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

Saturday, September 22nd, 2012

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

Cities on High Alert

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Here’s my latest op-ed on urban issues for The Toronto Star. They have a habit of changing my titles; this one was originally “The Age of Urban Unrest?”

Last week, New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg rang alarm bells when he said that high unemployment could lead to mass social unrest in cities across the United States.  “You have a lot of kids graduating college who can’t find jobs. That’s what happened in Cairo. That’s what happened in Madrid. You don’t want those kinds of riots here,” Bloomberg explained. The mayor was not alone in this assessment. Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn said as much back in 2008; “unemployment,” he declared, “represents a risk to the stability of existing democracies.”

Bloomberg’s warning came with his endorsement of President Obama’s new jobs creation bill. As a big city mayor, Bloomberg knows too well that the social problems associated with high unemployment, widening inequality, and economic stagnation are most acute in urban centres. Whereas Strauss-Kahn’s words proved prophetic, Bloomberg was learning from recent history.

Since the onset of the global economic crisis back in 2007-2008, cities have seen rising levels of violence and social unrest: riots and looting in the UK, intensified gang violence in major US cities, street clashes in Athens, flash robs in Philadelphia, mass protests in Madrid, ghetto dwellers and security forces facing off in Kingston, Jamaica, rival drug cartels engaged in shootouts in Juarez, Mexico; the list goes on. As many political observers have remarked, a driving force behind the Arab Spring – apart from an unquenched thirst for democracy – is unemployment, and in particular, extremely high levels of youth unemployment.

Non-governmental organizations have started making the connections as well. A recent report from the International Red Cross, entitled Urban Violence: War By Any Other Name observes, “Around the world, cities are experiencing an alarming increase in violence and its resulting misery…Chronic conflict makes daily life in some places almost like living in a war zone.”

And images of urban unrest not only flash nightly across our TV screens and occupy the pages of our newspapers, they also permeate our popular culture as never before: just watch recent science fiction films like Attack the Block, District 9, and Battle: Los Angeles. The city as a place of conflict and civil disorder is part of our cultural zeitgeist.

We have then, it appears, entered an age of urban unrest.

But London is not Philadelphia and Cairo not Kingston. From riots and looting, to mass protest, flash robs, and gang warfare, there are very different types of urban violence and social unrest with seemingly disparate causes. But while poverty, inequality, and unemployment do not tell the full story in all places, they do tell much of the story in many places.

In the case of the UK’s recent disorder, we have learned from The Guardian newspaper that the vast majority of rioters brought before the courts are young, poor, and unemployed. In the Tottenham neighbourhood, where the riots began, 54 people chase every one available job.

Where austerity and cutbacks to government services deepen poverty and unemployment, unrest soon follows.  Two Barcelona-based economists have published research which clearly shows a link between the variables. Empirical data on close to forty European and Latin American countries demonstrates a positive statistical association between government spending cuts, unemployment and levels of unrest, including anti-government demonstrations, riots, strikes and attempted revolutions.

In addition, path-breaking research by social epidemiologists has found that among advanced democracies, more equal societies (and by extension, cities) are also more socially stable and less violent.

In the absence of work and of hope, different ways of organizing human activity fill the social void. The anomie brought on by unemployment and other forms of social exclusion can be addressed through participation in other social groupings, sometimes a gang, sometimes a mob, sometimes a radical political or religious organization. When channelled into movements seeking to address legitimate grievances, as in the Arab Spring, urban unrest, disruption and disorder can be welcomed. History tells us that rough means can sometimes bring about progressive ends, especially when democratic channels are closed to those suffering injustice. Yet few urban denizens welcome the type of violence and disruption that causes misery, damage, and distress in their lives and in the life of their city.

We live in an urban age.  In 1950, less than 30% of the world’s population were city dwellers. Now, for the first time in human history, the world’s urban population outnumbers its rural. As never before, the fate of humanity is tightly intertwined with the fate of the city. And whether we live in Toronto or Tokyo, Lagos or Los Angeles, safety and security are necessary conditions for a flourishing urbanity and a decent quality of life. As even the conservative-leaning Mayor of New York City has realized, addressing inequality, deprivation and unemployment with meaningful government action is central to maintaining social cohesion in an era of economic uncertainty.

Published Oct 11 2011 in The Toronto Star, pg. A19

Discussing the UK riots on DisRespect Radio

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Thanks to host Geoff Langhorne for inviting me on DisRespect Radio to discuss the UK riots. We had a great conversation that covered the sources of urban unrest and the prospects for future riots in the UK and beyond. Here’s a link to the podcast. 

