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This article was published 5/6/2020 (229 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Close to 15,000 protesters packed the west side of the Manitoba legislature grounds from Broadway to Assiniboine Avenue Friday for a raucous, yet peaceful, rally in which Winnipeggers were urged to say "enough" to racism.

The crowd at times spilled onto Osborne Street and gathered across the street in front of the Canada Life building. They came on foot, on bikes, in wheelchairs, and pushing strollers.

They stood shoulder to shoulder to hear the speakers share their stories, pleas for action and an end to racial injustice, 11 days after an unarmed black man was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

George Floyd died May 25 after the officer pinned him to the ground with his knee on his neck for almost nine minutes. Floyd was handcuffed face-down, crying for help and saying "I can't breathe." Outraged protesters took to the streets of Minneapolis, and as images of Floyd's death spread around the world, so did the rallies.

In Winnipeg, demonstrators gathered en masse despite public health orders limiting outdoor crowds to 50 people. Some wore non-surgical masks, many held signs: "No bigger virus than racism." "White silence = violence." "Police the police." "Same shit, different country. I'm tired." "Get yo knee off my neck." "End police terror."

As many as 15,000 people gathered at the Manitoba Legislative Building during a rally organized by Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

As many as 15,000 people gathered at the Manitoba Legislative Building during a rally organized by Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

A young black man held a sign high above his head: "Am I next?"

On the grounds of the legislature, there was no visible police presence among the crowd, which reflected Winnipeg's diversity: whites, blacks, Indigenous people, Indo- and Asian-Canadians.

The Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg group that organized the rally posted a petition Friday that calls for "abolishing/defunding the Winnipeg Police Service." It calls the police service a colonial holdover that is a "reformed version of the racist and extremely violent slave patrol."

The petition wants funding shifted to non-profit and grassroots groups, who it says would better serve and protect their communities. By 8 p.m. the petition had close to 3,000 signatures.

News photographers for the Winnipeg Free Press and The Canadian Press, who were white, were told by organizers to leave the rally and not take photos.

While there was no official police presence at the rally, a former police chief and the current Winnipeg Police Board vice-chairman attended.

Protesters gather on the west side of the Manitoba Legislative Building for a rally organized by Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Protesters gather on the west side of the Manitoba Legislative Building for a rally organized by Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Coun. Markus Chambers, who is Winnipeg's first black city councillor, drove to the event with Devon Clunis, Winnipeg's first black police chief.

"The rally tonight is about peace and understanding and moving forward," said Chambers (St Norbert – Seine River), who recalled his own experience as a young black man dealing with police.

In the late '80s he was working at the Manitoba Youth Centre and had just bought a sports car. He was on his way downtown to cash his paycheque when he got pulled over by police, who ran the plates that didn't yet match the car. Chambers handed the officer the paperwork showing he'd just purchased the vehicle, and the officer went back to his car to verify it before returning to ask Chambers a question: "How can you afford this vehicle?"

Chambers said he bristled at the racial bias behind the question, but knew better than to make an issue of it. "I just said, 'You know, I'm coming from the youth centre,'" and showed him his paycheque, adding "I work for it.'"

Chambers said he knew better than to question or challenge the officer.

"He could've made it difficult for me," Chambers said. Flash-forward more than 30 years and he is an elected official and on the Winnipeg Police Board, attending a Black Lives Matter rally.

The crowd at times spilled onto Osborne Street and gathered across the street in front of the Canada Life building. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

The crowd at times spilled onto Osborne Street and gathered across the street in front of the Canada Life building. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

"I want to lend my ears to their voices and bring that back to city hall so we can work toward making things better."

His attending the rally was encouraged by most of his fellow councillors, but not all, Chambers said.

"Two members of council felt it was a conflict of interest for me to be there (as police board vice-chairman)."

Coun. Shawn Nason (Transcona) said he expressed concern, not about Chambers attending the rally, but about the online posts of the event's organizers who want to abolish the police.

Winnipeg Police Board chairman Kevin Klein (Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood) said he has no problem with Chambers attending the rally but wanted to make sure if he spoke at it, it wasn't on behalf of the board, which would be a violation of protocol.

"My concern is only that we adhere to the regulations of the police board," said Klein.

On the grounds of the legislature, there was no visible police presence among the crowd, which reflected Winnipeg's diversity: whites, blacks, Indigenous people, Indo- and Asian-Canadians. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

On the grounds of the legislature, there was no visible police presence among the crowd, which reflected Winnipeg's diversity: whites, blacks, Indigenous people, Indo- and Asian-Canadians. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

"Coun. Chambers should be there," Klein said. "We all need to have these discussions: what actions are required? What do we do next?"

Neither Klein nor Nason attended the rally, which ended after 8:15 p.m. as the crowd headed east on Broadway to The Forks.

Late Friday, Winnipeg police issued a statement saying there had been no incidents in relation to the rally.

"Police commend the public for showing up to support an important cause, and for doing so in a peaceful manner," police Const. Jay Murray said.

On Saturday, the Winnipeg Police Service used its social media platforms to post a memo Police Chief Danny Smyth sent to the force before the protest, in which he urged officers to be open to feedback and to "take special care" of people who are Black, Indigenous or visible minorities. Smyth wrote Floyd's death in Minneapolis was "unnecessary, avoidable, and, frankly, it was criminal."

Though there were no incidents with Friday's rally, before it began, Smyth cautioned officers that they may see behaviour that makes them uncomfortable. He reminded officers "there is a distinction between uncivil behaviour and criminal violence."

Smyth's statement, which WPS said he won't take questions on until Monday, noted Canada's "long and dark history" of discriminatory colonial policies against Indigenous people. 

"As a police service we must be honest with our place in this history. At times we have been complicit with the discrimination and racism endured by the people in our community who are fighting for equal rights, equal protection, and equal opportunities."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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