On March 21, Toronto police turned the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on its head, violently attacking a demonstration of Black Lives Matter-Toronto for challenging police killing and city cuts. But the protest and tent city continues.
On March 13 Toronto police shot and killed 21-year old Alex Wettlaufer (a friend of Sammy Yatim who police also killed), while he was on the phone with his mother. Police claimed he was carrying a gun, but as his mother explained, “Alex does not carry a gun, he’s never had a weapon…He was crying saying that he’s being surrounded. They kept telling him to put the weapon down, and he kept hollering telling them he didn’t have a weapon.”
Then on March 18 the “Special Investigations Unit” announced the officers who killed Andrew Loku last year would not face criminal charges. Loku, a migrant from Sudan with mental health issues, was working to support his family back home when police shot him in his apartment. The whitewashing of his murder is another example of the intersection of racism and sanism. “Officers engage people with mental health illnesses all the time, but when the person has mental health issues and black skin, they end up dead more than anyone else,” explained Anthony Morgan, lawyer with the African Canadian Legal Clinic.
Meanwhile there’s an ongoing campaign for justice for Jermaine Carby, who police shot and killed in 2014. While police continue to kill Black people, the city of Toronto has cut Afrofest.
Launched in 1990, Afrofest is the largest free African musical festival in North America, with over 120,000 visitors last year. This month the City of Toronto announced it would cut the two-day summer festival in half, supposedly based on noise complaints. But there were only eight documented noise complaints last year, and the noise level is no different than other events like Canada Day or the Beaches Jazz festival that use the same sound equipment at the same location.
This racist decision affects the cultural and economic life of the African community, explained Peter Toh, president of the Afrofest organizer Music Africa: “If you have five festivals doing the same thing, and out of the five festivals, only one gets into trouble, what do you think that is? Is if from that point that I consider it discriminatory…Afrofest plays a very significant role in the micro-economy of the African community in Toronto. If you have products to sell, where else would you rather be than Afrofest? Removing a whole day amounts to tactically destroying the festival.”
Rally and tent city
On March 20 Black Lives Matter-Toronto organized a demonstration to protest the city of Toronto’s decision to cut Afrofest from two days to one, the killing of Black people, and the decision not to charge two officers with the killing of Andrew Loku. Jermaine Carby’s cousin, La Tanya Grant, spoke about the ongoing campaign for justice.
The protest camped out over night, and the next day moved the tent city to Police Headquarters. Arriving just before sundown I could hear people chanting “No justice, no peace, no racist police.” There were signs and art posted on the walls and on the ground. The atmosphere was friendly and lively, including children and elders, and people greeted each other in between chants. The organizers played a game where everyone was asked to vote for their favourite comedy, hip-hop artist, etc.
Police violence and resistance
After dark the police lined up (of which there must have been at least 20 to 30), and one officer demanded the removal of the tents and fire. In the middle of the officer’s speech, as I locked arms with the people on either side of me, one of the organizers declared through the megaphone that “You are killing us every single day…This is about defending our lives, this is a peaceful protest.” The whole crowd started to chant, “indict, convict, send those killer cops to jail, the whole damn system is guilty as hell!”
Police broke through our human barrier by tearing people apart from each other and shoving people to the ground, and people chanted “The whole world is watching!” As the police came closer to the tents people fell on top of them and stumbled on the large pile of scrap wood that was used for the fire. As I tried to help up two of us who had been pushed to the ground by cops, officers pulled me back and then shoved me away.
I saw a cop tear the jacket off of someone’s back as two or three other officers dragged him across the floor. Once the protester had gotten to their feet and was very visibly upset, I saw another officer draw up his baton and threaten the protester with it. Immediately after that I saw the police drag another person across the ground as she screamed, and members of the crowd yelled “Shame!” As one officer shoved people out of the way to get closer to the fire I heard someone yell aloud how there were children present, but the cops didn’t seem to care much. I watched one officer tear away the first tent from the grip of one protester, and the second one shortly after.
When the police had finished stealing the tents and put out the fire we were able to get them to back up from the area. We stood with our hands up in the air, until they eventually left. As they walked up the stairs and away from the area we booed them and shamed them one last time before they left with their backs towards us.
I saw the police do a lot of shoving, hitting, and generally being violent and threatening to a crowd of peaceful protesters. But after all was said and done, everyone came in real close and celebrated; the atmosphere was still tense, the voices were cracked and blown out, but overall everyone felt victorious.
Support Black Lives Matter
“This is a positive and peaceful action that we’re hosting,” explained organizer Yusra Ali, but police “raided us as if we were criminals…the police are interacting with the Black community as they always do.” But the protest has continued for nearly 100 hours, with support from Indigenous and Muslim groups who also face disproportionate police violence, and solidarity from student and labour groups.
Black Lives Matter-Toronto continues with its demands to Mayor Tory and Police Chief Saunders:
“-The immediate release of the name(s) of the officer(s) who killed Andrew Loku & Jermaine Carby.
-Charges to be laid against the officers who killed Mr. Loku.
-The immediate and public release of any video footage from the apartment complex where Andrew Loku was murdered.
-Apology to the family of Andrew Loku and monetary compensation.
-A review of the Special Investigations Unit, with adequate consultation from families victimized by police violence
-A reversal to all city-mandated changes imposed on Afrofest, including its restoration to a 2-day festival”
Join the ongoing action at 40 College Street. Follow the Black Lives Matter-Toronto facebook page and twitter account for updates on what supplies to bring. If you can’t show up in person to give your support, you can E-transfer money to: BLM.TO.Solidarity@gmail.com.
Join the conference Ideas for Real Change: Marxism 2016, including the session "50 years since the Black Panther Party," "Racism, the security state, and C-51" and "Refugees, racism and resistance." Register today and join/share on facebook.