“Knowledge is Power is a mobilized and conscious attempt to combat and re-articulate the stories of communities that have been targeted, vilified and simplified by mainstream institutions of power in the city of Toronto. We recognize that our work is part of a larger attempt to address the violence, trauma and need for healing. We are young people, elders, artists, activists, students, educators…human beings…demanding accountability.”
My mum made me write this. I came home last week exhausted and tired telling her about the traumatic cartoons and the insensitive mayoral comments that were being tweeted and retweeted on my Twitter news feed and how people were calling, calling, calling for a response. My mum just looked at me and said, “Well yeah. You better respond!” In that look and in that statement she called me out. Called me out of the lethargy and complacency and ego-tripping I often nestle myself into where I think I am already doing so much, and I don’t have energy to do this right now or feel inadequate or wary of the celebrity-ism that these incidents can create in the individuals that do choose to speak. My mum made me remember that this isn’t a question. I have the privilege of literacy and education and critical awareness and leverage and platform and space for reflection that many of my ancestors did not have before me. This is not a question. It is a responsibility. For all of us. They have silenced us through Facebook and Twitter and BBM to believe that activism can be summed up in a 4-sentence status or a 140 character tweet. It can start there…those places can move things…but it cannot end there.
On Saturday, June 2nd, 2012 Lost Lyrics celebrated our 5-Year Anniversary across the street from the Eatoncentre at Ryerson University. As our incredible keynote speaker, Dr. Darrick Smith wrapped up the final answer in a Q&A that had the entire audience pulsating with energy, inspiration and belief in revolutionary change…
…I received a text that there had been a shooting at Eatoncentre.
It’s funny what those messages do; they so rapidly impact your mind, body and spirit. Breathing either stops or becomes short. All the hundreds of thoughts whizzing through the mind slow down and focus to those words facing you on a strangely lit LCD screen.
This feeling was replicated one too many times last week as I got the phone call, read the text, saw the tweets and re-tweets of each shooting and act of bloody violence that has occurred in this city. And just as my breath starts coming back and my body realizes that it can still move, and I start shifting into information-gathering/support/coordination/retreat/distraction mode, I am hit once again. This second hit comes from a press conference with the police chief or the cartoon section of the newspaper or the statements made by the mayor, or the tweets made by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, or articles on Hennessy and Hip Hop’s intimate connection with Toronto gun violence or angry editorials published by irresponsible publications.
In order to shoot someone, I would imagine that there has to be a capacity of silencing humanity – your own and the potential victim. This capacity to silence the layers and complexities and nuances of humanity is strangely replicated in the “official” responses of mainstream media, politicians and police officials and the general public as they forget the human beings behind the stories.
Contrary to the stories we are being bombarded with, please know: It took A LOT to get us to this place and it will take A LOT to get us past it.
I can confidently say that to move forward, what we do not do is comfort ourselves with falsehoods. In his first public statement following Monday’s shooting in Scarborough, Mayor Rob Ford declared that Toronto is the safest city in the world. To this I ask, “to whom is this city safe?” Perhaps if you are a straight, white, heterosexual male with economic privilege and political power, this city is the epitome of safe. However there are thousands of folks – women-identified, racialized, LGBTQ Spectrum folks, persons with disabilities, youth, newcomers, Aboriginal people and more – who walk these streets feeling unsafe every single day.
I also have a strangely familiar feeling that radio debates and “city-under-fire” news specials with city police and apparent leaders of the “Black community” will lead to little more than a scavengers grab for any crumbs that may emerge as pressure rises. Don’t get me wrong: telling our stories from our voices is so incredibly and vitally important. Responding to the garbage that is disseminated everyday by mainstream media is very very necessary and some amazing work has already been done in this regard by writers such as Simon Black, community mobilization in response to the Toronto Star cartoon and interviews with frontline workers who give layered and complex responses by the CBC. But this is just reflex. It is a reaction (and defense) to the bullshit. It is not transformative. And it cannot be. Because it is limited by a structure of storytelling defined by sound-bites and segments and word counts that too often ask the wrong questions in the search for the quick (and sensational) answers.
