The fight over the future of Toronto's taxi industry boiled over Wednesday, with cabbies forcing a meeting with the chief of police after a day of traffic-clogging protests and minor outbreaks of violence.
Demonstrators ejected from the chamber at City Hall swarmed onto Queen Street, taking over the intersection at Bay for hours and threatening to continue protests until they get action against the ride-hailing app UberX.
"We have no other way. What do you want us to do, die here?" Naveed Sahi, who has been driving four years, said at the blockade. "We can't go anywhere. We need justice. That's it, simple as that."
It was a sharp escalation of long-standing concerns in the taxi industry that UberX will destroy drivers' livelihood. The blockade, at one of the city's busiest intersections, was the culmination of a day that saw a bicycle police officer injured and an altercation that left a cabbie clinging to the side of an UberX car. There were numerous reports of emergency vehicles being slowed. Traffic was snarled for thousands of commuters.
The demonstrators on Queen said they wanted to remain peaceful and that no one should get hurt. But for some, frustration had turned into anger. And a few made it personal, targeting Mayor John Tory with obscene chants and suggesting sexual violence upon him.
The day of demonstrations put the mayor on the back foot. By the early evening, he had met with a protest representative and then announced that he had spoken with Police Chief Mark Saunders.
"At my request, [Chief Saunders] has agreed to meet [with] members of taxi industry," as long as they ended the protest by later in the evening, according to a message from the mayor's official Twitter account. After some arguments among the cabbies, they did leave the intersection by the deadline, though some vowed to renew the protest on Friday unless there is a crackdown on UberX drivers.
Police had ringed the blockade, but generally hung back. As the streetcars stacked up on Queen, the officers made an unsuccessful attempt to convince demonstrators to let those vehicles past. They did get an ambulance through, with the protesters helping wave it by.
As night fell, a few men knelt between the streetcar tracks, facing east for sundown prayers. But it was a moment of calm in a tense day for the industry and city.
The showdown began with a mass taxi demonstration Wednesday morning, as cabbies congregated at different spots and made their way downtown, sometimes driving unnecessarily slowly. The Queen Street blockade flared up shortly after Mr. Tory made an appeal for calm. In a hastily scheduled early afternoon news conference, the mayor said that it was time for the cabbies to stop their protest.
"The point has been made, the point has been made, it's been made with me," he told reporters. "But I think there's a point where just reason and civility says you've made your point, you don't need to block the Gardiner [Expressway] or University Avenue any more, you can stand down. I'm actually saying that I think we've reached that point right here, right now in the city."
Mr. Tory argued that the demonstration would do nothing to speed up the city's work toward new regulations intended to cover both traditional cabbies and Uber drivers. But the protesters were in no mood for patience.
"We followed the legal system, the justice system, how you're supposed to be doing it peacefully," Paul Sekhon, who was helping lead the demonstrators in their protest chants, said as evening fell. "We want that coward of a mayor … we want him to come here, explain what he's doing about all this."