A vigil and rally will be held in Victoria Park on Friday as Londoners look to honour lives lost to anti-Asian racism and to raise awareness of the longstanding issue.
Organizer Ayeza Tahir tells Global News that she and her co-organizers, Teigan Elliott and Erika Mitsushima, were inspired to organize the vigil and rally following the March 16 shootings in Atlanta, Georgia.
A 21-year-old white man is accused of killing four people inside two Atlanta spas and four others at a massage business about 30 miles (50 km) away. Six of the eight people killed last Tuesday were women of Asian descent.
“We were all heartbroken, but we’ve been talking about this since before that. I mean, anti-Asian hate crime has been increasing since the pandemic and it’s existed our whole lives,” Tahir explained.
“We’re all women of colour. We’ve all faced microaggressions and racism our whole lives. So we really think that COVID and the shooting were our trigger for this event but it should have always been happening, these kinds of conversations should never have stopped.”
Friday’s event begins at 6:30 p.m. in Victoria Park.
Attendees are asked to wear masks and practice physical distancing due to the ongoing pandemic. The event will also be livestreamed on Facebook and hosted on Zoom, with organizers planning to upload it after the fact with closed-captioning.
“The event itself, we’re going to begin by mourning the victims of recent hate crimes. So we’ll be naming some recent victims, first of all, and then we’ll be having a number of speeches from my co-organizers, from some of London’s other Asian community groups, from some community groups that are based at Western University,” Tahir said.
In an update posted on the Facebook event page on Tuesday, the organizers said that they were closing registration and encouraging those who already registered to attend virtually “via Zoom and Facebook links that will be provided prior to the event.”
“After a week of constant avoidance and evasion from the City and LPS regarding our event, we were denied permission to use the Band Shell in Victoria Park to accommodate the social distancing necessary to ensure our attendees’ safety,” the statement reads.
“As an afterthought, we were designated the Speaker’s Corner (Intersection of Central and Richmond), which makes it impossible for us to host the number of Londoners who have registered for this event.”
Scott Stafford, London’s managing director of parks and recreation, says the city “supports and acknowledges the right to peacefully protest” but that because of the pandemic, “we are not permitting the use of the stage in Victoria Park at this time.”
“Groups wishing to organize may utilize the plaza area outside the northwest corner of Victoria Park, this is a public space,” he said.
“At a time when case counts continue to increase in our community, we strongly discourage activities that don’t comply with health precautions that are in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, we also recognize the right to free speech and to gather peacefully.”
London police, meanwhile, say that its members “make every attempt to contact organizers prior to events such as these, to go over any current provincial regulations and public health guidelines, answer any questions, and remind them that there is the potential that fines may be issued, should the gathering exceed provincial limits.”
Police add that current restrictions do not allow for organized outdoor gatherings of over 100 people.
Anti-Asian racism is an ongoing problem in Canada with a long history, but the recent violence south of the border and an uptick in hate crimes reported since the onset of the pandemic have thrust the issue into the spotlight.
Just last month, the Vancouver Police Department reported a 717 per cent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes over the past year.
Tahir shared a story from a friend who was recently sitting in Square One shopping centre in Mississauga when a woman walked up and threw food at them.
“And then she told them, ‘look at your eyes. You’re not even human.’ I mean, it keeps getting worse. People aren’t just blaming Asian people for COVID. They’re also dehumanizing them. And I think that’s a whole other level of danger that Asian people in Canada are facing nowadays.”
While the public discourse is important, Fareed Khan, founder of Canadians United Against Hate, says “we need to move beyond conversations.”
Speaking with Global News about International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination held March 21, he says citizens need to speak out if they see something.
Beyond that, he says, he’s also advocating for legislative action.
“For years now, I and others in the anti-racism activist community have been calling on the federal government to take very strong action with regard to racism and hate in Canada,” he said.
“We welcome the statements when the Prime Minister or ministers or MPs make them about how, you know, ‘racism and hate have no place in this country.’ But until you have the tools available to challenge it legislatively and legally, then all you’re doing is issuing words and feel-good statements.
“Feel good statements are not going to cut it. We are at a time where hate and white supremacy is on the rise.”
— with files from Reuters’ Gabriella Borter and Global News’ Arti Patel.