Several people were arrested in Toronto, amid hundreds who gathered to protest a debate between former White House strategist Steve Bannon and conservative commentator David Frum on the role of populism in the future of Western politics.
A chaotic scene unfolded outside Roy Thomson Hall in downtown Toronto, where thousands were expected to attend the demonstration, organized by a coalition of groups, including anti-poverty activists and advocates for immigrants and refugees. Some protesters heckled those who were waiting in line to enter the event, yelling “Nazi” and “Shame on you.”
By the time the debate was set to begin, two rows of police officers stood between protesters and ticket-holders, delaying the start of the debate. Videos circulating online showed police swinging batons and charging at protesters who approached the barrier. There were also reports of officers using pepper spray.
“[Bannon] hates Jews. He hates Blacks. He hates you because of the person you live with, whether you are a lesbian or gay,” Nigel Barriffe, president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, said into a microphone. “He should be ashamed and he should never have platform in our great city.”
While the event was sold out, with 2,800 ticket-holders, the venue was a just half-full by the time the 90-minute event started, according to those who were inside.
The Munk Debates announced the event with Bannon, former chief strategist for US President Donald Trump and former executive chairman of far-right website Breitbart News, just days after he was disinvited from the New Yorker Festival following public backlash and a number of other speakers announcing that they would drop out if he was allowed to participate.
Many of those who were inside the event were also vocal about their opposition to Bannon, who was instrumental in getting Trump into office and who has described Breitbart as “the platform of the alt-right.” Bannon has been criticized for propagating racist and anti-Semitic views, although he insists that he doesn’t hold any.
During the debate, the crowd repeatedly dismissed Bannon’s remarks — that Trump is not an Islamophobe because his first overseas trip was to Saudi Arabia, for example — with mocking laughter and groans.
`It’s not a question of whether populism is on the rise and whether populism is going to be the political future,’’ Bannon said in his opening remarks. ``The only question before us is it going to be populist nationalism or populist socialism.’’
Meanwhile, Frum’s comments, especially when he was critical of Trump, were largely met with cheers and applause.
“Does the kind of politics that Steve Bannon is speaking for and President Trump articulates, does that politics offer me anything?” Frum said, accusing Bannon of promoting a version of populism that he described as a “scam.”
Much of the backlash outside the venue was also directed at the organizers of the debate. One protester held a sign that read, “Munk Debates: Steve Bannon and David Frum to debate whether hate crimes are better than war crimes.”
The organization behind the debates — the Aurea Foundation, founded by former Barrick Gold CEO Peter Munk — gives millions of dollars to right-wing think tanks in Canada.
In a statement earlier this week, Munk Debates Chair Rudyard Griffiths defended the decision to host the speakers, saying, “We believe we are providing a public service by allowing their ideas to be vigorously contested and letting the public draw their own conclusions from the debate.”