They were far away from Minneapolis where George Floyd screamed for his life, but thousands of people in St. John’s chanted in unison Saturday to help ensure his and voices of all black people would not go unheard.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, people of all ages and races, but predominantly white, packed the parking lot and grounds in front of the Confederation Building in St. John’s for a peaceful rally organized by Black Lives Matter NL to denounce racism and discrimination.
Chants of, “Black Lives Matter,” “We can’t breathe” and, “No justice, no peace.” echoed throughout the area as many in attendance were armed with signs — some of them reading, “Racism is a pandemic too,” “Silence is violence,” “Colour is not a crime,” and “No lives matter until black lives matter” and “I can’t breathe.”
“We really thought it was important to be here today,” Megan Fillier told The Telegram near the start of the rally. “It’s hard not to feel helpless … and we wanted to take action.”
As the strong winds gradually died down during the rally, the voices of the participants got stronger.
With many powerful and touching moments, the message about anti-black racism was clear — “enough is enough.”
Several passionate speakers took to the microphone on the steps of Confederation Building during the two-hour event, including co-founders of Black Lives Matter NL Brian Amadi.
“You and I can work together to make a better world,” Amadi told the crowd, followed by cheers. “You and I can work together to create justice. You and I can work together to make this work.”
It drew loud chants of, “Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!”
The rally was one many that have been held around the world over the last few weeks honouring Floyd, who died after a police officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes in a botched arrest that was seen around the world by a cellphone video. As Floyd lay on the ground, he begged for the officer to stop, shouting, “I can’t breathe.”
That moment was remembered at the St. John’s rally as everyone in attendance got on one knee, each person raising one fist, for eight minutes, chanting. With each cheer and chant, musicians Idris Ilmi, Eddie Kpehe and Korede Fateye, who sat on the Confederation Building front steps, tapped on djembe drums.
There was also another moving moment when Ife Alaba, with powerful vocals, wowed the crowd with song, with Korede Sateye accompanying her on keyboard.
Another speaker at the rally, Dr. Paul Banahene Adjei, a Memorial University professor of social work, said seeing so many groups of people coming together to condemn what happened to Floyd in the U.S. gives hope. However, he said the issue is not simply about police and black people.
“We are talking about a system that has been developed over 400 years that continue to treat black people as disposable material ….,” he said. “I want to bring that conversation here to Newfoundland because oftentimes, the danger of talking about anti-black racism is we often point fingers at what is happening in the United States and in the process, we ignore what is also happening in our home here.”
Adjei said he’s been the subject of racism in this province and said it’s time for everyone to speak up about it.
“The world is in a dangerous place, not because of the evil things of evil (people), but by the silence of good people,” he said, noting Floyd’s cries of not being able to breathe is symbolic of the of black people’s experiences of racism are often dismissed. “So, let’s make a commitment that when we witness racism, we don’t keep our silence. Our silence doesn’t make us good people, it makes us complacent.”
Other speakers at the event included Dr. Zainab Jarrett, founder of Tombolo Festival and owner of Multi Ethnic Food Kitchen, who noted the importance of having more black people in leadership roles.
Navel Sarr, organizer of the St. John’s African Roots Festival who also helped Black History Month celebrations in February, as well as Nunah Toweh, also spoke, while audio from videos put together by MUN professors, Dr. Sulaimon Giwa and Dr. Deloros Mullins, was also played for the crowd.
Rioko Milani told her of her experience of racism at a St. John’s park, where she was with her two children. The woman assumed she was the children’s nanny. Raven Khadeja, a teacher, said it’s time for people to listen for the black community.
Everyone in the crowd wore masks and as organizers stressed the importance of social distancing, they did their best to stay in their own smaller groups. RNC officers, some in patrol cars and two from the mounted unit, were nearby, but with all seemed to go well without incident.
Black Lives Matter NL co-founder Precious Familusi later told The Telegram he was overwhelmed with the turnout at the rally and they hope to plan others in the future.
“We knew we’d get a big number, but to get to that level was incredible. It was great to see so much support,” said Familusi, who said they had four days to organize the event.
It’s good that folks are ready to have this conversation, but the conversation doesn’t stop at the rally.”