“No justice, no peace,” yelled the demonstrators conducting a 45-minute sit-in at the corner of Toronto’s Yonge and Bloor. It was shortly after 4pm and they’d just marched from the U.S.Consulate on University. Now they headed to City Hall as the crowd grew to over a thousand. Once they had arrived and given their speeches, the organizers, the Black Action Defense Committee (BADC), considered the demonstration a wrap. But it was 9pm by then and some in the sizeable crowd decided to smash windows, light fires, and throw various objects at the police with around 75 people charged with offences in the end.
It was May 4, 1992 and it was 5 days after the acquittal of the three police officers who beat Rodney King in Los Angeles. Two days after that decision, a young black male in Toronto, Raymond Lawrence, was killed by the police. And earlier that year, the officers who killed Michael Wade Lawson of Peel, Ontario were acquitted.
One of the co-founders of BADC, Lennox Farrell called it a “political catharsis.”
“A logjam broke – a logjam of denial by the authorities, a logjam of delusion by the political establishment,” he said.
With that logjam broken, the province initiated a report based on extensive consultation and discovered that black people had a long list of grievances that included, yet also transcended, their criminalization at the hands of the police.
Now, 25 years after the Yonge Street Uprising, as some call it, a documentary connects those grievances with today’s.
Called It Takes A Riot: Race, Rebellion, Reform, funded by Ryerson University at the Akua Benjamin Legacy Project, and directed by Howard Grandison, the 25-minute film screened on May 4 to a packed house. Following the film, a panel connected the past and the present. It was moderated by Angela Robertson, and featured Rinaldo Walcott, academic and writer; Simon Black, the film co-producer; Sandy Hudson, Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) co-founder; and Grandison.
“Our goal is to ensure that people not only have access to information and that it’s not just coming in the form of a journal or a book chapter but that it’s something that people can engage with and material that lives beyond us,” says Idil Abdillahi, an instructor at Ryerson’s School of Social Work, and a member of the committee in an interview with RankandFile.ca. “The purpose of the film is to talk about then and now, bringing us to this moment. The moment ends with the work of BLMTO.”
The demonstration 25 years ago began at the U.S. Consulate in acknowledgement of the anti-black racism south of the border and moved to City Hall to address and admonish the same problem locally and BLMTO’s beginnings parallel it. “Our organizing started with the vigil that was on University Avenue right outside the United States consulate in Toronto, November of 2014, the day after the no indictment decision on Darren Wilson, the officer who murdered Michael Brown,” says Hudson in an interview with RankandFile.ca. “What we were thinking of at that time was how months before, Jermaine Carby, who was a black man from Brampton, was murdered by police officer Ryan Reid and there hadn’t been a lot of media about it. We organized for around 50 people and 3,000 people showed up.”
Black people are still overwhelmingly stopped and carded by the police in Toronto despite reforms. The stops, many of which are considered unconstitutional, have led to the stockpiling of data on black people that the police can access even if they completely ended the practice of carding. Some are calling for that information to be deleted entirely. Black people make up such a disproportionate number of inmates it rivals what’s happening in the United States.
The School Resource Officer Program, stationing police officers in the city’s schools since 2008, has inspired BLMTO to organize a teacher walkout, with roughly 20 teachers taking part. The walkout is part of a set of proposals to challenge the anti-black racism in Toronto’s schools. “I think going into so many different schools across the city, I’ve noticed many different educators and administrators that have anti-black assumptions for students,” the CBC reports Hawa Sabriye, one of the teachers who walked out, as saying.
Some of those assumptions have led to the disproportionate number of black students who are put into applied, rather than academic, courses. The walkout led to the director of the Toronto District School Board committing to anti-racism training for staff.
In November, the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants started a campaign called Toronto for All to highlight racism in hiring with posters on bus shelters across the city. A report entitled “Labour Market Challenges and Discrimination Faced by Racialized Groups in the Black Creek Area” detailed some of the hurdles racialized people experience in north west Toronto. “Part of the difficulty is the labour market and the issue that you know, ‘last to be hired and first to be fired’ is still true today and I think part of it, with the kind of the economic situation for a lot of companies, employment equity kind of flew out the window,” said one of the black participants in the study about their experiences.
