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Promotional poster of the webinar
Photo: Dasser Kamran/screenshot

Webinar featured speakers Desmond Cole and Reakash Walters. 

On Sept. 17, the Black Law Students’ Association of the University of Ottawa and UOttawa OUTLaw, hosted a virtual conversation on the Intersections of Blackness, Queerness, and Activism. The event featured discussion by Desmond Cole, “an award-winning columnist, activist, and author” and Reakash Walters, “a writer, community advocate and legal articling student.”

The ways in which racism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression are embedded systemically and institutionally in society were a main feature of the discourse from both Walters and Cole. 

As detailed by the Facebook event page, the conversation was “centered around anti-Black racism, abolition, activism, and the redefining of justice within our borders” while also taking the time to “explore the ways in which the lives of 2SLGBTQ+ identifying persons are affected by, and intersect with, the law.” Additionally, specific attention was paid to “queer folks that live at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities.”

Speaking to the context of this discussion in Canada, Walters pointed to the struggle of queer refugees being forced to “prove” their identity before being granted asylum in this country. Critically, she stated that there are certain “brands of gay… permitted within Canadian borders” where those who do not fall into certain standards are refused the safety they seek. 

Another example of violence that Walters outlined where the state has failed to protect a community and instead, does the opposite, is in the policing of sex workers. The dangers these folks face in going about their livelihood is not from the nature of the work itself but due to the systems that govern society, stated Walters.

Canada perpetuates “immense violence” through the state in this way, Walters maintains, where queer and Black people face disproportionate surveillance and violence from government agencies. She named the Canadian Border Service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the judicial system act as the main apparatus responsible for this damage. 

In this way, Walters maintains that “calls to defund the police are actually calls to reclaim community power.”

From this, Cole brought up the conversation surrounding how to engage in the fight against these oppressions, and how the question is often posed as whether the issue is best addressed from the “inside” or “outside” of these institutions.

Cole said that framing the question this way limits the radical nature of the movement, as it “assumes these social structures are constant.” Nuances within these structures are not so much the focus of abolitionist theory, but people, specifically within the Black and queer communities, living under systems of domination is the issue.

Building something better than what exists now is the focus of the revolutionary movement, says Cole, something “based on love, respect, and accountability.”

He maintains that appointing marginalized folks in token positions within a system that is killing them is still working within the bounds of white supremacy and is indicative of “dominator culture”, citing renowned feminist scholar Bell Hooks’ theory. 

Cole affirms that there is more to revolutionary work than putting “Black faces in high places.”

Cole went on to talk more in-depth about the history of Black Lives Matter Toronto and the issues that the grassroots organizers have run into with reformist narratives and dissent from individuals in positions of performative representation. 

When asked in the question and answer portion of the discussion why they vouch for abolition over reform, Walters emphasized that the systems in place cause such harm to certain communities because they are directly informed by “capitalism, racism, homophobia, etc.” 

Cole rejects the notion that a perfect system needs to be in place before “replacing one that is designed to hurt some of us”, insisting that important work can and is being done in the meantime.

Being asked how activism should be approached within the current context of the pandemic, both Cole and Walters said to not rely solely on social media for information. They acknowledged that the immediate nature of education available through this medium is vital, but encouraged folks to look into literature by movement leaders and to “organize offline as well.”

As for joining the sphere of activism, Cole recognized the apprehension individuals often have about making mistakes when starting out in this sphere, but urged newcomers and allies alike to “not be scared of participating as long as it’s in an open and good faith way.”

The organizers of the event have compiled a resource list in both English and French for those who wish to learn more about the topics brought up during the event, which can be accessed here.