Q&A with Kayla “Kween” Gerber About Saturday’s March, and Combatting Racism in Guelph

For nearly two weeks, protests demanding an end to police brutality and anti-Black racism have taken to the streets in cities across the U.S., Canada, and around the world. On Saturday, it will be Guelph’s time to demonstrate with what’s looking to be a very large gathering of people in support of Black Live Matter out in front of City Hall. What’s it going to look like, and what’s it been like organizing something like this in a pandemic?

Those are a couple of the questions that Kayla “Kween” Gerber will answer in this Guelph Politico Q&A. Gerber is the main organizer and spokesperson for the march, and she will discuss the health concerns, the demands of marchers, and her lived experience as a Person of Colour in the Royal City.

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It’s difficult to arrange something like this at the best of times, so when it came to organizing the march tomorrow how do you start planning with all the health concerns? How you hold a march in the middle of the pandemic?

Yeah, this originally started as a way for moms to come down to City Hall and protest, but it turned into so much more. That’s why Guelph Black Heritage Society and myself got on board, and we immediately knew that we had to make sure everybody was safe. We’ve been contacting bylaw and public health to make sure that we’re taking the right steps.

We’ve had this message for weeks now about not going out in groups, to keep up social distancing, and the point of the march sort of explicitly contravenes all that. So what kind of advice have you gotten from public health?

Public health gave us the okay, and gave us some guidelines like the mask-only option, and if you do show up at the event without a mask we’ve had so many donated for people to use. A lot of people feel like we’re ripping away precious resources from other people, but all I can say to that if it’s not COVID that kills us it’s gonna be police brutality. We are working with a doctor,  and we’ve had conversations today on ways that we can support people following the march regarding testing, or addressing medical concerns. We’ll also have resources set up for people to able to access a test.

Has anyone tried to talk you out of holding the march by saying it’s too dangerous? 

Crazy enough, no. I think our community really sees that this is a serious issue. We’ve had a lot of support because I think people know that this is an urgent matter and there’s no waiting until COVID’s over because that’s not for another two years and we might lose another 10 lives.

So what will the march look like when people get to City Hall Saturday? 

Guelph Tents has donated tents and stage setups. We will have first aid and trauma support on site. We will have a kid’s tents where they can make their own posters, and get kids masks and be in a safe area, but it’s up to families whether or not they want to bring their kids. We will have like a COVID tent where you can come get your mask, hand sanitizer, and details on spatial awareness and how to deal with all that. And then we also have our tent for Guelph Black Heritage with pins and swag and brochures with information. We will also have a virtual option, and we’re just confirming all that now, but it’s definitely something we will have by Saturday.

There have been about half a dozen different messages from the police offering words of  encouragement and comfort while saying that they’re going to be very hands off during the march. Considering the subject matter and the reason why you’re going to be marching tomorrow, what do you think about the police being so active in the conversation? 

We’ve gotten a lot of backlash about that, and while Guelph Police Services is not invited, we do understand they have to put up barricades when the route starts, and that they have to keep the city safe based on numbers. I appreciate that they’ve reached out to us. They want our BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Colour) community members to come in and give them resources and our experiences, and that’s a conversation that has never ever happened. The police are not a part of this protest, but we want them to be a part of the conversation, fix the things that need to be dealt with, but that needs to happen following this protest.

It’s a very fine line. Black Lives Matter in Toronto got dinged for making the point that police are not necessarily allies during Pride, but at the same time you don’t want to slam the door on having those conversations. You can’t be too terribly openly adversarial, I suppose.

Yeah, at the end of the day we don’t want it to look like they’re protesting with us because we’re literally protesting against police brutality. A lot of our White community members have asked how we can exclude all the police, because not all the police are bad. We hear this a lot, but we want to see a major changes, and those conversations have to happen with Guelph Police so we can keep them accountable for all those press releases and statements.

