Over the past several months, members of Toronto’s large Tamil community have organized a number of protests meant to draw attention to the dire situation in Sri Lanka, where, up until recently, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant Tamil independence organization, had been engaged in a brutal decades-long civil war with the ruling Sinhalese-dominated government. Civilian casualties had reportedly been mounting as the Sri Lankan government stepped up its offensive this year against the LTTE, emboldening the Tamil diaspora to hit the streets en masse, accusing the Sri Lankan government of committing war crimes. One of the most high-profile gatherings in Toronto saw thousands of Tamil-Canadians march onto the Gardiner Expressway at the height of rush hour, blocking traffic for several hours and igniting an at-times racially-contentious debate among Torontonians over the tactics being employed.
Several weeks ago, not long after the conflict officially ‘ended’, I found myself in the middle of a Tamil-Canadian march – quite literally.
On May 22nd, around dinnertime, I was driving into Toronto and noticed a lot of police situated along York Street, with even more on University Avenue. Across the street from the U.S. Consulate was a number of Canadians of Tamil origin, all wearing black, some holding signs and red Tiger flags. Curiosity piqued, and with the other recent Tamil protests in mind, I decided to return that evening to investigate further.
A few hours later, I made my way back to find approximately 50,000 people, almost uniformly Tamil, all holding candles and dressed in black, conducting a somber vigil at Queen’s Park, Ontario’s provincial parliament building. After several speeches from local community leaders, the crowd began to quietly move south down the middle of University, achingly slow, in the general direction of the Gardiner. There was a broad cross-section of people — the elderly, young families, lots of strollers being pushed. Rally officials in green fluorescent vests directed the crowd from the sidewalks, keeping things orderly and organized.
The crowd continued to walk in collective silence, thick, almost solid in its funereal grace. As I followed on the sidewalk, I suddenly found myself directed by an insistent rally official onto the street into the middle of the masses. Almost immediately I absorbed the rhythm and pace of the marchers, walking in perfect concert with thousands of other pairs of feet. Despite the large number of participants, this wasn’t an unruly, defiant gathering; instead, they were mourning, marching in mute honour of their dead loved ones.
Clearly there was a lot of concern from law enforcement officials that the march might once more end up at the Gardiner, as evidenced by an increasingly thick wall of police along the march route – dozens of officers, on foot, in cruisers, on bicycles.
I broke off from the march at Dundas, eager to catch a glimpse of the front. Police had by now blocked off the sidewalks, so I had to sprint down a side street to Queen Street West, where I nearly collided with more police – this time in full riot gear. Riot police, preparing for a non-existent riot.
The itchy tension of the overwhelming police presence (I counted 3 tour buses parked at the staging area) was all-too-palpable and entirely unnecessary in light of the peaceful masses they were preparing to face. Judging by some of the incredulous comments from curious onlookers, the ridiculous incongruity of the situation was indeed on full display–no more so than when 5 cops rode out on horseback, truncheons ready at their side.
As the march slowly, peacefully moved towards the barricaded line of riot police apparently determined to protect the Gardiner at all costs, (and, not surprisingly, where the march ended – peacefully) I overheard a woman talking to her young son.
“This,” she said, pointing towards the mass of people in the distance, “is how you get things done. Black people, we need to learn.”
She later told me that she had brought her son downtown that night especially to witness the mobilization, believing it was an historically-significant event and thus important for him to experience.
Indeed–what this march (and still-ongoing events in Iran) show is that, even in this brave new digital era of decentralized online activism, direct action – boots on the ground – still draws the attention of the general public, media and politicians like nothing else. There were so many people on the street that night, talking about Sri Lanka, the Tamil people and their struggle for independence. If one of the desired outcomes of the march was to garner attention for Tamil self-determination then it was successful.
But that night such overarching, abstract concerns seemed entirely secondary to the black-clad masses who, by flickering candlelight and with minimal words, gave somber voice to the voiceless, those who, unfortunately, will never get to tell their stories first-hand.