Anti-black racism protesters fill streets at Toronto rally

Toronto’s mayor and police chief both say they are hoping for peaceful protests this weekend, with a number of anti-racism demonstrations planned around the GTA.

Some retailers boarded up buildings in advance of protests planned for this weekend

Thousands of people took part in an anti-racism protest in downtown Toronto Friday. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Thousands of people took to the streets of downtown Toronto Friday to protest against anti-black racism.

Delsin Aventus, one of the organizers of the rally, told CBC Toronto that protesters hope to create dialogue between the community and civic leaders about issues of racism and violence.

"Today started as a march in solidarity both with lives lost both to racism and unfortunately some to police," he said.

Aaron Morgan and Erica Johnson, who both identify as biracial, stepped away from the march to speak with CBC News.

"People like us are basically fighting for equality and we want to be seen and heard," Morgan said.

Johnson said it's important the voices of racialized people aren't shut down. 

"This is a fight that has been going on for years and generations," Johnson said, adding that needs to end "right now, right here."

Demonstrators march in downtown Toronto to protest anti-Black racism. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Police Chief Mark Saunders, meanwhile, told reporters that he spoke with the protesters, and thanked them for being there.

"I said, 'Look, you're trying to keep a message alive, it's important, the message is the right message,'" he said. Saunders could be seen on one knee with protesters, though some have criticized police officers kneeling with demonstrators as ringing hollow, considering reports of police violence at protests in recent days.

Protesters could be heard asking Saunders to take a knee and put his hand up before he kneeled with them.

WATCH | Toronto's police chief meets with protesters

Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders takes a knee with anti-Black racism demonstrators

2 years ago
Duration 1:37
Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders briefly spoke with demonstrators Friday.

He also added that there would undoubtedly be some people who are heading out to protest with a "negative message." Retailers on sections of Bloor and Yonge streets, as well as around the Eaton Centre and other areas downtown, had fixed boards in place around their buildings in advance of the protests.

Saunders said anyone causing trouble should be handled by police.

"Right now, it's about getting this right. It's about trust, accountability, it's about saving lives. So anything that moves toward that is a good day in our city," he said.

As the protest wound through city streets, the crowd stopped near the intersection of Bloor and Yonge to sing happy birthday to Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician from Kentucky who was shot eight times by narcotics detectives who knocked down her front door in March. Today would have been her 27th birthday.

Mayor John Tory said he would "without hesitation," also kneel with protesters if asked.

At a news conference Friday afternoon, Tory said  his words and the actions he's undertaken as recently as this week, indicate his profound, personal commitment to do more to combat anti-black racism, Indigenous racism and racism of all kinds.

"It is not who we are, it is not what we are as a city and I will continue to do that I have been doing for some considerable period of time now," he added.

Tory said earlier he is hoping for peaceful protests this weekend, with a number of anti-racism demonstrations planned around the GTA.

Tory appeared on CBC Radio's Metro Morning Friday, noting that a large-scale protest that happened in the city last weekend went off largely without any violence.

"I hope the same will be true of the protests that are planned for today and tomorrow," Tory said, adding that he hopes for a "made in Toronto" sort of rally.

"I'm listening very carefully to what the people are saying,' Tory said.

Demonstrators went down Yonge Street Friday. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Premier Doug Ford echoed that sentiment at a press conference Friday, saying he encouraged peaceful and safe protests.

"But I emphasise the word peaceful," Ford said.

He also commented on the police chief kneeling with protesters.

"I have a great deal of respect for Chief Saunders. [He's] showing incredible leadership," Ford said.

"I saw the picture, man, that was impactful. That's what you call true leadership, what the chief did."

Friday's march comes after thousands of people took part in a rally downtown last Saturday to protest racism around the world and to demand answers in the death of 29-year-old Toronto resident Regis Korchinski-Paquet

Protests have also been raging across the United States and other parts of the world following high-profile incidents like the death of George Floyd and violence at demonstrations.

Saunders also acknowledged Thursday that police have work to do with people in Toronto's black community.

"We as members of the Toronto Police Service are also grieving at the recent events, but we are hoping that as a community, we can all continue to work together," he said. "We will listen, we will continue — through words and actions — to help restore any public trust that is fractured, especially when it comes to anti-black racism," he said.

Posts over concerns about the protests have also been circulating on social media.

Black Lives Matter Toronto tweeted Friday morning that it has no involvement in any marches or actions this weekend.

"We believe in Black people mourning, grieving, and protesting however works for them & hope everyone look out & care for each other," the group said.

Aventus said organizers have had "dialogue with certain individuals from Black Lives Matter" as well as other black groups and initiatives.

"Whether or not these organizations choose to endorse us, we're simply here to make ours and the community's voices heard through peace," he said.

Continue to practise physical distancing, expert warns

At this afternoon's news conference, Dr. Eileen de Villa, the city's medical officer of health, said even as people protest this weekend, it's still important that they continue to put in practise the public health advice the city has been providing, including physical distancing.

"Things that can be done in the context of protests to try to minimize risk [include] using things like drums or signs rather than shouting so as to minimize the spread of droplets from your mouth as you speak or shout," de Villa said.

"If for some reason you are not able to maintain physical distancing, we would encourage people to use a face mask or covering."

She said there are also virtual options that are available in terms of participating in protests and making sure that people are able to express their views and partake in the democratic process.