As activists from the group Black Lives Matter Toronto led a march through the city’s Little Jamaica neighbourhood, people came out of their homes and businesses to join their ranks. In the same neighbourhood, less than a month earlier, Andrew Loku, a man from South Sudan who may have had mental health issues, was shot and killed in his apartment building by a Toronto police officer.
When their Eglinton Avenue march reached the busy Allen Expressway, protesters spilled onto the street, linking arms to block traffic in both directions before moving to the southbound ramp. They stopped traffic in that direction for two hours, some standing together to make a human barrier, others spreading out to sit on the road. They sat for Mr. Loku, killed in his home nearby. They sat for Jermaine Carby, shot dead during a traffic stop in Brampton, Ont., last September. They sat for all the black lives that have been affected by what they say is state-sanctioned violence.
Monday’s protest came after several recent incidents that have the activists calling for immediate change – in addition to the shooting of Mr. Loku, Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit announced last week that no charges would be laid against the Peel Regional Police officer who shot Mr. Carby. The activists say the anger in the city’s black communities has reached a tipping point.
As she sat among the protesters on the pavement Monday evening, Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder Sandy Hudson, 29, started getting text messages saying that Mayor John Tory had committed in a TV interview to meeting with them. It signalled a potential victory for the group, which made its debut in Toronto in 2014 with a vigil and has recently escalated its tactics to interrupting a Toronto Police Services Board meeting, sending specific demands for immediate action to Mr. Tory, and now, blocking a major road.
The group’s demands include a public apology from Toronto’s mayor and chief of police to Mr. Loku’s family, charges laid against the officer who shot Mr. Loku and the release of the officer’s name. They also want Mr. Loku’s funeral to be funded by the city.
“It’s really important to understand the collective rage that black folks in this city are experiencing,” says Rodney Diverlus, 25, another of the group’s co-founders. “We were very clear to [Toronto Police] Chief [Mark] Saunders and Mayor Tory that we had specific demands, and we had a timeline for them because they were urgent – because families needed answers, because people were dying. Those demands were not met.”
A spokesperson from the mayor’s office confirmed Thursday that it is in the process of arranging the meeting, but a date has not yet been set.
“That is also a huge piece of why Monday’s action was so important,” Ms. Hudson says. “Politicians who have been trying to ignore us couldn’t ignore us after that.”
Black Lives Matter Toronto took off late in 2014, but the larger movement in the United States traces its roots to the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida. Protests escalated in response to African-Americans being killed by police in 2014, including 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was shot in Ferguson, Mo. The announcement of the decision not to indict the police officer who killed Mr. Brown, Ms. Hudson says, spurred the sense that “something had to be done.”
But searching for groups organizing any specific action in Toronto turned up nothing, so Ms. Hudson started reaching out to other activists to organize a vigil herself. The event drew thousands of people.
“The turnout for that vigil was higher than we could ever imagine,” she says. “We knew from that point there was a need for something like this in the city.”
The Toronto group is the only official Black Lives Matter chapter in Canada, with a small core of organizers and a larger circle of supporters. A group is also emerging in Ottawa, and actions have been organized under the Black Lives Matter banner in other Canadian cities. Mr. Diverlus says all the chapters share a set of core beliefs, and they frequently communicate and organize with chapters in the United States, and even some in other countries. They see themselves as a network connected to other anti-racism groups to share resources and offer support.
The movement is part of a push for change with a long history, the activists say – the fight against racism isn’t new in Toronto, and they’re simply continuing the momentum.
“Black Lives Matter is a call to action, but it’s a call to action on an issue that’s existed since I’ve lived, since I’ve been born, and generations and generations before,” Mr. Diverlus says.
Desmond Cole is a Toronto writer who has been a vocal critic of the practice of carding, where police stop people and take their information even if they are not suspected of a crime. He also met with Mr. Tory after the discussion around carding “blew up” when Mr. Cole published an article about his personal experiences being stopped and carded as a black man. Mr. Cole says that meeting was behind closed doors, and he hopes Black Lives Matter Toronto members can arrange a public sit-down with the mayor.
Mr. Cole, who often speaks at Black Lives Matter events but is not an organizer in the Toronto chapter, also responded to online criticism after Monday’s protest, with some saying the action on the Allen Expressway undermined support for the group.
“It’s very unfortunate that we as the black community are left to fend for ourselves because no one will stand with us, but then it’s like, ‘You did your tactics wrong, you did your protest wrong,’” Mr. Cole says. “Black people in Toronto will continue fighting for justice because it’s the right thing to do, whether or not the rest of the city gets on board.”
While the movement began in the U.S., Mr. Cole says it’s time to “get beyond our very Canadian ‘but I thought we were the good guys’ attitude” and face the realities of how black communities in the country are affected by systemic racism.
Black Lives Matter Toronto activists say the energy the movement has already amassed in eight months keeps pushing them forward – and they plan to keep the pressure on.
“If we don’t see action,” Ms. Hudson says, “we’re definitely going to be taking action.”Report Typo/Error