It took two weeks of protesting for Black Lives Matter Toronto to get a response from the government. Here's why they believe that wasn't good enough.
Yusra Khogali, Janaya Khan, Alexandria Williams, and other Black Lives Matter—Toronto organizers stand in a semi-circle facing Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne. Their brows are furrowed as she tells them she and her ministers are willing to meet with them.
"Why did it take you two weeks to respond to us?" Khogali interjects. "We've been outside in the cold, in the hail."
"Being brutalized by police," Khan adds.
Wynne has just come out of the legislature, flanked by several police officers, Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur, Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi, and Culture Minister Michael Coteau (whose job it is to oversee the province's new anti-racism directorate). Protesters have just finished a 15-day occupation of Toronto Police headquarters, demanding justice after the province's police watchdog opted not to press charges against the officer who shot and killed Andrew Loku, a 45-year-old black man, last summer.
The commitment to meeting is a victory of sorts, but Black Lives Matter Toronto organizers feel it shouldn't have taken a two-week protest to get the premier to commit to having a discussion on anti-black racism in Ontario. Organizers want the chance to discuss their demands with Wynne, Toronto mayor John Tory, and Toronto's police chief Mark Saunders, and they're committed to making sure that happens in an open forum.
Alexandria Williams is a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, and she says Wynne should have responded long before Monday. She explains that Wynne was well aware that protesters were demanding a meeting, especially after members of Black Lives Matter held a vigil outside of the premier's house last week.
"It's just clear ignorance," Williams says. "You were trying as hard as you could not to answer us. We had to show up at your job! It shouldn't have to get to that point."
It takes some minutes of protesters yelling "Face us!" on Monday to get Wynne to come out of Queen's Park. At first, she tells the co-founders that she did not have their contact information, and had not received a formal request for a meeting. They push back, questioning why she wouldn't meet then. Wynne then admits that there is anti-black racism in Ontario, and that it's an issue that needs to be addressed. (Which, predictably, made cops mad). In the end, she says she will meet with organizers "ASAP."
Tory and Chief Saunders have still not committed to a public meeting, though the mayor has offered to meet in private.
Before we get into that, some background: Black Lives Matter started its #BLMTOtentcity protest in Toronto on March 20, after the province's Special Investigations Unit (the organization that investigates police when they kill or injure civilians) decided not to charge the officer(s) who shot and killed Loku in July 2015. Loku was a black man who had mental health issues. Neighbors called police on him after he confronted them while holding a hammer. When police arrived, Loku was still holding the hammer. Within a minute, they shot him dead. The SIU ruled last month that the level of force used was justifiable. Now, protesters are fighting for accountability surrounding his death, and the death of Jermaine Carby, a black man killed by police in Brampton in 2014.
Black Lives Matter Toronto has made its demands clear from the beginning. They want the name(s) of the officer(s) who killed Loku to be released, and they want "an overhaul of the province's Special Investigations Unit, in consultations with families of victims of police violence and black communities." They also want a commitment to the elimination of carding.
"If you get a parking ticket," Williams says, "you see the officer in court. You have their name. They write it down on a piece of paper for you. But you can shoot a black man and not get any names at all? No. We're not asking for a lot. We're asking to be safe. And we won't stop until that's a reality."
As for the city's offer of a private meeting, Black Lives Matter Toronto cofounder Sandy Hudson says the group will continue to refuse that because it's not conducive to the community's needs.
"What's really going to solve the issues of racism in these policies is having a community involved in creating the policies themselves," she says. "We really just want to have an open, transparent discussion that should be provided in a democracy."
It's important for Hudson that the meetings be held publicly because many of the organizers behind Black Lives Matter Toronto are students and other young people, mostly women and trans folks. While they are an important segment of the community, they don't want to speak for others. Rather, they feel it's crucial for individual community members with different life experiences to have the chance to make themselves heard. Hudson doesn't want community members with legal experience, social work experience, or parents, for example, to be left out of these discussions.
"This is a public issue," she says. "It's an issue about public accountability and it's an issue about how community is really being affected by the lack of accountability. There's nothing that will be accomplished in a private meeting that politicians can't say in a public meeting.
"For something as important, as urgent as this issue, the community should have an opportunity to really shape what comes next. Because everything that's happened in the past has failed us."
As an example, Hudson cites the fact that when the police board issued a revised carding policy last year, it was watered down from the one created in private meetings between community stakeholders and the board.
For these reasons, she says, it would be irresponsible to accept any offer of a private meeting. Hudson points out that it is not unheard of for there to be wider-scale public meetings held to address issues affecting a large segment of the city, citing meetings about public transit service as an example. She doesn't see why the case shouldn't be the same for the issues Black Lives Matter wants to discuss.
"If they don't provide us with this public meeting, if they don't provide us with public accountability measures, then we need to expose the fact that we have a democracy problem."
Keerthana Kamalavasan is the mayor's senior communications advisor. She says Tory acknowledges that a conversation needs to be had.
"The mayor doesn't deny that these are serious issues. If any group feels mistrust in the police, that is a problem. We can't say it's not."
She said if the meeting is held privately, the two sides can speak more candidly and speak to media after, whereas if it's held publicly, "people will start making speeches."
Kamalavasan adds that she hopes that a motion passed last week in city council will bring protesters some comfort. That motion asks the province to review both police services in Toronto and Ontario's SIU through an anti-black racism lens.
But to activists, it seems that Tory doesn't care. Lali Mohamed is another activist who has spent many hours protesting outside of Toronto Police HQ. He says if Tory cared about the protesters' concerns and their call for police accountability, he would have come out to tent city and had a conversation with them.
"It's one thing to ignore the protest as a citizen, but what does the silence of the mayor say about how he regards black life and suffering?" he questions.
Indeed, Tory's recent response to an organizer's tweet shows just how little understanding he has of the issues at hand. Somehow, he's under the impression that the issue that needs to be discussed is that black men are apparently "underachieving in school, dropping out of school, and having trouble finding employment."
Police tell me Saunders offered to have a private meeting, as well. Police spokesperson Mark Pugash says that a public meeting wouldn't lead to "a serious discussion" or "tangibles." He told me over the phone that the presence of media doesn't lend itself to thoughtful discussion.
Williams says Pugash's claim is a lie, and that organizers were not offered any meeting with Saunders.
She, Hudson, and other organizers are confident that they will get what they came for. On Monday, they issued a 300-hour timeframe to the city, province, and police, asking them to commit to the requested meetings.
Black Lives Matter Toronto has disbanded its encampment at 40 College for the time being, but behind them, they left a black banner reading "You are on notice. Your anti-blackness has been exposed. We are not finished."
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