Yesterday afternoon, a group named AlwaysQuestion organized a “day of action” protesting a fee increase for New College residence students at the University of Toronto. The day was to end with a sit-in at Simcoe Hall intended to garner the group a meeting with U of T President David Naylor, to get “the proposed fee increase removed from the University Affairs Board meeting,” and to get fifteen minutes at that meeting for a “presentation and discussion on broader issues of access to education and the impacts of high tuition.” Instead, the day ended with two different narratives: one, from the protestors, of “police brutality”; and the other, from the university, of harassment and provocation on the part of the protestors.
Protestors began moving into Simcoe Hall at about 2 p.m. Campus police were already in the building by the time the protestors arrived, and had issued orders to all those in the building to stay inside their rooms and to lock their doors for their safety. At about 3:00 p.m., employees started leaving Simcoe Hall at the end of their workday, some escorted out by campus police. At about that time, members of AlwaysQuestion’s Facebook event listing received messages that read: “we [the students] have occupied Simcoe Hall and refuse to leave until our demands are met.”
Only at around 5:30, however, as senior administrators (and others) who had stayed in the building to finish work left, did the protest come to a head. According to Robert Steiner (U of T’s Assistant Vice-President for Strategic Communications), the protestors at Simcoe Hall were “belligerent” and “highly provocative,” some trying to grab the legs of people leaving the building; another U of T staff person who wishes to remain anonymous told Torontoist that “they were screaming at employees.” Not long after, with the building mostly empty, the sit-in was broken up by campus police, and the video above was recorded by AlwaysQuestion. Titled “Police Brutality at University of Toronto,” it was linked in an AlwaysQuestion press release sent to Torontoist this morning by Ryan Hayes, President of the Arts and Science Students’ Union. The release declares that “police violence [was] used to force students out” of the hall, and that “police aggressively grabbed students and dragged them away from the entrance of the office. The students feared for their safety and after four hours in the building, the police violence forced the students to leave.”
Steiner takes issue with both the motives for the sit-in and the course it took. While AlwaysQuestion’s literature says that the fee increase was 20% (and necessitated by New College’s six million dollar debt after the construction of a new residence building at 45 Wilcocks Street), Steiner says that the increase would be more like 10%, would put New College’s costs on par with other colleges (its current “financial model was not sustainable”), and was agreed upon after a services review that had student consultation. According to many witnesses, the demonstrations that went on outside Simcoe and across campus on Friday until the sit-in started seemed to be for a variety of causes (from abandoning the war in Afghanistan to Palestinian solidarity to abolishing tuition fees to protesting Second Cup coffee), rather than for the one that AlwaysQuestion advocated before the protest began. The campus police, Steiner said, are tasked with protecting the safety of the people on campus—protestors and staff alike. Indeed, the video sent to Torontoist by AlwaysQuestion doesn’t appear to show violence or police brutality (or the threat of violence or police brutality); instead, it shows protestors screaming and angrily chanting “shame on you!” as officers stand their ground.
Yesterday, the New College Student Council (or NCSC)—one of the organizations linked by AlwaysQuestion with the protests—issued a statement renouncing any association with or support of the group. That statement explained that while the NCSC had in February endorsed AlwaysQuestion’s campaign against increased residence fees, “At no time did AlwaysQuestion indicate that the rally would a sit-in at Simcoe Hall and make other demands that are un-related to the New College student community. In no way, form or fashion did AlwaysQuestion elicit NCSC endorsement for any other issues.” The NCSC, citing AlwaysQuestion’s “misrepresentation of their purpose,” announced that they “disavow all ties to this organisation” and that they withdraw their support “for any and all actions and demands made by AlwaysQuestion.”
Instead of being representative of the attitude between students and the university, Steiner says, what happened yesterday was “a relatively small number of people with loud voices screaming.” Such a “provocation,” Steiner says, “bypasses the legitimate and deeply-entrenched representation” that students on campus have at every level of the university’s operations. “Students didn’t need to do this,” Steiner told Torontoist, “to get the attention of the administration.”
David Topping is a student at the University of Toronto.