Toronto. Ontario. On May 30, a few days after Regis Korchinski-Paquet was killed by Toronto police, a demo brought thousands of people together in Christie Pitts to challenge police violence and anti-black racism. Over the same period in the US, combative demos occurred every night in many cities in response to a police killing in Minneapolis, pushing back the police and burning their stuff, as well as attacking businesses, part of the capitalist system that has brutalized and exploited black people since its beginnings.
Originally published by Northshore Info.
I was part of a crew of about a dozen people who came in to Toronto from Hamilton to show our solidarity. The energy in the demo was very high right from the start – lots of chanting, tons of signs – with a real thrill being in the streets all together for the first time in the covid era. Unfortunately, the organizers made a number of choices to try to quell or contain that energy. It was a beautiful demo in a lot of ways, and these criticisms shouldn’t take away from that and aren’t meant to tear anyone down. As someone else often involved in organizing protests, I hope it can be a contribution towards refining the political reflexes in the area for how to engage with situations like these.
In general, I think about marches as containers we create that participants can then fill with what they choose to bring. A good march is one that creates space for autonomy, creativity, and spontaneity while also achieving what the organizers hoped. It doesn’t try to manage the behaviour of participants to fit into organizers’ goals though, which will be inevitably narrower than the range of intentions brought by all the individuals and groups attending. Especially in a moment where many people are feeling intense anger, structuring a march to deflect and manage that anger is a serious mistake – the role of a demo in those moments is to bring people together for experiences of collective strength and resistance, to empower and not contain. I want to specifically mention three ways the march was structured to deflate energy: its pace, its use of marshals, and how the dispersal happened.
The pace of the march was incredibly slow. At first we thought the police might be holding it up, since forcing marches to cover their pre-announced route as slowly as possible is a time-honoured tactic police use to wear down a crowd’s energy. But we got to the front and looked and no, there were hardly any cops there, it was just the organizers choosing to make the march stop every twenty meters, turning what should have been at most a two-hour trip into a four-hour one. I’d be interested in hearing their reasoning for this, but it’s hard to think of a reason other than keeping things orderly. Pace is an important accessibility concern for a mass march, but this was far slower than other demos that consider such things, and in fact having people spend so many unnecessary hours on their feet made the demo less accessible. It also meant that a lot of people were tired and bored by the time they made it to the police station (for those who even did, but more on that in a bit).
The purpose of having marshals at a demo is to deal with cops or other hostile forces so that others in the march don’t have to. However, it’s like they got it completely backwards and decided to do crowd control so that the cops didn’t have to. At every intersection, the marshals lined up, but facing the crowd, not the cops, and at the corner of Bay and Bloor they were even heard saying they weren’t letting anyone through, as though the problem would be people who still had energy at that point choosing to go somewhere else, and not the police using force to prevent them. It’s good to want to support organizers by marshaling, but I gotta encourage you to ask what your goals are. At the very least face the other way so it’s clear which side you’re on.
Most baffling is that following a few speeches at police headquarters that the crowd was too large to really hear, the organizers repeatedly ordered people to disperse. It’s one thing to tell people the demo is over and that those staying do so on their own, it’s another to persistently pressure and guilt people into doing so. Most of the march didn’t make it off Bay St, so I can imagine the call to go home, circulated by the marshals, would have been extra confusing when it would have seemed the march hadn’t even arrived anywhere. Many people at the police station wanted to stay and confront the cops, and began rallying near the barricades. The organizers decided they needed to undermine this initiative though and tried every angle to pressure people into leaving – claiming they were disrespecting the wishes of the family (as if people don’t have their own reasons to hate the police) and even, claiming that we were risking giving ‘our elders’ covid by not dispersing, as if we hadn’t just spent hours packed together walking slowly down Bloor.
People kept gathering to yell at the cops, so the organizers sent in some marshals again. One of our crew had a conversation with them that went something like this:
“Did you all hear what the organizers said?”
“You’re on the wrong side, it’s not your job to control how others resist.”
“They’re saying the family wants people to go.”
“That doesn’t matter, people are right to feel angry and you should support them expressing it.”
“I’m just a volunteer, that’s what they asked me to say.”
“You’re doing the wrong thing, stop doing the cops’ job for them.”
Organizers then brought their sound truck closer to where people were rallying to try yet again to make folks disperse.
To the organizers’ credit, at that point some people talked with them and they changed their minds and simply announced that they were leaving and that anything done from then on was not part of the demo. This was the right call, if only it could have been handled that way from the start.
I don’t make these critiques to shit on the organizers – they pulled off a really good march in scary covid times, and learning about demos can only really happen in the streets. But by taking too much responsibility for what people chose to do, they succeeded in getting lots of people to disperse who might have otherwise chosen to stay and take things in a direction that reflected the mood of the crowd. It’s also not all on them, since people chose to give in to the guilt trip rather than make their own choices.
This points to a weakness of the narrow idea of legitimacy in demos responding to police violence, that only activities that can claim to in some way come ‘from the family’ are valid. Much of the messaging at protests like this is that these killings aren’t just personal tragedies, they are crystalizations of systematic issues that affect people in lots of different ways all the time. Obviously people shouldn’t speak for the family, but even in times of grieving, a response to police violence and its racist character can’t be reduced to what they might ask for.
One idea that happens elsewhere (like in Montreal) is to separate the collective grieving from the demo portion, so there is a space where the family can choose the tone without then having to control how people choose to express their feelings in the street.
It’s asking too much of grieving families to try to make them the sole source of legitimacy for our actions. Even before the demo started, there were so many people asking if the family wanted the demo as a condition for if they should support it or attend. If it’s in question for you if you should be in the streets against the police right now, you need to solidify your own politics and not put more pressure onto demo organizers and family members. We need to listen and work together, but we also need to ground our actions in our own analysis and reasons for struggle, not just go looking for others to claim to be supporting.
Rest in power Regis, George, and all victims of the police. Solidarity to all the rebels in the US currently ensuring that these deaths will not go unmarked. Against cops and the society that needs them.
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