'I saw a rage': Anti-racism activists reflect on the Yonge Street uprising 30 years later
It began as a peaceful protest on May 4, 1992. But it turned chaotic amid simmering anger
Lennox Farrell remembers May 4, 1992 as a warm spring day in Toronto — the sun was high and the organization he co-founded, the Black Action Defence Committee, was holding one of many protests it staged against anti-Black racism in policing.
Just days before, police in Peel shot and killed another Black man — 22-year-old Raymond Lawrence.
"It was an ongoing struggle. Everyone had a story," said Farrell, who is now 79.
"We started at the tip of Yonge Street going down, shouting: 'No justice, no peace!' And we got to city hall."
Farrell says after the planned protest wrapped up, a group broke away and began marching the opposite way up Yonge Street. That's when the chaos began.
On the 30-year anniversary of the uprising, activists are reflecting on the lasting impact of that day. Though they say some progress has been made when it comes to policy since 1992, many of the calls to dismantle institutionalized racism are still relevant and they echo in movements like Black Lives Matter.
Though Farrell says activists originally staged the rally to protest against the killing of Lawrence, there was simmering anger over the acquittal of four white police officers in Los Angeles captured on video brutally beating Rodney King — a verdict that had touched off widespread rioting in that city just a few nights earlier.
He recalls the moment when the anger boiled over, saying a small group of young people began to march toward Bloor Street after the organized protest was over.
"I saw a rage in them that I hadn't seen before," said Farrell.
All these years later, Farrell says he remembers the sound of glass breaking on that day and trying to run ahead of the group to stop them. He says he later encountered police on horseback and he himself was arrested, taken into custody and released.
Also fuelling that anger, says Farrell, was how police victimized Black men through racial profiling.
"Those of us who didn't get shot were harassed in other ways — pulled over regularly by police," Farrell said, adding that their protests were partly aimed at ending the targeted stops of Black men like him.
In the span of four months in 1988, police shot and killed Michael Wade Lawson, an unarmed 17-year-old in Mississauga, and 44-year-old Lester Donaldson — who lived with schizophrenia — was shot and killed by officers.
Fast forward to May 2, 1992, when Lawrence was fatally shot by police.
"The way that we saw these individuals ... treated by people in positions of authority with use of deadly force, was a problem," said Charles Senior, a member of the Black Action Defence Committee, who was 24 at the time of the uprising.
After widespread protests after Lawson was killed in 1988, the province established a task force on race relations and policing — which later led to the creation of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) to investigate deaths, serious injuries and alleged sexual assault involving police.
"[The SIU] only existed on the backs of the efforts that included the discontent of the May 4th protests that took place in Toronto," said Senior.
After the uprising, then-premier Bob Rae appointed former politician and diplomat Stephen Lewis to examine racism in Ontario. Six weeks later, Lewis tabled a report that painted a picture of systemic anti-Black racism in no uncertain terms.
"While it is obviously true that every visible minority community experiences the indignities and wounds of systemic discrimination throughout Southern Ontario, it is the Black community which is the focus," Lewis wrote in his report.
Thirty years later, activists like Senior say that statement — and many issues identified in the report as barriers — still rings true. In particular, issues such as streaming in schools, the advancement of Black professionals and police training.
"For me, having a 25-year-old son ... it literally sickened me when I watched George Floyd be murdered on TV," said Shawne Gray, a former member of the Black Action Defence Committee.
She actively attended protests in the 1990s and in the era before social media, documented what was happening in newsletters and magazines.
She says she was protesting in 1991 before her son was born, "and I can't say the world is a better place or it's a safer place."
Kiden Jonathan, with Black Lives Matter Toronto, says while anti-Black racism has entered the mainstream discussion in recent years, it doesn't change the fact that she sees the same pattern of violence in 1992. Her close friend, Andrew Loku — a Black father of five — was shot dead by police in 2015.
"We still have violence by police. Black people are being killed so much. Some of them are really young," said Jonathan, whose organization advocates for disarming, dismantling and defunding the police.
'Never give up'
At its core, some activists say deeply embedded anti-Black racism is what needs to be rooted out.
"The unrest of '92 and the unrest of the pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter movement that erupted ... is part of this ongoing legacy that we have to reconcile," said Heather Infantry, a former member of the Black Action Defence Committee who now lives in the United States.
"And I think until we solve for anti-Blackness, then we will continue to perpetuate these tensions and these difficulties."
As for Farrell, he says he hopes what they fought for decades ago made a difference.
"I want to think that I'm not wrong in thinking that there has been a change in some of the policing," said Farrell.
"You have to keep going – even when you're tired …never give up. You redouble our efforts and never give up."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
With files from Kirthana Sasitharan