Khaleel Grant’s interview with Dr. Beverly Bain was conducted in March 2021. Bain is a professor of women and gender studies in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Toronto Mississauga campus. As a Black queer anti-capitalist feminist, Bain has organized in Toronto since the mid-1970s around issues of racist police violence, violence against women, and Black and queer liberation. In this interview Bain discusses a range of topics including her reflections on her journey as an activist, the violent structures we are confronted with, the shifts in Black queer organizing over the years, and the urgency of abolition. This interview is part of the “(In)Security in the Time of COVID-19” series. Read the rest of the series here.
Khaleel Grant (KG): Hello Beverly, thank you so much for being in conversation with us today. Can you start by telling us about the context in which you began organizing?
Beverly Bain (BB): I came to Canada from Trinidad to go to the University of Toronto. I started organizing in the mid-1970s just after coming to Canada, but I had already sort of had my awakening following the late 1960s early 1970s Caribbean Black Power movement. By the time I came to university here in Toronto, I already had a sense of what was happening in the larger global world around blackness. I was very focused on being part of a movement for liberation and revolution. I recognized that we were living in an unjust world, and I wanted to see something different for all of us. When I came to Toronto, I found my way to Bathurst and Bloor where Black people were located. I became very involved in anti-black racism protests and police violence protests. There were the police killings of Albert Johnson, Andrew “Buddy” Evans, and a number of people.
KG: What was the role of Black women in the kind of anti-police violence organizing you were involved in?
BB: Black women were often the leaders in the movement. People like Sherona Hall, Makeda Silvera, and Akua Benjamin were very involved in the struggle at the time even though Black men were the ones who identified as key organizers of the struggle. The Black Action Defense Committee (BADC), where Dudley Laws was one of the key organizers, could not have happened without the involvement of Black and queer feminists.
KG: You also organized with the largest feminist organization in Canada at the time, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), and the Communist Party of Canada. What were the challenges you faced in these spaces?
BB: When I joined NAC, it was during a time when we started working hard to ensure that NAC became more representatives of racialized feminists. Initially, Black, Indigenous, and feminists of colour had been organizing apart from NAC because it was primarily based around the white women’s movement which we were all expected to acknowledge as the “true feminist movement.” We struggled to incorporate issues regarding the lives of Black, racialized, and Indigenous women.NAC was a liberal organization and while we moved it to the left it remained an organization that was very much responsive to whichever federal government was in power at the time. So, an organization of that nature could never be one that represents radical interests of women in its full capacity. Eventually, we had to question whether a large feminist organization was useful at this particular time. Can one giant national feminist organization speak to the interests of all women? Do we want that?
KG: What about the Communist Party?
BB: When we talk about the Communist Party it was also based on a kind of reductionist politics. Racism could only be seen in the larger context of class politics.
KG: Right racism often being treated as simply a capitalist conspiracy to divide workers.
BB: Exactly. There was no room for a discussion of how white supremacy functioned nor was there an analysis of gender and sexuality. This made my time in the Party very difficult. There was no real interest in wanting to see things differently.
KG: You spent a significant time with NAC and 10 years with the Communist Party. Why did you remain in these environments given these challenges and significantly contradictory political ideologies?
BB: I’ve always been interested in liberation, freedom, and revolution. Anti-capitalism is foundational for me, and you can’t build an anti-capitalist struggle without engaging with other people, across race, gender, and sexuality. I was only interested in engaging with people who were radical and were interested in building a very different kind of world. So, I ended up in a space that was anti-capitalist, which was the Communist Party, and which was internationalist. I ended up in a women’s movement that was national and international, but the politics were fraught with liberalism. But it was also a space where we engaged on issues of gender which was important to me because I’m a feminist. We can’t build a new world just in a sectarian or narrow way. We have to move beyond the spaces we’re in. These were very key moments in my development and my growth, and I remain a radical. I remain someone who can never settle for…
KG: The status quo?
BB: Yes, but not just the status quo. I just can’t settle for doing politics that isn’t about liberation. I can no longer settle for these reforms. I did some reform work because there was a time when we thought even a little shift would be worth it to get the weight off our backs, you know to get the violence to cease. Now I want abolition. I want us to start rebuilding a new world. I’m not interested in anything that assumes we can fix capitalism.
KG: Well, since you mentioned abolition let’s talk about this. You have been organizing in Toronto for a very long time. Like you, I was heavily involved in some of the Black organizing taking place in the summer of 2020. Abolitionist ideas and calls to action were being espoused by all kinds of movements. In your view, why abolition now?
BB: Well, to begin I think in our earlier periods of organizing we weren’t using that kind of language, but the work spelled abolition because we wanted liberation. The whole idea and concept of abolition goes all the way back to the anti-slavery movement of Blacks undermining, upsetting, and trying to destroy the slavery system. There’s always been that struggle to get rid of violence and oppression that bears down on us. I think what is different today is that there is a particular kind of insistence by young Black people, that they’re not willing to just engage with leaders, politicians, police, and others. They are not willing to be silenced. They’re also not willing to be told how to take power or how to take to the streets. There’s a certain kind of boldness and fearlessness, an in-your-face politics that is much more unrestrained than it was in our days.