I remember Ferguson, I remember when Black Lives Matter first came on the scene and there were all these protests and demonstrations, but here we are again with poor George Floyd. Do you sense that it’s going to be different this time?

That’s a great question because this is so common. I think a lot of the difference now is that because we are in a global pandemic, and a lot of people are a little anxious sitting at home, we’ve never had the opportunity to close things down. People don’t have a job to go to, so it gives them the opportunity to protest when maybe they’ve never protested before. We’ve had 50 states and around 18 different countries participating in this Black Lives Matter movement, and that’s the largest protest of the Civil Rights movement in world history. It’s pretty intense to see that. I think we’re just so fed up.

This protest is interesting in a number of ways, but it’s interesting to me is because I don’t think we really talk about the experiences of People of Colour in Guelph.

I think about growing up in the 90s, which was definitely not easy as a kid, because there was very little representation. There was a lot of hate and white supremacy in our city at that time, which has seemed to die down, but in 2016 and 2017 Guelph did rise to be one of those cities with the worst hate crime record, and that’s a big issue.

We need to change the way we are taught about the BIPOC community. We need to change the ways that the BIPOC community’s voices are heard. It is unfortunate that it took till now to make these changes, so I urge people with those experiences to reach out to us, and allow their voices to be heard and their stories be told. Yesterday morning I just bawled for like two hours from the stories I was seeing in my inbox of people’s experiences, not only from police brutality here in Guelph, but from our fellow community members who choose to not recognize us as human.

So there’s been hate mail?

I’m always open to conversation with those who are very hateful, because I get to change minds and educate because most of the time they’re just really ignorant of the situation and have grown up in a racist home. We need to change that. Whether it’s the University of Guelph just this past week with the Tik Toks, and Central Park Karen who was a graduate of the University of Waterloo, these things come right back to our home. We can’t ignore these things happening in Canada, and we can’t ignore that we are a marginalized community and treated differently by everyone.

The whole thing with that U of G student speaks to the bigger issues in systemic racism because I think he was posting those Tik Toks thinking that he was funny, he wasn’t posting them thinking, “I am racist.”

It [pause] just really kills my soul. It hurts to watch these trends happen, and then go viral. It’s one thing when someone does something wrong and we shut it down, but when we allow it to go viral, we allow that story to become part of our narrative, which is so not okay. What I was happy about is how quickly the videos were shut down by the U of G, and I appreciate that, but it’s so sad that there are people out there that are willing to use to go viral or get likes. What I would say to him is, “You are racist, and you know better.” You have to keep these people accountable, and not give them excuses for their behaviour like, “It was just a joke.”

You were talking about growing up in Guelph in the 90s and not seeing a lot of representation. I go to city council every week (when there were in-person meetings) and I have to say, I don’t see a lot of representation there either in 2020. I don’t see a lot of People of Colour delegating at city council, or being involved in political groups. What am I missing?

That’s a really great point. I think that representation for me has really come from the Black businesses, and that really shows the level of Black excellence that lives here. I think a lot of us come from cities where we’ve experienced so much hate that we get to Guelph and we kind of hide away in our own homes. Guelph Black Heritage and myself really want to change that narrative. GBH is a safe haven for People of Colour, and we need to start elevating our stories, and showing how educated and strong we are to make that change.

We need to reach out to the BIPOC community, and I know how tired they are, but I urge people to start standing up for your political beliefs. I know that Mayor Cam Guthrie has put out a press release regarding the Strategic Plan and the Community Plan, and How we need to change it for more diversity, but I think there’s always a fear that we’re going to get caught in a backlash.

So how do we create an atmosphere where People of Colour feel more welcome in our politics?

It’s a scary thing because you have to think: Are you’re ready to deal with potential backlash? Are you ready to deal with the hate messages? It’s [pause] tiring and scary. I know people worry about keeping their families safe, and here’s so much more at stake when you have kids, I feel for people because that’s just not something I have to think about being a single lady. Still, your livelihood’s at stake, and Guelph is a small community at the end of the day. I’m very actively involved in the community and that does make me fear for my safety going forward. Am I going to be targeted now?

