Black Lives Matter rally in Edmonton on June 5, 2020. Photo: Paula Kirman

One year later, Edmontonians reflect on historic BLM protest

For some, it was their first time protesting.

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The past twelve months have been marked by a surging movement of activism calling for social change, with the biggest protests for racial justice and civil rights in a generation.

Initially sparked by the murder of George Floyd, these protests—mainly organized by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement—reverberated around the world. Alberta and Edmonton were no exception.

On June 5, 2020, a BLM protest in Edmonton outside the Alberta Legislature drew upwards of 15,000 people, all galvanized to show solidarity against injustices of police brutality against Black and Indigenous people as well as the LGBTQ2+ community.

For some, it was their first time protesting. The Sprawl caught up with three protesters to find out why they decided to hit the street for this historic moment—and what they took away from the experience.

When Therese (right) attended her first protest on June 5, 2020, she didn't know what to expect. Photo: Supplied

Therese: Driven by ‘concern for my children’

A year after the BLM protest in Edmonton, Therese (whose last name has been withheld at her request) still tears up when she recalls her experience.

She’s a mother of three boys and a professional. The murder of Floyd spurred her to participate.

“The visual evidence of the cruelty and inhumanity he was treated with—simply for being Black—and knowing this systemic treatment of Black people occurs in a number of countries around the world led me to want to lend my voice to the protest to say, ‘This needs to stop now,’” she said.

“As the mother of Black boys, I know there is the risk of death, wrongful imprisonment and being treated unfairly by the justice system for them, even here in Canada. So yes, this was definitely to protest the murder of George Floyd—but it was also out of concern for my children. I felt a strong need to support.”

“I don’t want this to still be a concern for them or for my grandchildren in years to come.”

As this was the first protest she participated in, she didn’t know what to expect.

“It was very emotional,” she recalled. “I wasn’t prepared for the energy of the crowd. I think the energy amplified my emotions. The chants created an echo chamber for everything I felt inside.”

She was encouraged by what she saw. “The size of the crowd was surprising to me—especially the number of Black people in Edmonton—but the overall number of people that took the effort to show up and the many ethnicities that attended was inspiring and encouraging.”

With her first protest behind her, Therese says she would protest again and is concerned by the displays of racism and bigotry she sees throughout Alberta.

She wanted to withhold her last name from this article because she is aware some see BLM “as an affront to white people and police.”

“While I chose to protest, I am also aware that my professional interests could be jeopardized if I am identified,” she said. “I am not willing to do that, but I am willing to lend support as a voice in a large crowd.”

Having experienced racism, Lily Zheng sees herself as an ally in the Black Lives Matter movement. Photo: Hamdi Issawi

Lily: ‘It was important to show solidarity’

Lily Zheng, a 17-year-old student, attended the event with friends as she felt strongly about being an ally.

“While I am not Black, I am Chinese,” Zheng said. “I have experienced racism, but not to the extent of many others. I thought it was important to show solidarity.”

This wasn’t her first protest. She attended the October 2019 climate strike in Edmonton led by Greta Thunburg, the globally-renowned Swedish environmental activist. An estimated 4,000 supporters gathered outside Alberta’s legislature building in what Zheng describes as a peaceful atmosphere.

The BLM rally in June 2020 was her second protest. She was more cautious at this one. After seeing how protesters were treated in the U.S., she was deliberate in what she wore, choosing a nondescript grey shirt to avoid “being picked out in a crowd.”

“I did not expect to be tear-gassed, as it’s Edmonton and we are marginally better here—but I was still aware and expected something would happen,” Zheng said.

While her mother was concerned for her safety, particularly as it was in the midst of a pandemic, that did not dissuade her.

Hearing the stories and experiences of the speakers at the protest was eye-opening, she said, and she was heartened to see how well the event was supported by the various demographics of people who showed up.

“There was a lot of energy and excitement,” she said. “It was overwhelming… I took my air horn and I chanted in support.”

“I would definitely attend another protest in support of this cause.”

Edmonton mother Lisa Sautner says she would protest for Black Lives Matter again "in a heartbeat." Photo: Hamdi Issawi

Lisa: ‘I did it for my family, but it was larger than me’

Being the white mother of biracial boys was the driving force behind Lisa Sautner attending the BLM protest.

“I do have fear as a mom of two mixed boys and felt that I needed to be visible to support BLM and to support my children, one of whom has been called racial slurs at school,” she said.

“I wanted to learn, to support; there is strength in numbers.”

Cognizant of how these events could easily turn violent, she made the decision to keep her young son away, despite him wanting to attend. She also wore clothing that she didn’t mind losing if it was ripped, or if someone decided to throw a gas bomb or to spray chemicals at protesters—but she stressed that the potential risks were outweighed by the need to be there.

She says she’d attend another similar protest “in a heartbeat.”

In addition to the sheer number of people, the stories of others also left a lasting impact. “I learned that there are a lot of people hurting in Edmonton… I thought, ‘This is real. This is not TV—this is Edmonton, Alberta,’” she said.

“Even though I felt a bit out of place as a white person, I got into it, I chanted, the energy was infectious.”

“I did it for my family, but it was larger than me.”

Anmarie Bailey is a writer and journalist who lives in Edmonton.

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