BLM tent city: a retrospective
On March 18, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) ruled that the Toronto police officer who shot Andrew Loku had used “reasonable force” and would not face a trial. Loku, a 45-year-old Sudanese refugee with a history of mental health issues, was killed last July, allegedly for making threats and failing to drop a hammer. Robin Hicks, a witness to the killing, noted that the officer didn’t seem to try to de-escalate the situation, saying, “I don’t even know if Andrew even had time to drop the hammer.”
On March 20, enraged by Loku’s death, Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) set up a tent city at Nathan Phillips Square to protest recent manifestations of anti-black racism ranging from “the erasure of another Black community festival in Toronto, to the slaying two Black community members.” When forced to relocate, the group moved their tent city to Toronto Police’s Headquarters.
Toronto Police Headquarters, a striking post-modern behemoth of a building located just west of downtown Yonge Street, served as a perfect location for the tent city. Protesters from various factions covered the station’s granite pillars with posters, often hand-drawn, proclaiming support for the tent city.
The posters seemingly came from all sorts of sources. They were not the product of one ideological vision per se, but they nonetheless formed a cohesive unit. Some posters called for justice for Andrew Loku and Jermaine Carby (who was shot without explanation by police in Brampton in 2014), while others offered further analysis—one pillar featured the writing of Fred Hampton, a Black Panther activist, killed in an FBI-linked Chicago police raid in 1921. Printed internet memes of Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders were also on display with captions like “First black police chief … to act like all the white ones.”
Many guests to the tent city came with posters proclaiming solidarity “with Black Lives Matter,” signed with the names of individuals, organizations, and ethno-religious identities. Other slogans got more specific. A poster labeled “Desi Solidarity with Black Lives Matter” bemoaned how (presumably white) Westerners simultaneously undervalue black and brown lives, citing the recent Lahore attacks (that went relatively unnoticed compared to the ones in Brussels).
There were also signs supporting the “We Believe Survivors” campaign. Following the not-guilty verdict in the recent Jian Ghomeshi trial, a “We Believe Survivors March” joined the tent city at the headquarters, filling the space. The aligned movements were then addressed by speakers who criticized sexism, racism, and intersectional oppression in the Canadian justice system.
Poster-filled pillars were not the only form of protest-architecture on display at the tent city. When the group first tried to set up tents and a fire for warmth, these supplies were confiscated by police who claimed they made the protest illegal. Following this altercation, which some activists have recounted as overly forceful, a mess of tar and broken wood was left behind. Protestors were quick to clean up the debris, covering what they couldn’t clean with a sign that read “police made this mess.”
In the centre of the paper-covered pillars stands a statue: a pile of bricks being set by a metal bricklayer. This too was central to the campaign’s visuals. The bricklayer was given a flag that read “Black Lives Matter” and was plastered in signs. The bricks served as a platform for speakers, including First Nations activists who brandished flags of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Mohawk Warrior Society, and the Two Row wampum. BLMTO activists emphasized that their protest was on stolen land, and sought to combine calls for justice for black and First Nations’ peoples in their rhetoric.
The protests reached their apex on Monday, when protesters marched to Queen’s Park and demanded that Kathleen Wynne come out. Wynne did eventually appear and promised to work with the group and evaluate the SIU, though she did not respond to some specific demands, including the call for the officers who shot Loku and Carby to be named.
Following the march to Queen’s Park the protest ended. BLMTO’s organizing has by no means ceased—organizers have issued Wynne, Mayor John Tory, and Police Chief Mark Saunders a 12-hour deadline to meet with them.