But now that this conversation has been started, we cannot let it stop after Saturday. I need to see that the police and the mayor are going to keep their word. I want to be in city council and talking with them. I want to have those open discussions on ways that we can fix education and other things. We need to start raising our voices and taking some of those risks, unfortunately, but I do want to tell the BIPOC community that I’m willing to do that, and I just know in my heart that this is the right place I need to be in this activism space.

What are you anticipating once people leave the March on Saturday, and they go home and think about everything they’ve seen and heard? And for you and and other organizers, how does the work continue on Monday?

Once I rest up and feel refreshed again, or maybe not, the point is to just keep pushing things. We’ve had some discussion with Marva and GBHS on ways that we can open up conversation with the City going forward. We are requesting for monthly meetings, whether that be through Zoom or in-person, but we need to have these conversations ASAP. No more, “Oh, we’ll get you in in a few weeks.” Nope, we need to table this every single month!

We definitely want to open up Guelph Black Heritage Society as a safe haven. We are finishing up our Freedom Project construction, and once that’s done, we’ll be opening up the space again once it’s safe to do so. We’re also working on educational tools, creating stories and getting information out there more consistently and keeping up our voice for all those people that we’ve lost like Brienna Taylor, George Floyd, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, and those names we don’t know. We’ve got to continue their lives for them.

This is about better race relations going forward, and that’s definitely going to be up to some of our organizers from the BIPOC community, and maybe even some of our White allies to either stand up or step aside to allow us in those spaces.

I imagine you saw the turnout for the rally in Kitchener, so what did you think after you saw that in terms of how things might look at for this demonstration on Saturday?

It’s very interesting, because K-W Solidarity had like 5K people on their page and it turned into 20,000! It’s kind of nice that they had their march first because it gave us an opportunity to prep. I just really appreciate everything that K-W has done for getting the word out and supporting Black Lives Matters.

It made me so hopeful. It made me so proud to see that the weight of our injustices are being talked about, and that they’re being brought to light, not only by the BIPOC community but by our White allies, which we haven’t necessarily seen in the Civil Rights movement back in the 1960s.

That being said, I want people to know that this is not your time to come down and play “White Saviour” mode, take a snapshot and post it on your social media. That’s not what this is about. You need to be more than that. I actually suggest to people that you put your phones in your pockets, and you embrace the event and listen to the people.

So I’m excited, but it also makes me a little nervous. I wonder if we have enough masks, if we have enough water, if we have enough volunteers… We keep asking people to just be patient with us because it’s not easy to put together this level of protest in six days. It’s incredibly hard to execute under the circumstances of a pandemic as well.

We’ve had an outpouring of donations, from money to masks to snacks and water. We had a lady drop off food to different organizers yesterday, and I can speak only for myself, but I’ve had about 12 hours of sleep all week, and maybe just enough time to get an apple in my body, so she dropped us off food and said “You need to eat.” That means the world to us right now. It’s our BIPOC community coming together, and also our really supportive White allies.

You know my mom is White, and I think everyday that she worries about my safety, and maybe this gives her more insight into what I deal with. That being said, there’s a lot I don’t tell my family because I don’t think they’re prepared for the injustices that I have gone through. I know my mom wouldn’t be, and that’s a hard pill for any mom to swallow. That’s what I say to all our White allies, “Just imagine that loss for yourself, and put yourself in our shoes for a moment.” Every day I fear that I’m going to get a phone call from one of my brothers and they’re either locked up, or I’m going to another funeral. I can’t keep doing that.

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The Guelph Solidarity Protest to Support Black Lives Matter begins at 2 pm on Saturday in front of Guelph City Hall on Carden Street. You must wear a mask, and obey physical distancing guidelines as best you can. 

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity. 

Photo Courtesy of the Guelph Solidarity to Support Black Lives Matter Facebook page.

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