1763-1-disRSept1LondonRiotsVol1to58m50.mp3

On the Riots

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Much ink has been spilled over the UK riots. Naomi Klein wrote a good piece for The Nation and David Harvey posted some interesting comments on his blog. I find myself agreeing with most of what Gary Younge writes and I think he’s spot on again when it comes to the riots. Check his article in The Guardian here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/14/young-british-rioters-political-actions

Beyond Hip-Hop’s Malcolm

Friday, July 1st, 2011

Here’s the first post for my Politics-As-Usual blog at POUND magazine (www.poundmag.com):

Set as my desktop’s wallpaper is one of the most illuminating documents of the black freedom struggle. It’s a telegram from Malcolm X to Martin Luther King Jr., dated June 30th 1964 12:07pm, just less than a year before Malcolm’s assassination. Sent from the Organization of Afro-American Unity headquarters in Harlem’s Hotel Theresa to King’s Florida base in St. Augustine, the telegram reads: 

“We have been witnessing with great concern the vicious attacks by the white races against our poor defenceless people there in St. Augustine. If the federal government will not send troops to your aid, say the word and we will immediately dispatch some of our brothers there to organize self-defence units among our people and the Ku Klux Klan will then receive a taste of its own medicine.  The day of turning the other cheek to those brute beasts is over.” 

At first it seems inconsequential, a brief six line note from one civil rights leader to another. Hundreds if not thousands like it discussing strategy and tactics must have been sent between the likes of King, John Lewis, Bayard Rustin, Stokely Carmiachel and so on. But this one was between Martin and Malcolm. While the two men had had little formal contact, the telegram reveals the centrality of their dynamic symbiosis to the black freedom struggle. 

What lay behind the effectiveness of non-violence as a political strategy was not solely King’s appeal to the morals, empathy and sense of fairness of white America – of which there was too short supply – but the real threat of violent reaction, of armed militancy, that was represented in the philosophy and prophecies of Malcolm X, who so effectively channelled Black rage in his oratory and politics. Malcolm was fully aware that such a telegram would be intercepted and read by the FBI. His emergent politics after breaking with the Nation of Islam saw him thinking and acting more carefully and strategically in relation to the mainstream civil rights movement of which King was leader, an evolution  which Elijah Muhammad (head of the NOI) had actively discouraged. By ’64 Malcolm was a free radical, no longer under the censure of the NOI and its narrow, cultish and ultimately self-serving philosophy. Breaking the Nation’s organizational chains, and positioning himself as the potentially violent alternative to King’s non-violent crusade, would result in his death, the product of collusion between the NOI and the American state. But without the nascent threat of violent insurrection, would the American state have moved to recognize the civil rights of African Americans? Would the War on Poverty have been waged had the ghetto rebellions of the late 60s not set alight American cities? 

I’ve yet to arrive at this moment of the telegram as I read the new biography of Malcom, entitled Malcolm X: A Life Reinvention (authored by the late Manning Marable). It’s a truly magisterial work and I’ve been encouraging everyone and anyone I speak with to go out and cop it. 

There are things in the book which might trouble peeps who came to Malcolm as I did, through hip hop and the superficial representation of Malcolm in the culture in the early 1990s (a representation reinforced in part by Spike Lee’s biopic). The Malcolm X adopted by Public Enemy, X-Clan, BDP and other afro-centric artists, was  a caricature of the man: the hyper- masculine black activist and saviour whose “by any means necessary” philosophy stood in sharp contrast to the effete MLK, also represented one-dimensionally (As Chuck D bellows in front of a backdrop of Malcolm at the beginning of the video for Fight the Power  “That march in 1963, that’s a bit of nonsense; we ain’t rolling like that no more”; deriding King, elevating Malcolm). Marable reveals the complexity of Malcolm’s life, at times assaulting hip hop’s Malcolm X with revelations that he could not sexually satisfy his wife Betty and once played the black stud to a rich, white, homosexual socialite in Boston. In hip hop’s world of male braggadocio, this shit will not go down well. Reading the book, you realize these are mere asides which have been overplayed by the media and are minor to the long arch of Malcolm’s life. The Malcolm who emerges from the biography is a man whose complexity, intellect and courage makes him a far more compelling  figure than the commodified and reified Malcolm of early 90s hip hop. We can thank Marable for rescuing Malcolm X from mere imagery, now to be fully appreciated and understood by the hip hop generation.

Published at Poundmag.com, July 1st 2011

G20 Protests and the Criminalization of Dissent

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Last week I made another appearence on DisRespect Radio to discuss the G20 protests in Toronto and the criminalization of dissent. DisRespect host Geoff Langhorne and I touch on how media failed the alternative voices at the G20; how alternative media air a fuller view; and how implications for civil liberties hinge on demands for an inquiry into G20 policing.

Follow the link below to listen to the podcast or download the show:

www.radio4all.net/index.php/program/44014

Debt, Riots, and the Great Recession: Making sense of the Greek debt crisis

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

I made a recent appearence on DisRespect radio to discuss the Greek debt crisis and the mass mobilization of Greeks opposed to the government and European Union’s plan to deal with it. Follow the link below to listen:

http://www.radio4all.net/index.php/program/43865

From the Archives: Simon Black discusses urban riots on disRespect Radio

Saturday, October 24th, 2009

I make the occasional appearence on disRespect Radio, a great program hosted by Geoff Langhorne and broadcast on CFMU 93.3 fm Hamilton, Ontario. In this episode, Langhorne and I discuss last year’s Montreal riot, its causes and concomitant circumstances. Follow the link for the podcast:

http://www.radio4all.net/index.php/program/29772