Update: This story has been updated to add comment from Toronto police.
Toronto police violently destroyed a homeless encampment in a city park, at times hitting and shoving protesters, pepper spraying them, and arresting 26 people.
Dozens of officers and security guards showed up to Lamport Stadium park in the city’s west end Wednesday morning to take down a homeless encampment with an estimated 14 to 17 people. Activists showed up and created a makeshift barrier of wood, plastic, and other materials.
Video footage shows police moving in on the demonstrators, ripping apart the barriers, and at times charging people, shoving them and dragging them on the ground.
In one video, police shove a group of people who’d linked arms in front of a tent, destroying the tent. Officers could be seen ripping apart some of the tents on site.
One photo shows an officer using the “knee-on-neck” hold to a person on the ground; last year, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, former Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders said the force does not use that tactic.
In a statement to VICE World News, Toronto police spokeswoman Connie Osborne said the photo was taken “during a dynamic response and captures one moment in time, but not any wider context.” She also said the officer’s knee was not on the person’s neck.
In response to one video showing cops violently picking someone up and using batons on people, one person tweeted that police gave them a concussion.
“The cops beat the shit out of me and threw my whole body on one final blow and knocked my head backwards onto a curb, giving me a concussion,” the person said.
In a news release, Toronto police said they arrested 26 people. They said their efforts to clear the crowds at the encampment were ignored and “the crowds became confrontational and hostile.” Police said they responded “proportionately and using minimal force. Objects were thrown at police, an officer was spat at, while an unknown noxious substance was also sprayed at police. As a result, three officers suffered injuries.”
Police also said they recovered a hatchet, knives, and syringes on site.
In a news release, the City of Toronto said two Lamport Stadium park encampment residents accepted referral to a shelter or hotel, five already had shelter spots, and three left of their own accord; one person declined an offer of permanent housing.
On Wednesday evening, a crowd gathered at a police station nearby and were pepper sprayed by police, video shows.
“I have been to many solidarity rallies at 14 (division) over the years and I have never witnessed the amount of violence on display today. Beating the shit out of ppl, pepper spraying, injuring ppl,” tweeted harm reduction worker Zoë Dodd.
Asked by a journalist if there was a better way to go about handling the situation, Toronto Police Staff Supt. Randy Carter said, “There is a better way, I guess. You just don't let them put a tent up. But we're not that type of city." Carter said police did a “tremendous job” handling the encampment.
On Thursday, Mayor John Tory defended the city and the police saying, “Yesterday the protesters decided they were going to have a confrontation with police and so they did… The result is what you see.”
Initially, the city was not going to allow any journalists on site, with one officer allegedly saying, “Imagine if someone posing as media came in here and stabbed a cop.” However, journalists were allowed in following an uproar from media, including an email sent to the city from the Toronto Star’s lawyer.
Osborne said she could not speak to the alleged comment about a fake journalist, but “the priority of our officers on site is ensuring the safety of those living in the encampment, those on site, the wider public and themselves.”
Police also claimed an officer was injured due to being sprayed with an “unknown substance.” However, a witness countered that claim, stating the officer accidentally sprayed himself. Osborne told VICE World News, “While I can’t speak to a specific person’s claims, I am aware that unknown liquids were also sprayed at officers and City staff during the enforcement. It was not solely one incident.”
Earlier in the week, the city and police dismantled an encampment at Alexandra Park in Toronto’s downtown; in June, a heavy contingent of police in riot gear and security guards took down two encampments at Trinity-Bellwoods Park.
Dodd noted that more than half of the Alexandra encampment residents were scattered with no place to go.
The city initially wanted the encampments dismantled in April. At the time, Simone Schmidt, a volunteer with the Encampment Support Network, told CBC News people were living in encampments because of COVID-19 outbreaks at shelters. She said some encampment residents did not want to move into shelter hotels that they’d be eventually removed from again, or settings that reminded them of being institutionalized.
The city says encampments are a fire hazard, and that it has opened 244 new affordable and supportive homes since December.
City council recently deferred making a decision to regulate rooming houses, a form of shared housing that’s dwindled in supply over the years.
Osborne said she wasn’t aware of complaints being filed about police conduct Wednesday but that anyone who “feels they were mistreated” can complain to the Office of the Independent Police Review Director.
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