local politicians were in attendance – MPs Karina Gould and Pam Damoff and former provincial NDP candidate Andrew Drummond were in the crowd – but they were not asked to speak. That seemed right. There was passionate chanting of Black Lives Matters slogans by young black and white marchers alike, and slogans against injustice and murder at the hands of out of control and militarized police officers. After a few minutes, by whatever magic conveys messages through crowds, every person present took a knee and was silent.
It was, for Burlington, unprecedented. Unprecedentedly powerful.
Protest in a time of pandemic
We’ll never know what the march might have looked like in a pre-Covid era … it was undoubtedly not a place where seniors or people with health conditions would feel comfortable. We live in a time when protest is dangerous for everybody, and perhaps most dangerous for the elderly relatives of the marchers in the weeks ahead, who could be put in severe danger by children and grandchildren if it turns out there were any infectious people present yesterday. Almost everybody wore a mask, but while most tried to keep some kind of distance around themselves, there were bottlenecks and squeezes where social distancing was almost impossible to maintain.
But there was nothing frivolous or careless about the protestors. To nitpick about the risks of gathering, as many will no doubt do, is to ignore that for marchers, staying home would be to accept the longstanding reduced life expectancy as well as the current much higher rates of Covid mortality affecting black Americans and Canadians. If these marches achieve a real and lasting change in our society’s perception of racism, they will have achieved a significant step towards ending the inequities that mean of millions of black North Americans die younger than they should.
Articles in The 905er in future weeks will look in detail at the experience of Canadians of colour in the GTHA. Those articles will be written by people far better qualified than I am to shine a light on issues of race. The 905er will aim to reflect and give a voice to the generations who will make our region their home in the coming decades – a population that will be one of the most diverse in the world. If The 905er succeeds, it will be because the voices too often silenced and belittled by the dying Canadian legacy media will be a central part of the project.
On Thursday, the young people of Halton, black, white and of every ethnicity in our region, made a statement older generations need to remember the next time they talk about lazy, entitled millenials. They got out and marched. Because they care about their friends, their neighbours and their relatives and they want a better future for them. Because they have the imagination that Rex Murphy and Stockwell Day so clearly lack – to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and imagine how it feels. And they have chosen to listen, and to believe, when black Americans and Canadians tells them they live in danger.
Let’s hope that this generation keeps its word. Let’s hope they’re not like the radical boomers who marched against Vietnam before settling down into suburban selfishness. Let’s hope they’re not like the outspoken Gen-Xers who started the environmental movement and helped bring down Apartheid, before growing up and voting for cheap gasoline, low tax, the Ford brothers and Donald Trump. Let’s hope this new generation never grows up.