Thousands take to Toronto streets to protest anti-black racism, police brutality

Thousands of people took to Toronto streets in separate events to protest anti-black racism and police brutality on Saturday.

'It's 2020 and we need to be doing better,' says mother protesting for 1st time

Hundreds take a knee in Nathan Phillips Square to protest anti-black racism. The protest is one of two in Toronto on Saturday. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

Thousands of people took to Toronto streets in separate events to protest anti-black racism and police brutality on Saturday.

The first protest began at Nathan Phillips Square outside city hall and involved a march to Yonge-Dundas Square. The second began later at Trinity Bellwoods Park, a popular park in the city's west end, and involved a march to the Ontario legislature. After speeches at both destinations, the protests continued.

Twanna Lewis, a Toronto resident at Trinity Bellwoods Park, said she was protesting for the first time on Saturday because she felt the need to take a stand for people who are voiceless. She has an 18-year-old black son, cousins, uncles and a brother.

"It's 2020 and we need to be doing better," Lewis told CBC Toronto. "It's a shame that we have to be having this conversation in this day and age, when we think that we have gone so far."

Thousands marched from Trinity Bellwoods Park on Saturday against racism and police brutality. (Evan Tsuyoshi Mitsui/CBC)

At Nathan Phillips Square, demonstrators chanted, held placards and posters, and listened to speakers. From there, the protesters marched on University Avenue to the U.S. consulate, where they took a knee with police officers

The gesture was in honour of George Floyd, a black man who died 12 days ago, while he was pinned under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis. His death has prompted protests around the world.

"Black Lives Matter," the crowd chanted at one point at Nathan Phillips Square.

People held up signs that read "No Justice No Peace" and "Yes it's here too Ford."

Demonstrators hold up signs at an anti-black racism protest in Toronto. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

Toronto Police Insp. Matt Moyer, who took a knee alongside a protester at the U.S. Consulate, said: "It's just really great to see it in such a peaceful manner. It carries so much weight. The message has always been: 'What you want, we want.'

"I want them to know I'm walking with them and I support their cause and I support exactly what they're doing. And I think the fact that they're showing such a demonstration for change, it's what we want," Moyer said.

"These aren't protesters. They are ambassadors of peace. And we want to be part of that ambassador movement. This is a message I take to my family. This is a message I take to my kids. I'm very, very proud and honoured to be a part of this today. Thank you for involving us. This doesn't end today."

An anti-black racism protester speaks to a crowd at Yonge-Dundas Square. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

The crowd then headed along Dundas Avenue West to Yonge-Dundas Square.

Demonstrators at Trinity Bellwoods Park marched from the park through the city to the south lawn of the Ontario legislature. Along the way, they stopped in front of Toronto Police headquarters on College Street, where they also took a knee. They also chanted: "No justice no peace."

Lewis said the racism she has seen in Canada has been more subtle than it has been lately in the U.S.

"It's been very emotional with all the things happening on the news. There's a combination of sadness, of empathy, of rage. And it feels as if it is coming close to home to me. I have never been much of an activist in this kind of way, but I felt it was necessary to do this today," Lewis said.

"I have not had encounters with police that have been negative. But the very subtle, very obscure acts of racism, they cut sometimes even deeper than when it is in your face and very obvious."

Twanna Lewis, a Toronto resident at Trinity Bellwoods Park, said she was protesting for the first time on Saturday because she felt the need to take a stand for people who are voiceless. 'It's 2020 and we need to be doing better. It's a shame that we have to be having this conversation in this day and age, when we think that we have gone so far.' (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

Man arrested after appearing at protest in blackface

A man who appeared at Nathan Phillips Square at the start of the protest wearing blackface was escorted out of the public square by Toronto police officers. 

Const. Edward Parks, spokesperson for the Toronto Police Service, said the man was arrested for allegedly breaching the peace and will be charged.

  • Update: On Tuesday, the 28-year-old man was charged with causing a disturbance.

Parks noted that Friday's protest, in which thousands of people marched in downtown streets, was peaceful.

"Yesterday, it was a peaceful protest and it was great," Parks said.

CBC Toronto also asked police about a video circulating on social media that shows two police officers gathering rocks and placing them on the street near Queen Street West and University Avenue on the protest route on Friday.

On the video, the person filming what's happening is heard saying: "That's not cleaning up. You are putting rocks there on purpose!"

Parks said that wasn't the case.

"The officers were detailed to check the protest route to ensure that there were any items that could be used for objects to hurt or harm individuals or to destroy property," he said.

"We wanted to ensure that the protesters, onlookers and the officers were safe. So these two special constables were detailed to check the area.

"At such point in time, they located several rocks and those rocks were put into a pile, at which time a phone call would be made to our city works department to have those rocks in turn picked up from the area." 

The video continues to show the officers, who are on bicycles, and the man who questioned them putting the rocks in a trash can, and bystanders are enlisted to help. During the exchange, police said city workers were supposed to pick the rocks up.

City spokesperson Brad Ross said the city received reports from 311 of bricks and rocks being left on streets and staff went to pick them up. "At most locations, materials were found to be related to nearby construction sites," Ross said. 

An anti-racism demonstrator holds up a sign that reads "It could've been me!" as they hold their fist in the air. (Evan Tsuyoshi Mitsui/CBC)

Black Lives Matter, an advocacy group, said in a tweet that it is not involved in the organizing of the protests and marches this weekend.

Protests have prompted city to focus on racism, mayor says

Earlier on Saturday, Toronto Mayor John Tory said recent protests in the city have helped to focus the city's attention on the problem of anti-black racism.

Protesters repeat slogans and hold signs in front of police at Nathan Phillips Square. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

Tory told reporters that the city is aware that it has to take "practical, concrete" measures to improve the lives of black people in Toronto.

"Step by step, issue by issue, measure by measure, we are going to deal with an issue that took a long time — really, it has bedevilled us forever — but to fix it is going to take time. But I think we have to reinforce our determination to do that through concrete actions," Tory said.

"The protests we've seen, which thank goodness have been peaceful, have helped us in that regard, because it has focused our attention on something we have to focus on every single day especially in this city."

Asked if he would go to the one of the protests, Tory said: "I haven't ruled out attending and I certainly would be quite prepared to take a knee."

On Friday, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders took a knee with protesters and held up a fist in solidarity to show his respect for the cause that they represent.

Tory noted that the city created a Confronting Anti-Black Racism Unit to acknowledge that such racism exists in the city, affecting the lives of thousands of people, and to develop solutions to eradicate it.

Eaton Centre closed, stores boarded up downtown

Toronto's Eaton Centre, meanwhile, said it is closed Saturday and Sunday as a "number of large gatherings" are planned in the city this weekend. The shopping mall said it will reopen on Monday.

"Thank you for your understanding, cooperation and please stay safe," the Eaton Centre said in a message on its website.

Retail stores on sections of Bloor and Yonge streets, as well as around the Eaton Centre at Yonge and Dundas streets, had fixed boards in place around their buildings in advance of the protests.

With files from Lorenda Reddekopp, Natalie Nanowski, Muriel Draaisma