Black Lives Matter protesters are vowing to hold their ground outside of Toronto police headquarters, after a tense scene Monday night that ended with each side accusing the other of violence.
The first major interaction between the police and protesters happened at approximately 9 pm, when a few dozen officers emerged from headquarters, and shoved their way through a crowd to dismantle tents and put out a bonfire that had been keeping protesters warm.
Black Lives Matter had set up camp in opposition to a recent decision by Ontario's Special Investigations Unit (SIU) not to charge an officer who fatally shot Andrew Loku, a mentally ill black man who was wielding a hammer in a rooming house last summer. The SIU found no wrongdoing and has declined to release the names of the officers in involved.
A number of protesters and bystanders reported aggression by the police on social media — including allegations of a woman who was thrown to the ground and a number of others who were hit in the face. There were also accounts of police who had their hands on their guns and that protesters were being pushed close to a makeshift bonfire they had built.
An hour later, the police returned with a few individuals in protective suits and face masks in order to pour a chemical retardant on the remaining firewood. Protesters yelled in defiance but were met with shoving when some of them tried to stop the police from dousing the wood.
One woman, who only wanted to be identified as Loveleen, told VICE News that she was grabbed by an officer in a white bicycle helmet and thrown backwards in the scuffle. Video footage of the incident was captured by VICE News.
"The fact of that matter is that they don't give a fuck about our lives. That's what they said to us tonight," said Alexandria Williams, co-founder of BLM Toronto.
"There were kids here! There was literally a little boy laying in one of those sleeping bags and coloring. Out of nowhere these cops come with no warning, no regard for our safety or our concerns. How else are supposed to react than with fear and anger?"
Protesters said the fire department had told them the fire was okay, as long as they kept the flames low, but a Toronto police spokesman said that was not the case and that officers were merely enforcing the law.
"You are not allowed by law to have a fire there or to have tents," said Mark Pugash, a spokesman for Toronto police. He said police told the protesters that both were illegal and would be removed. "They gave them notice," said Pugash, who maintained officers used "the minimum force necessary" to resolve the situation.
"What you had was demonstrators obstructing police, and then police are entitled to move people. I saw people in the crowd throwing punches at police officers, I saw police officers moving people who were obstructing them or preventing them from doing their job. A lot of the rhetoric on social media was so over the top that I think anybody who looked at it would say it didn't happen," said Pugash.
Toronto police chief Mark Saunders told VICE News that if the protesters have a complaint about what transpired, they can file one.
"There's a process system for complaints," he said.
Public scrutiny of policing in Toronto has been increasing recently due to issues such as carding and police killings like that of Sammy Yatim, a young man who was shot to death on a streetcar in 2013.
The topics have made room for the discussion around how racial profiling and discriminatory policing play into each other.
The original protest and vigil was held at Nathan Phillips Square on Sunday, but ended when police officers arrived and demanded protesters leave over trespassing.
Protesters began occupying the square in front of police headquarters on College Street early Monday morning, setting up tents, sleeping bags, and a bonfire for warmth. Mohawk people were also in attendance, waving the flag of the Mohawk nation in a show of support.
Williams said the group had not experienced any real pushback from authorities until it got dark, but said that she suspects it isn't over.
"I don't believe they'll let us stay," she said. "After what already happened, I believe it will happen again. But that doesn't mean we're just going to lie down and take it. We're here and we're staying on our own will."
In the past, BLM TO has performed a number of high-profile acts of protesting, including shutting down a vital road around rush hour last year and storming a police board meeting to demand reform for how the police deal with racialized people and/or those with mental health issues.
Williams said protesters plan to stay until they are removed by the police or their "demands are heard."