A People’s History of the Yonge Street ‘Riot’

May 4th 1992. Los Angeles was burning and Public Enemy’s Shut ‘Em Down sat atop the rap singles chart, its opening lyrics delivered in Chuck D’s booming baritone:  “I testified/my mama cried/Black people died/When the other man lied”. This sentiment underscored a sense of injustice when Los Angeles police were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. Closer to home, two Toronto cops implicated in the shooting death of Black teenager Michael Wade Lawson walked from the courtroom free men on April 7th. A year prior to the Lawson shooting, Lester Donaldson had been shot as he stood unarmed in his rooming house, leading to the formation of the Black Action Defense Committee. A year later cops shot and paralyzed 23 year-old Sophia Cook, the third Black person shot by Toronto Police in the space of 15 months.

Just days after the uprising began in LA, 22-year -old Raymond Lawrence was shot and killed by Toronto police. And so on May 4th  the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC) and its supporters amassed on Yonge Street, just south of Bloor,  to protest the killing of Lawrence, the Lawson verdict, the intense and ongoing police harassment of Toronto’s Black communities, and to stand in solidarity with Rodney King and the LA uprising.  The demonstration was initially small, numbering 50 to 60 people, primarily young Black men and women. But as they began to march, the numbers grew. Aboriginal youth, homeless youth, white youth, youth from other racialized communities joined the demonstration following BADC’s lead, chanting “No justice, no peace!” as they moved through the streets to the US Embassy—in solidarity with King—and on to Nathan Phillips Square. After speeches decrying the police and their allies at City Hall, the march doubled back on Yonge, heading northwards. BADC leadership drew the formal demonstration to a close, concluding with a rousing version of the Black anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. The crowd, however, remained; young, angry and insistent that the demonstration continue.

As the protesters moved up Yonge Street, windows were smashed and the cops were pelted with bottles and stones by an increasingly militant crowd. The police attempted to block the march at Bloor, parking two buses across the road. But the crowd was not for turning, gathering pace as young people strode towards the roadblock with intent. The cops moved the buses and backed up, beating a retreat westward down Bloor.

Lennox Farrell, a co-founder of BADC and veteran organizer, recounts the growing anger of the young demonstrators: “A youth came up to me and said “Mr. Farrell this is our time. We have to get back at them for how they hurt us, they hurt us; we have to get back at them”.

The demonstration turned left on Bay Street from Bloor, heading towards police headquarters. According to Farrell, “Every single window pane on Bay St. was broken. The police knew where the youth were going and must have thought, ‘Nah this can’t take place.’ Anything could have happened.” Police horses and the riot squad met the march, batons lashing out at the protestors. After a long standoff — police headquarters under siege by the young and militant –the crowd dissipated, some protestors moving back down Yonge.

The media called it a ‘riot,’ but in the words of Farrell it was “a rebellion more than a riot.” A mass demonstration, a mobilization, an uprising against police brutality and the fashionable indifference to injustice displayed by the city’s political elite.

“The moment was surreal but necessary,” says hip hop intellectual and march participant Dalton Higgins. “You read the history of social movements, about moments of resistance like the Brixton or Watts Riots, moments driven by oppressed peoples,” says Higgins. “It was like a scene out of a movie, out of a documentary on the civil rights movement. This was the feeling; the same kind of rage and anger.” And hip hop was central to the political awakening: Higgins remembers, “That generation was weaned on Public Enemy, X Clan, Brand Nubian, KRS One, and Queen Latifah. It was cool to be versed on one’s culture, one’s history; you know, to be conscious. We rocked t-shirts and medallions with messages of Black pride.”

“The powers that be were shocked”, recalls Farrell. “We had had long demonstrations before, long speeches and so. And the police would harass you on the way home; give you a parking ticket and that sort of nonsense. But this time, the police had to move their buses, shifted out of the way of these youth; youth totally incensed, angry. The event was a political catharsis. A cathartic moment, even for the city, because what happened was a log jam broke; a log jam of denial of the authorities, a logjam of delusion by the political establishment. That riot broke that logjam.”

In the wake of the rebellion, the Ontario government appointed Stephen Lewis to report on the state of race relations in the province. In his findings, Lewis stated “what we are dealing with, at root, and fundamentally, is anti-Black racism…It is Blacks who are being shot, it is Black youth that are unemployed in excessive numbers, it is Black students who are being inappropriately streamed in schools, it is Black kids who are disproportionately dropping-out, it is housing communities with large concentrations of Black residents where the sense of vulnerability and disadvantage is most acute, it is Black employees, professional and non-professional, on whom the doors of upward equity slam shut. Just as the soothing balm of ‘multiculturalism` cannot mask racism, so racism cannot mask its primary target.” The province’s anti-racism secretariat was expanded, employment equity legislation introduced, and funding for existing programs like the now legendary Fresh Arts was forthcoming from both the municipal and provincial government. The JobsOntario Youth program enabled programs like Fresh Arts, as well as private businesses, to hire youth. “The sad reality of the Yonge St. Riot,” according to human rights lawyer and community elder Julian Falconer “is that the only time government attention is focused on racial problems is when they reach crisis point.”

At a BADC press conference the morning after, as broken glass still glittered on the sidewalks of Yonge and Bay streets, the late, great Dudley Laws summarized events this way: “What we saw yesterday was the frustration and the anger of the people coming out. We have waited for the justice system to deal justly with our community and it has failed.”

American historian Howard Zinn once wrote, “There is an underside to every age about which history does not often speak, because history is written from records left by the privileged.” The privileged have called the events of May 4th 1992 a ‘riot’. It is a ‘riot’ in police records and in the pages of the city’s newspapers. It is a ‘riot’ in the minds of those politicians whose rule was, and remains premised upon the marginalization of the city’s urban ‘others’ and whose power depends upon the suppression of the historical memories of the rebellious, the resistant, and the resilient, upon the active containment of their struggles, their stories and narratives.

But a people’s history cannot be contained, hidden, or erased. While the ‘official’ history of the Yonge Street Rebellion gathers dust in the dead spaces of government office buildings and newspaper archives, a people’s history of anti-racist organizing is being preserved and honoured. This is happening in bookstores on Bathurst and the Eglinton strip, in the minds and teachings of elders, in grassroots newsletters committed to truth-telling. It is in blogs, which realize the power of insurgent knowledges, in the scribblings of playwrights and poets, and on stages and community radio. And it is also in the actions and radical dispositions of new generations, committed to honouring their past, to dreaming freedom dreams, and to making histories of their own.

 

Sources:

Interviews with Lennox Farrell and Dalton Higgins

Toronto Missing Plaque Project

Wasun. 2008. A Short History of Community Organizing Against Police Brutality in Toronto: The History of B.A.D.C. and Beyond<http://basicsnews.ca/2008/03/a-short-history-of-community-organizing-against-police-brutality-in-toronto-the-history-of-b-a-d-c-and-beyond/>

Wright, Lisa. 1993. “A Year after the Yonge St. riot frustrations still simmering.” Toronto Star, May 3: A1.

*Acknowledgements: Thanks to Verle Thompson for sharing her knowledge of Fresh Arts and JobsOntario Youth. Thank you to Lennox Farrell and Dalton Higgins for sharing their memories of the rebellion. And much respect to Wasun for documenting the history of police brutality and BADC organizing in Basics Community Newsletter.

 

A version of this article was published in Manifesto Festival of Community and Culture 2012

Tags: , , , , , , ,