Jacob Callender-Prasad wants British Columbians to know that racism, and particularly anti-Black racism, is not something that only happens in other places.
Callender-Prasad has emerged as one of the strongest voices in the region as a wave of anti-racism protests sweeps North America after the death of George Floyd during an arrest by Minneapolis police officers.
The 21-year-old organized last Sunday’s protest at the Vancouver Art Gallery and was one of the people spearheading Friday’s peaceful rally at Jack Poole Plaza.
Callender-Prasad grew up in B.C. and says his experience belies the myth that B.C. lives in multicultural harmony.
“I’ve also been very fortunate, but it’s been hard in the school system. I’ve been bullied for being Black,” he said.
“I used to have kids put pencils in my hair, I used to have kids call me ‘African booty scratcher,’ call me monkey and try and play monkey in the middle with me, I had kids ask me if they could use different words to describe who I was. I didn’t realize there were so many different words to describe the n-word.”
Callender-Prasad says when he told his teachers about the incidents, they told him they couldn’t do anything if they didn’t personally witness it. He said he’d also been suspended for defending himself.
“I didn’t like being Black, I didn’t want to be Black. I remember putting avatars on games, and I would make them white,” he said.
Callender-Prasad said he was 17 the first time police pointed a weapon at him.
He said he was picking something up at his local corner store when he was arrested at gunpoint and pinned to the ground. Undercover Burnaby RCMP officers believed he was a suspect in an attempted murder, he said.
“If I had run, I guarantee I would have been shot. But I didn’t. I remember watching the news and my parents telling me what to do, so I put my hands up,” he said.
“I was crying and I was scared, a 17-year-old in his home community being arrested and not knowing what he did, no one told me what I did, no one addressed that it was police until I heard sirens.”
Police later apologized, calling it a case of mistaken identity, and offered him a Cineplex gift card and a tour of the Burnaby RCMP detachment.
Callender-Prasad says he’s never taken them up on the tour offer because he feels threatened around the RCMP.
Since the mistaken arrest, he says he’s been wrongly detained by the RCMP three times.
“What it really is — mistaken identity — is just an easy way of saying racial profiling,” he said.
Callender-Prasad’s family says it’s no surprise he’s emerged as a leader.
His grandmother Nalda Callender, who he describes as a mentor, is a long-time advocate for Black rights in Canada and the executive director of the National Congress of Black Women Foundation.
Callender stood beside her grandson when he went public with his story of wrongful arrest as a teen.
“(He’s) energetic, talkative, he has compassion, reaches out to help others and respects older people,” she told Global News.
“He speaks out a lot for other people. He’s also lived with the experience of racism.”
His aunt, Dr. Tara Perry, says Callender-Prasad’s experience with racism was tempered by a supportive family environment that taught him to love and be proud of being Black, and the importance of standing up for what he believes in.
“Jacob has always been a leader, because when you are discriminated against in schools, you are alone, you are a lone ranger,” she said.
“If we tackle the system and we say, what is this institution doing, how are these rules and these policies being made and who is making those policies, you will look around the table and see it is not people of colour.”
Vancouver police Sgt. Cindy Vance was Callender-Prasad’s school liaison officer at Britannia Secondary School and says, “What you see is what you get” with the young organizer.
“Speaking with the inspectors and various people throughout the department, they are very impressed by him and very proud that he is a graduate of the (Vancouver school system), and someone that we’ve had an opportunity to work with in the past,” she told Global News.
“I think the great thing with Jacob is that he gets the bigger picture, he understands the importance of getting the message out, which we agree as well is so important. But in order to do that effectively, you need to do that peacefully, and that is when people will listen to you.”
Despite his experiences with police, Callender-Prasad says he remains focused on a message of hope, that things can be better, including interactions with law enforcement.
He said he genuinely believes that most police are good people, but that it is incumbent on good officers to stand up and speak out when they see wrongdoing among their colleagues.
“I believe the police departments; they deserve a second chance,” he said.
And he said the reaction to this week’s protests makes him believe that progress is possible.
“It gave me hope that someday there will be a future, someday that (Martin Luther King’s) dream will be answered, and will become all of our dreams, and will become our future,” he said.