Some stood, others knelt, while listening to stories from individuals who have experienced systemic racism. Fists raised in support of people of colour, and those who have been hurt.
Despite the rain, people stayed to listen.
Penticton’s Gyro Park was filled with hundreds on Sunday (June 7) who came out with the common goal of supporting visual minorities and listening to their stories.
Over a dozen took the mic at the peaceful protest to speak about their heritage, and their experiences with systemic racism in the Okanagan and beyond.
Black, Indigenous, Asian, Indian, Metis, Spanish, young and old; many of the speakers were from Penticton and surrounding areas. Some were raised here, others had moved from other countries at a young age. The mic was also opened up to the public, and over several hours individuals shared their stories.
Behind them on the stage hung several signs, including ‘I can’t breathe’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’.
“We’re here to make a difference today,” said event co-organizer Austin Johnson.
“We’re not just here for black lives, we’re here for Indigenous lives and all people of colour. We’re here to take a stand against police brutality, and lack of action taken by police for people of colour.”
The event was held a day after a similar gathering in Summerland.
Penticton Indian Band members Josh Wilson, Clint George and Austin Johnson, as well as Summerland Mayor Toni Boot, and Penticton locals Cecilia Dupuy, Jennifer Jules, and Obi Oniah were just a few of those who shared their stories. Penticton mayor John Vassilaki also addressed the crowd, but on a personal basis, not political.
Their messages shared a similar theme – systemic racism has been ongoing for generations.
“My last name is Jules. Do you know where my heritage stops? With my slave owner,” said Jennifer Jules, adding, “All lives can’t matter until black lives matter, until Indigenous lives matter, until people of colour have a voice.”
Her first memory at five years old in 1977, is of racism. Jules grew up with a black father, and a white mother.
“She (cat) woke me up from my sleep, because somebody decided that a white woman shouldn’t have black children, so they were burning our trailer down,” said Jules.
Almost 50 years later, she is still experiencing racism.
“Two weeks ago, I was walking from the bank, having a really lovely day because I bought myself a pretty pair of shoes, and I was spit on by somebody riding their bike and calling me an N-word.”
Jules said she has the deepest respect for first responders, and explained systemic racism against black people is an issue that cannot be ignored.
As a councellor who works with individuals with post traumatic stress injuries, Jules knows firsthand that men and women in uniform face serious mental struggles when dealing with taking a life. She said the lives of police matter too, and excessive force is often preventable.
Vassilaki also spoke.
“I’m not here as the mayor today, I’m here as a plain citizen … this is a stand for the lives of people to live in peace in this country.”
“On behalf of Penticton city council, we join you in the fight against racism.”
He encouraged individuals to talk with the city about their concerns.
“Our hope and aspirations to end racism always begin by listening to each other, and really listen, not just pretend to be listening,” added Vassilaki.
With a mixed-race family, Penticton Indian Band member Josh Wilson has faced many forms of racism throughout his life.
“It is a very sensitive subject for a lot of people that I know, and I also have a lot experiences that I can share.”
He admitted he felt anxiety, but was encouraged by the crowd to continue.
“I have been triggered because of all the things that have happened, and that’s in the media, the people that are for and the people that are against change. Because it is change that we need to have happen, for all of us to feel safe.”
“And that’s why I stand in support of the Black Lives Matter platform … especially for my children; that’s why I do this.”
Obi Oniah is in his 40s, and for his entire life, he has been made to feel different.
“This is something I’ve been holding inside for a long time … I have young kids … I never want them to experience the pain that I have been through myself,” said Oniah.
He said he has faced discrimination by the police; detained and strip-searched after being asked how he can afford to drive a luxury car.
“It’s unfortunate that we have to be here today, but this is important for many people. I’m happy and proud of many of you to be here today, let’s stand up … let’s put an end to racism.”
Penticton RCMP were not present at the gathering. In a statement, RCMP const. James Grandy explained their non-attendance.
“We support people’s right to peacefully protest. Out of respect for those who may find Police presence emotionally upsetting, and not to detract from the message of the protest, Penticton officers chose not to attend.”