Find another way to protest, Brent Townsend


In yet another affront to Black suffering that is unfolding in the town of Campbellford, Ont., a large wooden cross with a noose suspended from it has been erected on the property of noted wildlife artist Brent Townsend, who is not Black. Townsend is involved along with other Campbellford residents in a dispute with the local jurisdiction over the construction of a bridge which would require his century-old residence to be demolished.

Townsend, who is dissatisfied with the process of developing the plan for the bridge, claims that his marriage has failed and his business has suffered because of the dispute with Northumberland County, a dispute that has been ongoing for about four years.

If you go to Campbellford, about 180 km northeast of Toronto, you will find in a park there an 8-metre high metal toonie which has become something of a tourist attraction. It is in recognition of Townsend’s work. He designed the bear that is found on the flipside of the iconic Canadian coin. Townsend’s more recent ‘work’, his symbol of protest, the five-meter high cross with the noose slung over it, sits on the edge of his property and is therefore highly visible from the street.

Campbellford residents can ill-afford this notoriety since it was only last Halloween that disgust was rightly pointed in their direction when two residents took first prize at a legion hall Halloween party for their costume presentation: a man wearing a Ku Klux Klan uniform accompanied by another in black-face with a noose around his neck. Halloween, indeed.

What is striking to me as a Black person is that the affront to many Campbellford residents was not in the anti-Black imagery conjured in Townsend’s protest, but rather a perceived assault on religious sensibilities, this being the season of Lent. That in itself speaks volumes about the sensitivity gap in places outside of the GTA to matters of race, most specifically to Black people.

For all the people who are not Black who have spoken to me personally about what it is like in the small Ontario towns they hail from regarding the general attitude towards Black people, the information is strikingly similar. And it’s not pretty. So, in places like Campbellford, a huge cross with a noose on it is a religious assault, not a racial one. And the official response is that while offensive, no ‘hate crime’ can be imputed.

Townsend has said anti-Black hate was not his intent, but a personal political protest, as the sign which says “Political cover up drags on”, hanging from this construction indicates. 

So this painful imagery – a construction that speaks to the pain that Black people carry of ancestors with nooses around their necks, their lifeless Black bodies suspended and made into Sunday picnic entertainment – now becomes a symbol of pain for whom else?

Can we infer that Townsend’s message is that he is being treated with the kind of low regard that the general population accepts should only be reserved for the likes of us?

None but a few Campbellford residents who made public statements about this incident touched on such an inference. No. It was the assault on religion that hurt the townspeople most.

During the civil rights era in the U.S. of the 1950s and 60s, the battle that was won benefitted more beleaguered minorities than just African Americans. As a rising tide lifts all boats, women and outcast religious minorities also benefited – in fact, more so than Black people, who were at the forefront of the fight.

But how does one justify claiming Black suffering as analogous to one’s own when one has been the beneficiary of White privilege for so long? An old Caribbean saying points the way: ‘What is joke to you is death to me.’

Townsend may have got his point across, but I resent him using the suffering of Black people to make his case, because the loss of his marriage and his business – as distressing as it no doubt is to him – does not begin to compare with the horrors within the Black experience.

A note on the bellwethers of a society…

An old, Black woman begs for your small change at Bloor and Sherbourne. An old White man is literally on his knees with his hands in front of him begging for your small change at North York Centre. They are not inebriated or mentally ill. The elderly are emerging on the streets with their hands out. Imagine the day each made the decision to take that desperate step.

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