Is This Just What We Do Now?
Before coming to Winnipeg, Michelle Owens lived in London Ontario. She reconnected with London friends Kenji Marui and Tanya Cameron this month to talk about their experiences of the community response to the murder of the Afzaal family. The week immediately following the deaths, two mass community gatherings happened: a Tuesday evening vigil and human chain stretching from the site of the incident to the London mosque; and a Friday evening interfaith march that travelled the same route.
One of their first reflections was on how different the two events felt. The Tuesday evening chain was quiet and still along the street. Kenji and Tanya described the vigil at the mosque itself as almost surreal, with departmental dumptrucks cordoning off intersections and rooftop spotters and drones in the air. While participants characterized the human chain that stretched along kilometres of city streets as a solemn grassroots response, federal and provincial politicians dominated the speeches at the mosque. The Friday evening interfaith march sometimes felt almost like a parade, with people talking as they walked and neighbours sitting in lawn chairs to watch the march as a drumming band played.
Kenji and Tanya both reflected on how their own racial identity impacts their experience of safety in public, remembering times when the presence of police has made them feel safer, including in neighbourhoods where Black people have been targeted by police, or noticing that they had not been physically afraid to attend vigil events. Standing at the intersection where the Afzaal family died exposed the planned intentionality of the violence.
Discussion turned to other vigils, protests and gatherings, other times at the London mosque, at synagogues, attending Black Lives Matter and Idle No More marches, grieving the 215 children’s graves in Kamloops. Wondering if such action is enough or even effective, asking “Is this just what we do now?” led to questioning what concrete action lies beyond communities gathering in support and resistance. The Islamic community asked the politicians present at the vigil for a summit on Islamophobia in Canada to be held this year. Will communities stay mobilized to make a summit happen? Or does the will for change fade with headlines, as one tragedy follows another?
Reflecting on the conversation through the lens of the action-reflection ‘spiral’ (old habits die hard), Michelle wondered if, collectively, we are stuck at the Reflective Observation stage – ready to confront and describe racist, colonial and anti-immigrant violent events, and able to begin to mourn, but not yet shifting into deeper analysis, and ill-equipped to shift into action. Without transformative change in Canada, people will continue to die and communities will continue to mourn.