‘Listen and understand’ says organizer of Guelph’s Black Lives Matter protest

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From being pushed down and kicked by police to seeing her friend shot in the street, Kayla Gerber says she has been through it all as a Black woman.

These are her personal experiences and part of the reason why she is helping organize Saturday’s peaceful protest and march in support of Black Lives Matter in Guelph, Ont.

Everyone is invited to gather outside Guelph City Hall at 2 p.m. for speeches, music and poetry.

“Listen and understand,” Gerber, who also goes by Kween Kay, said in an interview on Wednesday.

“A lot of us have experience watching our parents and families go through this, our brothers and sisters constantly, and ourselves.

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“We’re not just talking necessarily from history books but personal things happening to us for the last 400 years.”

Gerber said she knows the cousin of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, the woman who fell to her death in late May following an interaction with Toronto police.

“It’s been a really tough time for me,” she said, adding that she also knew two rappers shot and killed in Toronto — Houdini who was killed on May 26 and Smoke Dawg who was gunned down in June 2018.

Both were just 21 years old.

Gerber was born and raised in Guelph and lived in Toronto for seven years before joining the Guelph Black Heritage Society, which is supporting Saturday’s protest and march.

The gathering is just one of many around the world following the death of American George Floyd.

The 46-year-old Black man died on May 25 after video showed a white officer using a knee to pin Floyd’s neck to the ground for nearly nine minutes.

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It’s unclear how many people will show up on Saturday. The Facebook event showed 1,500 people were going and another 3,200 were interested as of Thursday afternoon.

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Following speeches and performances, the march will commence from city hall past Guelph police headquarters and to the University of Guelph then back to city hall.

While the entire community is invited, Gerber said organizers are asking the so-called “negative Nancys” to not attend.

“In Guelph, we have a significant amount of white allies and we have to be aware of that,” she said. “This is very inclusive to putting our allies and members together to create a stronger relationship for this dialogue to happen.

“This about showing that we have a responsibility for the sake of our Black, Indigenous and Peoples of Colour (BIPOC) and really shows our members and allies are really coming together to move Guelph forward and stronger.”

One person expected to be in attendance will be Mayor Cam Guthrie, who Gerber said is taking a backseat and will be listening among the spectators.

Guthrie released a statement earlier this week stating diversity is central to the city’s official plans and promised to work with staff to identify gaps within the city’s work related to diversity and inclusion.

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He also said there are some who believe racism does not exist in Guelph, which is part of the problem.

“We are not immune to the anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism and discrimination against people of colour,” he stated.

“We must stand united in our commitment to stopping this deeply-ingrained prejudice in its tracks.”

Gerber said she appreciated that statement and has even spoken with the mayor this week. She said it was an open dialogue where a group sat with the mayor and he just listened.

“Which is what we want,” she said. “I actually feel very comfortable with our mayor knowing that he does want to impact change as well for the future.”

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Gerber also confirmed that the Guelph Police Service has not been invited because it would be against everything Black Lives Matters stands for.

The police service and its board have each released statements this week supporting the protest and stated their willingness to ensure the safety and security of every single person in the community.

Chief Gord Cobey penned his own letter detailing what the force is doing to provide bias-free policing in Guelph.

Some of that includes training in areas such as diversity, inclusion and cultural sensitivity along with mental health awareness and de-escalation.

Marva Wisdom, the founder of the Guelph Black Heritage Society, has been working with the service, according to Gerber.

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Cobey added they are trying to recruit officers who have historically been under-represented in policing and they are launching a pilot project in the coming months that will see some officers wear body cameras.

Global News has asked Guelph police how many of its officers are Black and to provide race-based statistics on police interactions. We have yet to receive that information.

While the police have not been invited on Saturday, Gerber said there will likely be an open dialogue going forward following the protest.

“Guelph police have never reached out to us, it’s always been vice-versa for events or something else,” she explained.

“This is, for me, a start in opening that dialogue to figuring out how we can better this community and better the social system.”

Along with that ongoing conversation with city hall and police, Gerber is calling on all residents to keep the dialogue and momentum going after Saturday’s protest.

“This can’t stop at coming to a protest, snapping a shot and putting it on your social media,” she said. “This has to continue outside of this protest and moving forward — you can be pro-Black without being anti-white.”

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She added that resources are available through the Guelph Black Heritage Society, which was re-established in 2011 after it was a British Methodist Church in the 1880s built by former slaves who came through the Underground Railroad.

The organization is accepting donations through its website or via e-transfer.

Anyone who attends Saturday’s event must wear a mask due to the coronavirus pandemic and must maintain two metres of physical distancing between groups. Masks, hand sanitizers and first-aid will be made available.

More information about the peaceful protest and march can be found online.

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