I think part of that may come with the fact that we also live in a time of social media where things are very visual, and responses can take place very quickly. In our days, we operated using leaflets and posters. If we got caught in something, there were not always enough witnesses around to witness. Now, people have cameras not that cameras prevent police and state violence. But what it does do is it creates an unbearable situation. It makes it unbearable for people to have to sit and watch the television set and to see violence happening particularly at a time when we are not allowed to have connections with other people when we’re not allowed to be in public spaces under COVID-19.
I think all of that together has made it much more urgent for people and for younger people that we must do politics differently. We must do politics that is about creating something different. We must do politics that requires that we abolish particular systems and structures if we are to survive as people. Something has to happen. COVID-19 has also revealed the stark sociopolitical imbalances that exist in our society. This is why defunding the police has become a mantra of even the middle of the political spectrum. People are losing their jobs, they’re losing their homes, they’re seeing that the police are playing such a major role in destroying people’s right to public spaces and people’s safety in those public spaces. We know Black people have never been safe in those spaces. We know Indigenous and poor people are never safe in those spaces. But even white middle-class people are worried that they too are being encumbered by police in those kinds of spaces. So even they can see the need for defunding the cops. We can no longer accept our world as it is.
KG: Another profound shift I have noticed is the widespread queer and feminist analysis permeating radical politics in this city across movements. I have been thinking a lot about Black Lives Matter Toronto’s intervention during Pride 2016. It was treated as a sort of “coming out” moment of radical Black queer politics while at the same time revealing the deep racism in liberal gay rights organizing.
BB: I mean, the thing is that the Black radical tradition itself is a queer radical tradition. But also, when we think about the role that queerness has played in Black people’s lives in terms of the excesses, excesses of our sexuality, the excesses of violence, we’ve always functioned in maneuvering and creating new modes of being through excesses. This is what queers us as people. Black people have always been queer. When we think about black queer organizing and Black Lives Matter being led by Black queers that’s actually not a surprise. Black queer feminists have always led the movement here in Toronto. We were the ones fighting on the front lines for Black men who had been killed by the cops. So Black Lives Matter, as a Black queer radical feminist-led movement has always been exactly that. One of the things that we noticed around with pride, was the insistence by white homonationalist queers to separate Blackness from queerness. To them, Black Lives Matter was not a queer movement, and it did not belong in pride because it had nothing to do with queer lives. As far as those people were concerned it was a Black movement and, they were invited into pride meanwhile I’m thinking, “Some Black people are queer!” This is how white supremacy and homonationalism work. It is always trying to annex the various parts of who we are.
KG: It was Du Bois who once said, “whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!” Your comments remind me that it’s also about ownership over existence and being. In the context of Toronto Pride, the only queer people allowed to exist in public space were the white queer people. Which leads me to ask, what is the world you envision? I’m sure we both agree that this white monopoly over space, property, and being must end?
BB: Rinaldo Walcott’s piece “On Property” made a very important intervention on this subject. We can’t talk about abolition without abolishing property. When he says abolishing property, he is talking about who has access to what, including public space. Black people don’t have access to public space. To be in parks, to congregate with other Black people, all these things are inaccessible for Black people, racialized people, Indigenous people, and homeless people. That is all a part of the property relation. You can be standing outside of a store or your house and white people can call the police. They have that authority invested in them. All of this has to do with how property works and how we as Black people have been understood as property. We are understood as “owned” and therefore, even white people who do not have money or who do not own much of anything are authorized to punish us and put us in our place. And those who live their life in alignment with whiteness also do the same to Black people. Police and the carceral state are at the centre of property. They exist to profile, manage, surveil, and regulate particular populations. So, for us to end this carceral system, we must end property. To do that we have to end capitalism. As other abolitionists like Mariame Kaba and many others have pointed out we also have to change how we think about common spaces, living spaces, and our relationships with each other. Rinaldo Walcott himself often says we need an ethic of care.
KG: As we wrap up, I would love for you to share what this ethic of care means or looks like to you?
BB: Let me give you an example. Two weeks ago, I had gone into a delicatessen in my neighborhood to get some desserts. There was this white homeless man sitting in a corner sleeping in the store. This young woman employee was on the phone with the police saying “oh this man is in the store, and he is in the corner. I told him to get out and he wouldn’t leave, and we need you to come and remove him!” Now, this homeless man was not bothering anybody. It was raining outside, and this woman decided to call the police. A young Black man who was also in the store heard the woman and went over to the guy and said, ” bro I think you should leave because she called the police, and you know how they are. The police will come, and they will hurt you. I don’t want to see them hurt you. I think it would be a good idea if you find another place to relax.” The homeless man got up and he left. And I’m thinking there’s an ethic care right there from this young Black man. But again, this is how property works. The protection of the property is more important than having somebody get a little bit of refuge. The cops will come, and you will end up dead just because you are taking refuge.
KG: There is such intentional cruelty and violence for certain people who are simply trying to exist in space.
BB: It is an intentional cruelty!
KG: And so, the world we need?
BB: Is one in which people can have access to space without punitive interventions. One where space is not owned by a colonial state or by capitalists. One where space becomes the commons.
Khaleel Grant is a Ph.D. student in the department of history at the University of Toronto and in a collaborative specialization at the Women and Gender Studies Institute. Their research interests include the history of the U.S. carceral state, the Black Radical Tradition in the 20th century, and gendered racial capitalism.