Few people can claim they knew about and participated in the Black Lives Matter movement before it became a viral hashtag and rallying cry. A powerful exception to this, of course, is Black Lives Matter Toronto founder Janaya Khan. In fact, Khan remembers spray painting the slogan on their bedroom wall, trying to make peace with a movement they recall wishing “had a little more teeth.”
This was just after the shocking death of Michael Brown, before the number of black lives rapidly mounted in a list that would grow to include Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and far too many others. On Thursday, Nov. 3, Khan addressed students at the annual Pride Lecture, providing a glimpse into the BLM campaign’s origins and more personal, little-known moments.
“No one plans for an international movement,” Khan said. “You just do the work.”
And work— arduous work, fulfilling work, work sometimes deemed controversial— is exactly what Khan has contributed.
Khan, who identifies as gender nonconforming and queer, not only spearheaded BLM, but also runs Gender Justice LA, a grassroots organization that helps transgender people advocate for their rights. They often work with the intersections between race, gender and queer identities. Khan even earned the Bromley Armstrong Humanitarian Award in 2015.
This progress prompted Khan to reminisce about the first BLM event they organized, which was attended by a small group of 13 activists. One of the latest BLM events had an audience of 3,500 supporters.
Khan adamantly proclaims that this number, while growing, is still not enough.
“What would it take for a million people to say, ‘I believe in black lives matter, I believe in fighting for black lives?’” asked Kahn.
Instead, Khan pointed out, a recent White House petition pledging to identify BLM as a terrorist organization gained 180,000 signatures.
Khan believes that this fear of the organization stems from society and media’s first reactions to the police brutality and hate crimes that often result in blacks’ deaths. They explained that even allies question whether or not victimized blacks were respectful enough, or had a weapon or dig up justifying evidence of when they “smoked weed that one time.”
“This is what happens when black skin is weaponized,” Khan declared. “A cell phone becomes a gun. A hairbrush becomes a gun. Sleeping your car becomes a gun, when your very skin is weaponized.”
Overall, students responded positively to the lecture.
“It was definitely something I paid attention to the whole time, because I usually catch myself falling asleep in the middle of [lectures],” sophomore McKenzie Miller said. “This kept me very interested and I thought that they highlighted some very vocal points and were very explicit about what they wanted us to know.”
Even non-black students were able to relate to the lecture. Middle Eastern student Sandial Osman said Khan captured many of her own emotions and frustrations.
“I can relate a lot, because it’s super disrespectful and rude whenever people are constantly talking about Middle Eastern terrorists and how everybody from the Middle East is a bad person,” Osman said. “It’s like they group people, when every person is an individual.”
This relevance to a large, diverse audience stands out as one of the aspects Khan pushed during their presentation.
“Black liberation has become emblematic of every freedom movement in the world. When black people get free,” Khan urged, “everyone else gets a little more free with us.”