Even when the province attempts to address the challenges black people are confronted with, they’ll perpetuate damaging myths. The province’s 4-year “Ontario Black Youth Action Plan”, for instance, implies that some of their challenges – the dropout/push-out rate and others – can at least partially be blamed on inadequate parenting skills – a longstanding racist belief.
A report, published by the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies in the fall of last year, showed that 42 per cent of children in the care of the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto were black, despite only 8 percent of the population consisting of black people. Black people are twice as likely to be investigated when a report to child welfare has been made; and, while there few differences in occurrences of child abuse along racial lines, according to the report, various people are more likely to report black parents to child welfare. In all, it’s a system of surveillance and criminalization which echoes the concerns around carding.
And yet with all these reports and studies, the myth of Canada as uniquely anti-racist and benign, if only in comparison to the United States, persists. “We were sick and tired seeing all this type of media that portrayed the United States as this big, bad, evil, terrible, place and ‘Thank God’ Canada is so much better to black people,” says Hudson.
The absurdity that there is an imaginary line drawn on the map of the world. On this side of the line is Canada and on that side is the United States where we have some outrageous serial killers. Junot Diaz was at a talk at Massey Hall and he described it this way: the United States is a bunch of serial killers and Canada is a land of innocents. How is it that racism cannot permeate this line? People have this misconception here in Canada that there was never slavery here. Even if that were true – let’s pretend that we live in some bizarro world where there was a line that was drawn in perpetuity between Canada and the United States and no black people, as owned by white people, crossed that line. Did these people use cotton? Did they use tea, coffee? Any of these other products? Were they part of the British Empire? Any of those things is an implication of anti-black racism, of enslavement, and of using black people’s bodies. Always. Always. That bizarro world isn’t even true. There was enslavement here.
Today, while BADC continues its work and is acknowledged for it, that of BLMTO grows despite some opposition inspired by that very need to believe that anti-black racism simply does not exist in Canada. “When it comes to white folks and non-black folks at times there can be a huge resistance to being implicated in the anti-blackness of Canada,” says Hudson. “Partially I believe that’s because there then is a responsibility for somebody who has a kind of power or privilege.”
Doing the work of exposing and eradicating the anti-blackness in the city, for BLMTO, has meant making enough noise that these issues can no longer be ignored. “We have to use our strength of our community to disrupt everything else to say no business as usual until we get justice,” says Hudson.
When BLMTO organized the tent city that started in late March of last year, and remained for two weeks, to protest the fact that the officer who killed Andrew Loku was not charged, and to call for an overhaul of the province’s Special Investigation Unit, a supposedly impartial body which they argue has not done its job, they were initially ignored. “The media didn’t touch it for the first 24 or 48 hours,” says Hudson. “We were sitting there begging the media to come and pay attention and nobody touched it. It wasn’t until the media was there stationed 24 hours a day that all of a sudden we started to see this movement from politicians and, even then, we were out there for a full 7 days before we had the first phone call from a city councillor saying “I’m going to help.” It was 2 weeks before we had the first phone call from an MPP in the ruling party, the Liberals, saying ‘We should talk.’ You have to make yourself impossible to ignore in order for these people to move.”
It’s about building power that may solve concrete problems facing a community – one that is continually being reconnected after active efforts to isolate people.
“When these types of incidents happen, it feels extremely isolating,” says Hudson. “It feels like there’s nowhere to go. How can you endure this knowledge, again and again on your own, that you’re essentially being attacked. Your community is being attacked and nobody cares. When we speak to black people about these issues, about how it’s not better here than in the United States, they know. We know. It is not difficult to talk to black people about this. Bringing people together, whether it’s a vigil or a demo or an art project or a teach in, it builds people’s idea – our community’s idea – of the type of power that we do have. It’s no longer isolating. All of a sudden our truth is able to come out and be revealed. If you know this is happening you have a responsibility to do something about it.”