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The 1992 Yonge Street Uprising Left a Lasting Impression on Racial Tensions in Ontario

05/08/2015 02:47 EDT | Updated 05/08/2016 05:59 EDT

"Give people light and they will find a way."

- Ella Baker

The May 4, 1992 Yonge Street Uprising was a pivotal moment in the resistance history of Afrikan people in the city of Toronto. ["Afrikan Canadians" or "Afrikan" refers to all people of Afrikan racial ancestry living in Canada and is inclusive of those born in Canada, Afrika, the Caribbean or elsewhere. Afrikan is spelled with a "k" because most Afrikan languages follow this convention.] This rebellion was the first and only one led by Afrikan Canadians against racial and class oppression in this metropolitan area. It forced the Ontario New Democratic Party government of the day to enact a slew of anti-racist and equity public policy initiatives.

The Yonge Street Uprising shared the same proximate triggering event as that which tend to inspire rebellions among Afrikans in the United States. An act of police violence was the immediate cause that led to this uprising in Toronto and the same factor is at work in the urban insurrections that have broken out in America since the 1960s to the present day.

The cops are the front-line personnel of the occupation army-like presence that is the police department in working-class or racialized communities across Canada and the United States. The writer James Baldwin accurately captures the operational dynamic that makes incidents of police violence the tripwire for urban rebellion in an article in Esquire in 1960.

In Toronto of the late 1980s and early 1990s there were a number of cases of police killing and wounding of African-Canadians and it created a powder keg-like situation in many neighbourhoods against the appearance of an open season on this racialized group. The Yonge Street Uprising erupted over Toronto cop Robert Rice killing of the 22-year-old African-Canadian youth Raymond Lawrence in a west-end neighbourhood.

A demonstration was called by the Black Action Defense Committee, the leading activist police accountability group in Toronto at the time, to demonstrate against this latest case of police violence. It attracted over one thousand participants. This protest action was also expressing solidarity with the Los Angeles (Rodney King) Rebellion that emerged from the acquittal of the cops for their brutal attack on African-American civilian Rodney King.

The Yonge Street Uprising was an unexpected act of resistance to the municipal political authority and the police top brass. They had rubbished the idea that Afrikans in Toronto would engage in a rebellion like their fictive kin in Los Angeles. This youth led insurrection totally surprised the political, economic and cultural elites because of their tendency to imbibe on the notion of Canadian exceptionalism when it comes to white supremacy, class oppression and policing.

It was reported in the July 29, 1992 edition of The Windsor Star that 75 people were charged with criminal offences, about $250,000 property damage was done to 105 businesses and over $112,000 worth of unrecovered stolen goods were some of the outcomes of the Yonge Street Uprising.

The rebellion alarmed Premier Bob Rae to such an extent that he commissioned the former United Nations ambassador and leader of the Ontario NDP Stephen Lewis to look into the root causes of this social unrest. Lewis carried out a broad consultation with racialized communities, especially the Afrikan community in Ontario, and issued the report within 30 days of being tasked with this responsibility.

Lewis quite rightly located the roots of the rebellion in social factors and the oppressive condition of Afrikan life in Ontario.

The government immediately initiated a series of reformist anti-racism and equity social policies and programs and empowered the Anti-Racism Secretariat to lead the change process.

According to Stefano Harney in an article in the journal Race & Class, "By the end of 1992, the Secretariat had over fifty staff and its senior officials were present on all important cabinet committees and interministerial committees. An anti-racism policy was in the works for the government.... The Secretariat was at the heights of its power."

The government pumped $1 million into the Jobs Ontario Youth employment placement program directed at Afrikan youth and their socially marginalized counterparts. The Fresh Arts Progam received funding from this jobs program and it nurtured working-class cultural workers or artistes such Jully Black, Baby Blue Sound Crew, Kardinal Offishall, Saukrates and Lil' X. Trey Anthony and d'bi.young.anitafrika were also spawned by this program.

The prison industrial complex and its swallowing of large number of Afrikans into its bowel has been a longstanding issue in the community. In October 1992, the state created the Commission on Systemic Racism in Ontario the Criminal Justice System and gave it the mandate to "report and make recommendations on systemic racism and the criminal justice system."

The African Canadian Legal Clinic owes its existence to the Yonge Street Uprising.

White supremacist employment barriers in the workplaces in Ontario are a major problem for Afrikans, other racialized peoples and indigenous peoples. The rebellion pushed the government into creating the Employment Equity Act in 1993. The law covered four protected groups: racialized people, indigenous peoples, women and people with disabilities. However, the animus toward the law was largely based on racist sentiments.

People tend to be tolerant of the structural violence of poverty, homelessness and inadequate housing, lack of access to healthcare, limited access to education, unsafe workplace, the pollution of land, air and water, and unemployment and underemployment that can contribute to the premature death or a compromised quality of life for oppressed. When people are not able to meet their basic needs in a world with the available resources, they are experiencing structural violence.

However, when the oppressed take matters into their own hands and bring the physical fight to the oppressor, they are usually vilified and further criminalized for using violence. The Yonge Street Uprising has made it clear that the oppressed might have to resort to violence in order to occupy the stage of history as the principal actors in the drama of emancipation.

The abolitionist, writer and statesman Frederick Douglass asserts that resistance to oppression is a basic condition of life because "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will...The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."

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