photos: Joy Gyamfi. Photo by Tessa Vikander.

‘Your Voice Still Matters’

Heartbeats: Meet the members of the Black Lives Matter Vancouver movement

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When Cicely-Belle Blain first heard the suggestion to launch a Black Lives Matter chapter in Vancouver, she hesitated.

In a city where black people make up less than one per cent of the population, she was concerned they wouldn’t find enough support.

“At first we were like, ‘No, there’s really such a small black population,’” she says, sipping tea in a Mount Pleasant cafe. “Doing activist work, numbers are so important.”

Blain is queer and black. She grew up in London, U.K., and moved to Vancouver to attend the University of British Columbia. Now graduated, she’s been hired for her dream job as a queer youth worker.

In April 2016, she and a friend created a Facebook page for Black Lives Matter Vancouver. It was a litmus test of whether Vancouver was open to the idea. When the results came in on social media, Blain says her initial doubts dissolved: within three days the page received more than 1,000 likes, and a GoFundMe campaign brought in upwards of $1,000 in donations.

Since then, Blain has been involved as one of the primary organizers of the Vancouver Black Lives Matter chapter. The group has been embraced by many advocacy organizations across the city, and in June and July it held well-attended vigils after the shootings in Orlando and the police killings of two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota. Later in the summer, members participated in the Vancouver Dyke March and the Salt Spring Island Pride Parade.

Founded in 2013 by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors in the U.S., the Black Lives Matter movement says it seeks to address anti-black racism. It emerged as a response to police brutality during protests following the killing of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black Florida resident. When his killer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted of second-degree murder, activists across the continent took to the streets.

In Canada, the Black Lives Matter movement has made both headway and headlines over the past eight months. Starting in March, members of the Toronto chapter camped outside of the city’s police headquarters for several weeks, protesting a decision to not press charges in the shooting death of Andrew Loku.

Then, after Black Lives Matter Toronto accepted an invitation to lead Toronto’s Pride parade, the group disrupted the event with a sit-in. In a call to fully support black, indigenous, and non-white LGBT people and to remove police floats from Pride, Black Lives Matter Toronto stopped the parade in its tracks.

They agreed to let the parade continue only after Pride Toronto signed a document agreeing to their demands. It was a demonstration that raised backlash from some, and solidarity from others.

“I was so happy, I actually almost cried,” Blain says. “It was such a profound and powerful act.”

Despite feeling inspired by the Toronto chapter’s action, Black Lives Matter Vancouver chose not to participate in the Vancouver Pride parade. In a public statement the group said that “Pride no longer represents community action, resistance and revolution” and they wouldn’t be participating “as an act of solidarity with Black Lives Matter chapters across North America to whom Pride parades have been made inaccessible.”

Since then the group has been in dialogue with the Vancouver Pride Society about how it can make its spaces more inclusive to people of colour, but reserved its celebrations for the Dyke March.

The founding members of the Black Lives Matter movement are queer, and both Toronto and Vancouver’s chapters reflect these roots.

Guy Noah is another queer member of the Vancouver collective. Growing up in Mission with nine siblings, Noah says his father taught him about racism from a young age. But in classrooms where he was the only non-white student, Noah recalls that conversations about race and racism were deemed inappropriate.

Now an English Literature student at UBC, Noah says some instructors have managed to create an environment where he feels supported to speak up. And while he doesn’t fear for his life while on the street, he says the spaces where he feels accepted and understood are few and far between.

“I think the experience of being black in Vancouver is a continuous experience of feeling out of place, of feeling under-represented, of feeling invisible, of feeling like simply because you don’t see yourself in a crowd, sometimes it’s easy to forget that your voice still matters,” he says.

Noah speaks enthusiastically about organizing for solidarity and visibility around black communities.

“Because of the way that I talk, people like to erase my blackness with comments of like ‘Oh my god, you’re not even black…You’re the whitest black person I know,’” he says.

As a queer black man, he says people tend to assume that he’s meek and submissive. Men in particular, he says, are often combative with him in conversation.

In addition to the core organizing collective, Black Lives Matter is bolstered by about 25 members. Joy Gyamfi, a queer and black UBC student, is among them.

“If there is a time to get involved, it’s now,” she says.

Having lived in Metro Vancouver her whole life, Gyamfi says she never felt part of a black community until now. Aside from when she’s with her friends, Gyamfi says the Black Lives Matter collective is the only space where she feels embraced for exactly who she is.

“I feel accepted in Black Lives Matter ... we have queer members in there, that was like one of my worries when I first joined,” she says.

Now, she says, when she’s in Black Lives Matter spaces or with certain friends, “I feel completely and wholly accepted.”

A version of this story originally appeared in Daily Xtra.

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