Things are not going to get better if we keep asking the wrong questions and looking for quick and fast responses.
I just finished reading Andrea Smith’s book “Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide” and my mind feels like it is going to explode with understanding of the layered web of context that has brought us to this current place. The young people directly involved in this violence are not “things.” You cannot silence their humanity by calling them “thugs” and “gang members.” They are individuals who consciously or unconsciously are manifesting the mess that has been created by a culture of violence, power, capitalism, conquest, genocide, exploitation and rape. Our entire global economic order and particularly the economic order of North America is built upon a legacy of violent death and exploitation.
Yes I did go there, because that’s where we are. And people don’t want to read this answer. They want to hear that this can be solved by more police, or more programs, or deportation, or banning guns. Sorry. It took a lot to get us here and it will take a lot to get us out. It took a global economic system that normalizes exploitation, a military industrial complex that naturalizes a permanent state of war, a prison industrial complex that locates certain bodies as permanently criminalized and an education system that (as Darrick Smith reminded us) has lost the root of it’s very essence. The root of the word education is “to educe” – to bring out – but in our current system, education has become mired in a web of inculcating and “inducing” young people into passive, non-critical and non-resistant individuals.
“There is a contradiction in relying upon the state to solve problems it is responsible for creating.” – Andrea Smith
The answers cannot be found through the same channels and mechanisms that brought us here. Whether it is state-funded police or state-funded programs, the state cannot and will not bring us social transformation. Let’s be clear: Social transformation is what we’re talking about. And how can the state fund a transformation that will fundamentally question its very existence and mode of being?
Although I appreciate the mobilization this banner can bring, the core of the issue is not banning guns. If it’s not guns, it’s a machete as was also evidenced this past week. The Stolen from Africa movement articulated it succinctly: “Banning guns won’t stop violence. Changing mindsets will.” We have to ask, how did we get to this place where a person’s humanity can be reduced to nothing? And we can ask this question to all who dehumanize: the shooter that pulled the trigger, the Toronto police that fill out profile cards, the judge that moves robotically through case after case, the elder watching the television demanding that they lock up all these thugs who look like their grandsons, the mayor who brings up ludicrous calls for deportation, the cartoonist that creates work geared to traumatize under the guise of freedom of expression, the journalist who bombards the funeral with insensitive and triggering questions, the contributor who writes an editorial that labels human beings as things. Society has normalized dehumanization and so society needs to be transformed.
My personal politics is based on faith in the capacity of education and art to truly move and transform. I believe that art can inspire and education can transform and together revolution can be built. I am not sure what Mayor Rob Ford was referring to when he described his disgust for “hug-a-thug programming.” But I do know that the non-profit industrial complex can make it easy for activists to become bureaucrats. It is easy to get caught in the cycle of twisting and contorting what was once a dream into the narrow and confined objectives of a funder and convince yourself that change can occur through “teaching skills” and teaching our young people how to participate in society – conveniently pushing aside the inconvenient knowledge that this society is built on violence, exploitation and individualistic and oppressive conceptions of power. Nothing will fundamentally change with this strategy.
As my bestie and the co-founder of Lost Lyrics, Natasha Daniel is always telling me: “We have to think outside of the box…”
…I am interested in teaching young people how to recognize, critically analyze, resist and create. I am asking myself, with the privilege I hold as a facilitator, an educator, a writer and an artist – what type of human beings am I trying to help create through my work? Who am I sending back into society, into our communities when they are done with my class? With my program? Watching my play? Reading my essay? How am I working every single day on this goal of transforming society? What capacity to change society do you possess in your everyday roles? How do we strategically mobilize under this shared intention?
Let’s start asking the right questions.