Reflections of an organizer, speaker & witness at Waterloo’s anti-racism protest

A pinch of frustration, a dash of déjà vu and a dollop of ‘are you f****** kidding me?’

It was early February when I spotted a tweet from my friend and fellow community organizer, Cait Glasson. Amid their Black History Month tweets, they had announced their intentions to host an anti-racism demonstration on Family Day. One reply later and I was in. Many others followed, becoming volunteers for the day. 

We mobilized from our homes over Twitter, email and Signal. Zero print materials were distributed, but word spread quickly over social media and through word of mouth. There would be a public gathering devoted to promoting anti-racism and expressing solidarity with all those disadvantaged by unjust systems. We would gather to practice the love we seek. 

On the sunny — and surprisingly warm — afternoon of February 21st, volunteers gathered atop the steps of Waterloo Public Square ahead of the rally. We nodded in acknowledgement of one another. Some of us bumped elbows. All of us smiled through our masks at the faces we had just met in-person. We gave out safety vests to our volunteers, and went over the de-escalation training we took the Friday night before. There was power in the air. There was also familiarity. It felt as though many of us had been here before. Here, as in on the concrete steps of Waterloo Public Square; as QTBIPOC organizers; doing the work; yet again. 

Cait Glasson

Police cars and personnel had made their presence known but maintained a safe distance away. It seemed they were practicing their commitment to a hands-off approach to the planned protest. 

As we shoveled away snow and tested gear, I recall a white woman asking Cait and I what we were doing. We shared our intentions to host an anti-racism demonstration. She remarked almost immediately with a pinch of frustration.

“Anti-racist? It’s 2022, who’s even racist anymore? No, nobody is racist here,” she said. I didn’t and still don’t know if I should be offended, relieved, disappointed or fired up. 

Offended that she thinks we would spend our time, energy and resources to organize if racism didn’t affect people everyday. 

Relieved because at least she acknowledged racism exists, even if only in the past. 

Disappointed that my neighbors were or chose to remain ignorant. 

Disappointed in myself for even entertaining the idea of settling for a back-handed, barely-there acknowledgement of our cause. 

Fired up because this was a demonstration of exactly the beast we gathered to pronounce and denounce. 

Marjorie Knight, left

Most of the joys of grassroots level community organizing are a product of spontaneity. Neither of the speaker systems donated by fellow volunteers were working. I suspect the outlets at Waterloo Square were not working just yet. Just before 1 p.m., people began to gather. Folks passing by took interest in the forming crowd. It was time. 

Dewe’igan Barefoot

We decided to invite onlookers in as close as they felt comfortable, so they could hear our speakers. Neighbors carrying pride and trans flags, as well as signs dispelling racism, announced our presence on the steps of Waterloo Public Square. I think there were at least 75 people there that day, including kids. 

The incomparable Marjorie Knight kicked things off as our MC for the afternoon. The speakers that followed included myself, Dewe’igan Barefoot, Aashay Dalvi, Fanis Juma, and Amy Smoke — all incredible community members, advocates and organizers that I highly encourage you to look up and support. Less than 30 seconds into my time, I was interrupted with a microphone plugged into a portable amp. It was held by a kind neighbor who apparently had the right connections. I couldn’t help but smile at the sight of yet another example of a competent, abundant and capable community. 

Aashay Dalvi
MPP Laura Mae Lindo
Fanis Juma

Aside from the occasional drive-by disruption, things were pretty calm, until it was time for Amy Smoke from Land Back Camp to speak. 

Our volunteers had spotted this white man at the start of the protest. He had taken up space next to the guest speakers. He had a greying beard, wore reflective sunglasses and no mask. I quickly grabbed an extra one from a fellow volunteer and approached the man with my training coursing through me. He denied the mask and made his stance on masks known. I returned to my spot a couple meters away. 

Marjorie introduced Amy. Their words were always powerful, but were especially so on that day. Amy said the words many were thinking. “I’m tired. I’m tired of fighting white supremacists. We’ve done the work. It’s your turn.” 

Mere moments had passed and the gentleman was on the move. He darted towards Amy. Folks mobilized instantly. Volunteers and audience members alike. We created moving human barriers around him and between him and Amy. He began shouting and claiming victimhood to the crowd of “haters” limiting his speech and villainizing white people. 

Despite various efforts to calm the man and articulate our distaste for white supremacy, not white people, the moment had been lost and our demonstration had been derailed — attention stolen from our guest speaker. The tragic irony should not be lost on you here. These are textbook tactics of those that seek to silence marginalized voices. 

Luckily, our agenda for the afternoon was winding down. Final remarks were said while some of us maintained a tight circle around the disruptor. Some of us began to disengage to begin clean-up. The gentleman continued his almost-comical performance, pushing buttons along the way. He got handsy with some folks, claimed camaraderie with others and incessantly misgendered Cait. There was power in the air, just not the good kind. 

As I walked away with a couple of friends, I felt heavy. Heavy with the stark reminder of the burden of work that felt unaffected by our QTBIPOC-led efforts. Simultaneously, I felt a deep sense of gratitude for all those neighbors eager to listen, care and act that showed up and continue to show up. It’s a tension we grapple with, as we struggle to transform the systems we navigate everyday. I believe it’s important to let the latter saturate more of your headspace and heart-space than the former. It’s better as a sustainable, clean source of fuel for your fire. 

My calls to action? Give back the land. Address the 94 TRC Calls to Action. Dismantle racist systems and symbols. Call out racist biases and practices. Have access to the internet? Educate yourself and then others in your life (in your own words). Have time? Volunteer with a local organization working to achieve those goals at any scale. Have money? Donate to grassroots efforts struggling to fund critical community resources. 

Kamil (he/him) is a first-generation immigrant and settler from Pakistan who identifies with various communities including queer and Muslim. Passionate about mutual aid, resource distribution and building communities of care, Kamil is an organizer at Community Fridge KW and the KW Unity Mosque. He is a photographer, facilitator, speaker, vegetarian, and big fan of playlists. Join the conversation with me on Twitter.

Photos by Phi Doan.

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