BLM Toronto art action finds solidarity from artists and Indigenous people

'Black Lives Matter has given us hope,' reads statement from Idle No More
Photo: Jason Hargrove
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A rallying cry has been sounded across the globe, demanding action against anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism by defunding police and investing in public health, housing and social services. Designed to begin to amend hundreds of years of harm caused by the criminalization of poverty and racial difference, these proposals have been met mainly with empty performative gestures and heavy police suppression in Canada. Black Lives Matter Toronto faced much of the latter after a peaceful art intervention this month, but has found solidarity from many sides, including artists and Indigenous people.

“Black Lives Matter has given us hope that we are supported and that the ongoing state and police violence will be dismantled with the help of our community,” reads a statement posted by Idle No More.

The art protest on July 18, in which three colonial statues were splashed with bright pink paint and marked with the words “Defund Disarm Dismantle Abolish,” became a full day of action after three artist-protestors were arrested by Toronto police and detained for almost 17 hours. One woman with a medical condition was put at risk of having a seizure because she did not have access to her medication. Demanding that police release all three individuals immediately and refusing to leave until that happened, Black Lives Matter Toronto held a rally outside the police station where they were held. The three individuals were criminally charged with mischief and conspiring to commit an offence.

Black Lives Matter Toronto highlighted the inordinate police response to the peaceful art action at a press conference the next morning, commenting on the presence of dozens of police officers and patrol cars, the involvement of three police divisions, and the deployment of police horses and undercover police officers.

“You’re lucky that this is all we did,” said Ravyn Wngz, artist and member of Black Lives Matter Toronto, while standing in front of the paint-splattered statue of Egerton Ryerson on the Ryerson University campus.

“You’re lucky that we’re appealing to your humanity. You’re lucky that we’re not asking for vengeance or revenge. Because that’s easy. But our love is radical. It’s abolitionist. It’s a future where each and everybody has what they need, what they deserve, what they want. It’s raising a kid who’s four years old and who’s not afraid of the police.”

Saron Gebresellassi, former mayoral candidate and lawyer for one of the accused, tweeted that the three arrestees were held for five hours without access to legal counsel, and that the police misinformed her and the public about the whereabouts of her client several times. City councillor Josh Matlow, who also attended the rally outside the police station, criticized Toronto police for impeding the protestors’ right to legal counsel.

The three statues targeted in the art intervention depict Egerton Ryerson, John A. Macdonald and King Edward VII.

Ryerson was a public education minister who played a key role in establishing Canada’s residential schools, which brutalized Indigenous families and children with the goal of assimilation through elimination of Indigenous cultures. The residential school system, introduced under Macdonald’s tenure as Canada’s first prime minister, was rife with physical, sexual, and mental abuse, hurting generations of families into the present. King Edward VII of the United Kingdom held the title “Emperor of India” during his reign in the early 1900s. The statue of the king (on his high horse) was originally installed in Delhi, India, in 1919, but was removed once the country became independent. It was then moved to Canada and set up in Queen’s Park in 1969.

These men were foundational in establishing the settler colonial state of Canada, notes the Idle No More statement. “Each statue is a symbol of white supremacy and this was made explicit when community members were arrested, imprisoned, and denied legal counsel and medicine. We object to the criminalization of the people involved in this brave and peaceful action and call for the charges against them to be dropped.”

A statement of support signed by over a thousand artists says the arrests show “the deep rooted anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism in the Toronto Police force.”

“We affirm our position that these monuments honour legacies of racial violence, segregation and genocide, and that their presence in public space emphasizes that the lives and histories of Black and Indigenous people are not valued in spaces that we all share. These monuments are physical embodiments of state-sanctioned systems of oppression and contribute to the ongoing endangerment, imprisonment and murder of Black and Indigenous people,” reads the statement.

The art-based protests follow on the heels of other large-scale art pieces involving more than 120 artists in Toronto last month, including the “Defund the Police” slogan painted in pink paint on College Street outside of Toronto police headquarters, the “Black Lives Matter” slogan painted in Kensington Market, and the homage to victims of anti-Black racism in Graffiti Alley, which includes a portrait of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Black-Indigenous woman who died in May after falling from the balcony of her Toronto home. Korchinski-Paquet’s family had called police for support in getting mental health care for her. Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit is in the closing stages of an investigation on the matter.

“White supremacy is creating a society, an ideal of a society, and using the state to enforce it. And this is what we’re fighting against,” said Wngz. “It is in the technology of Blackness that we find abolition, and the technology of Black women that we find radical love and intersectionality, the technology of trans folks in leadership roles to make sure that you question. And this is not easy work. This is not fame work. We are destabilized. We’re hypersurveilled. We’re followed.”

Black Lives Matter Toronto has a clear list of demands for defunding the police. This includes redirecting 50 per cent of the $1.1-billion Toronto Police Services budget towards housing, food security programs, public transit, public health, public libraries and community-led anti-violence programs. It also includes removing police officers from schools, reducing the scope of policing, and decriminalizing poverty, drugs and sex work.

Matlow and fellow city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam introduced a motion on June 29 to reduce the police budget by 10 per cent, but it was rejected by a vote of 16 to 8. Among those who voted against the motion was Mayor John Tory, who instead supported a push for body cameras for all police officers at an estimated cost of $5 million a year.

A court date for the three artist-protestors has been set for Sep. 30 at Old City Hall in Toronto. Gebresellassi has urged the public to pressure the Crown attorney assigned to the case to drop all charges, arguing that processing these charges through the court system will result in a year’s waste of taxpayer resources.

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