There's a Riot Goin' On Down Yonge Street
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There’s a Riot Goin’ On Down Yonge Street

CityPulse riot coverage, May 5, 1992.

It began with a protest against the police shooting of a young, black man who was a suspected drug dealer and ended with rioting in the streets. Police backed off while youths smashed store windows. Among the root causes were simmering tensions with law enforcement, lack of socio-economic opportunities for youth, and criminal opportunism. Sound like the riots in England this week? This description could also summarize a much smaller incident that occurred here in Toronto two decades ago. Unlike the present situation across the Atlantic, the only flames Toronto saw on May 4, 1992, were those from a stray Molotov cocktail and from the fiery rhetoric spewing from riot participants and observers.

The riot’s timeline began around 4 p.m. when 500 protesters organized by the Black Defense Action Committee (BDAC) gathered outside the United States consulate on University Avenue. Though the location was chosen in light of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles that had broken out the week before, the main concern of those who assembled was perceived racism on the part of the Metro Toronto police force. Fresh on the minds of protesters was the shooting of 22-year-old Jamaican immigrant Raymond Lawrence two days earlier. According to the SIU report, Lawrence, who the police suspected of being a drug dealer, was chased on foot from the corner of Wallace and Lansdowne avenues until he was cornered in a carport on St. Clarens Avenue. Reportedly brandishing a knife, Lawrence was killed after police officers fired two shots at close range. He was the fourth black suspect killed in as many years. Following the Lawrence incident, Ontario Premier Bob Rae said that racism was a systemic problem that merited further investigation.

Front page, the Toronto Star, May 5, 1992.

The first sign of trouble happened around 4:30 p.m., when half-a-dozen white men showed up with shit-disturbing signs: “L.A. burns; TO next” and “We denounce racist murder of whites.” Protesters smashed the signs and carriers were arrested. Calm returned and the protest proceeded peacefully northward until it reached the corner of Yonge and Bloor streets, which became the site of a 45-minute sit-in.
As the protest headed down Yonge Street toward City Hall, the crowd swelled with street youth and teens who, according to social workers and teachers interviewed later, heard via the grapevine that there was an opportunity to go wild as they had on New Year’s Eve and following the closure of the previous year’s CNE. The new additions tossed an egg here, a rock there, targeting police and storefronts. Around 6:45 p.m., the crowd, now 1,000 strong, attempted to enter City Hall but was blocked by mounted police.
The crowd headed back north along Yonge and spent the next few hours in a destructive mood, as a diverse crowd of youths tipped hot dog carts, smashed windows, and looted storefronts. Police were instructed not to intervene unless people appeared to be in danger of physical harm. Many of the original protesters either left the scene in disgust or urged rioters to go home. An attempt by half-a-dozen bandana-clad white youths to steal shotguns from a sporting goods store was met with resistance from other demonstrators. The same group, or another with similar taste in facial scarves, caused plenty of trouble on Charles Street when they attacked a middle-aged white man who didn’t know when to stop arguing with a black youth over how the day’s events would damage the black community, then attacked a Globe and Mail reporter, and then got into a fistfight with other onlookers.
By 10 p.m., police formed a wall along St. Mary Street at Bay. A lingering group of rioters headed toward Yonge and Yorkville, where they were finally dispersed, but not before somebody tossed a Molotov cocktail into the middle of the crowd (luckily it didn’t seriously injure anyone). When the night was over, 30 people were arrested, mostly on disorderly conduct charges. Around 37 police officers and three police horses were injured, and 100 storefronts were damaged.
Globe and Mail columnist Michael Valpy compared the reaction after the riot to a “ritualistic dance” involving three troupes: black activists who suspected racism if criminal charges weren’t laid against police officers who shot a black suspect; pro-law-enforcement press (the Sun) and supporters who attended “Cops are Tops” rallies and decried any allegations against officers as “police bashing”; and the police themselves, who noted how they put their lives on the line. As Valpy wrote, “Each time the dance is danced, attitudes are further set in concrete; scar tissue is further thickened.”
The dancers played their parts as Valpy expected. BDAC leaders like Dudley Laws refused to accept any responsibility for the chaos that ensued. “It’s the anger of people, the frustration, the injustices that have been meted out to the black community is why people are out there breaking windows,” Laws noted. Predictably, the Sun lashed out against protest organizers, Premier Bob Rae and other provincial officials (or, as columnist Bob MacDonald termed them, a “limp-wristed bunch of socialists”), and anyone else who found “new ways to suck up to the latest and loudest special interest group to complain about the rest of us,” or dared suggest police had made past mistakes. The paper kept repeating that the incident caused Toronto to lose its innocence. As for the police, Chief William McCormack felt the force had done well under the circumstances and indicated that if any further violence broke out, officers wouldn’t stand idle. Both McCormack and Rae agreed that the violence was not due to the initial protesters and their concerns about racism and police actions but “hooligans” who attached themselves to the march as an excuse to go wild. Both men also indicated they would support measures to improve education, social support, and economic opportunities for low-income youth, especially in the black community.

Front page, the Toronto Sun, May 5, 1992.

Missing in action was Mayor June Rowlands, which seemed surprising given she campaigned months earlier on a “law-and-order” ticket and had served as chair of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Commission. During the standoff in front of City Hall, a council meeting was on dinner break. Despite suggestions from several councillors to end the meeting, Rowlands insisted on continuing due to “a lot of important business to conduct.” Thus, debate about parking fees and city planning took precedence over the chaos nearby. Not a peep was heard out of Rowlands until she emerged from a meeting with black community leaders not associated with the BDAC the following afternoon, and even then she made only vague comments about troubled youths, claiming she still didn’t know all the details (a point that prompted Sun columnist Christie Blatchford to remark, “I guess her television is broken.”). The mayor’s advice to the public was to call on “every Torontonian today to do their bit to promote understanding.” Commentators of every political stripe criticized the mayor for her seeming lack of action.
In the fallout from the riot, another rally organized by the BDAC planned for the Ontario Attorney-General’s office on May 7 was moved to Queen’s Park to avoid causing further damage to downtown stores. Though there were scattered incidents over the next few days and anger remained high, calm returned to the core. Rae quickly appointed Stephen Lewis as a special advisor on race relations; Lewis reported a month later that blacks faced much discrimination and great anxiety about education, employment, and confrontations with the criminal system.
Could another riot happen here? Yesterday, the Star’s Christopher Hume speculated on the possibility of a London-style situation in Toronto. Despite a pool of disaffected youth that “does not bode well for the future of Toronto,” Hume felt there were enough differences in elements like housing and the design of neighbourhoods that work against sections of the city going up in flames. Hume theorized any incidents would happen downtown, most likely as the result of the Maple Leafs making the playoffs. But the tensions that caused the 1992 riot remain and given the world economic climate these days, who’s to say a seemingly minor incident won’t prompt people to run amok?
Additional material from the May 5, 1992, May 6, 1992, and May 7, 1992, editions of the Globe and Mail; the May 18, 1992, edition of Macleans; the May 5, 1992, and May 6, 1992, editions of the Toronto Star; and the the May 5, 1992, May 6, 1992, and May 10, 1992, editions of the Toronto Sun.