A People’s History of the Yonge Street Rebellion

Today marks the 23rd anniversary of the Yonge Street “riot”. I wrote this for a community arts organization a few years ago. From #TDot2Bmore #BlackLivesMatter. Reposting on this May 4th, 2015.

May 4, 1992. Los Angeles was burning and Public Enemy’s Shut ‘Em Down sat atop the rap charts, its opening lyrics delivered in Chuck D’s booming baritone:  “I testified/my mama cried/Black people died/When the other man lied”.  Four Los Angeles police officers had just been acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. Closer to home, two Peel Region cops implicated in the shooting death of a Black teenager, Michael Wade Lawson, had walked from the courtroom free men. A year prior to the Lawson shooting, Lester Donaldson had been shot by Toronto police as he stood unarmed in his rooming house. And a year following, police had shot and paralyzed 23 year-old Sophia Cook, the third Black person shot by Toronto police in the space of fifteen months.

Then, just days after the King verdict, a 22 year-old Black man by the name of Raymond Lawrence was shot and killed by a Toronto police officer. And so the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC) and its supporters—an organization formed in the wake of the Donaldson shooting—amassed on Yonge Street, just south of Bloor, to protest the shooting death of Lawrence, the decision in the Lawson case, the ongoing police harassment of Toronto’s Black communities, and to stand in solidarity with the LA uprising.  The demonstration was initially small, numbering in the hundreds, primarily young Black women and men. But as they began to march, their numbers grew. Aboriginal youth, homeless youth, youth from other racialized communities joined the demonstration following BADC’s lead, chanting “No justice, no peace!”

The protestors moved through the streets to the US Embassy and on to Nathan Phillips Square. After speeches decrying Toronto Police Services and their defenders at City Hall, the march doubled back on Yonge, heading northwards. BADC leadership drew the formal demonstration to a close, concluding with a rousing rendition of the Black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. Many young people, however, remained, angry and insistent that the march continue.

As protesters moved up Yonge, windows were smashed and cops were pelted with eggs, bottles, and stones. The police were alarmed at the growing militancy of the demonstration and attempted to block the protestors at Bloor, parking two buses across the road. But the protestors were not for turning, gathering pace as they moved towards the roadblock with intent. In response, the police removed the buses and retreated westward down Bloor.

Lennox Farrell, co-founder of BADC, recounts the anger of the young marchers: “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’.”

The demonstration turned left on Bay Street, heading south 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.

The media called it a “riot”, but in the words of Farrell “it was a rebellion more than a riot.” A mass demonstration, an uprising against police brutality, against anti-Black racism, and the 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.” 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, 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 mass demonstrations before; you know long speeches and so on. 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, shift 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 by the authorities, a logjam of delusion by the political establishment. That rebellion broke that logjam.”

In the wake of the events of May 4 1992, the Ontario government appointed Stephen Lewis to report on the state of race relations in the province. In the report’s findings, Lewis wrote, “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 is 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 was introduced, and funding for existing community programs, like the now legendary Fresh Arts, was forthcoming from the municipal and provincial governments. The province also appointed a commission to report on systemic racism within the Ontario’s criminal justice system.  “The sad reality of the Yonge St. Riot,” according to human rights lawyer 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, broken glass still glittering on the sidewalks, the late Dudley Laws, freedom fighter and executive director of BADC, 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 4 1992 a “riot”. It was a riot in the pages of the city’s major newspapers and in police records. It was a riot in the minds of those politicians whose rule was, and remains, dependent upon the suppression of historical memory—upon the active containment of struggles, on the erasure of resistance stories and rebellious 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—of Black Torontonians’ resistance to state-sanctioned violence and other forms of institutionalized racism—is preserved and honoured in bookstores on Bathurst and the Eglinton strip, in the minds and teachings of community elders, in grassroots newsletters committed to truth-telling, in blogs which realize the power of insurgent knowledges, in the scribblings of playwrights and poets, on stages and community radio. And perhaps most of all, it is preserved and honoured in the actions and radical dispositions of new generations, committed to honouring their past, to dreaming freedom dreams, and 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: Thank you 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.