(Toronto, June 5, 2020) Anti-racist activists and racial justice advocates have expressed hesitancy about today’s Black-led racial justice “March for Change” in Toronto. Activists began coming forward after concerns about police participation, fake news and possible far-right violence were not taken seriously by the organizers. The event went ahead at 12:30PM, June 5 at Bloor/Yonge Station.
The Scaffold decided to conduct a limited investigation into the demonstration and the controversy. We hope that telling the whole story here alongside all the relevant, verifiable and true information we could find, will help keep people safe and help make demonstrations in Toronto less contentious and more effective.
A previously unknown and purportedly “anonymous” group of mostly Black organizers called for two pro-racial justice ‘March for Change’ demonstrations in Toronto. The demonstrations were scheduled for Friday and Saturday respectively. The manner in which the events were planned, organized and announced caused many community activists to raise a general alarm.
Groups which voiced concern included Black Lives Matter Toronto, and Toronto’s broader, decentralized anti-racist community.
Black Lives Matter: Toronto organizers have not co-signed the March for Change demonstration and communicated this point in tweets posted on June 4, 2020.
Elsewhere on social media some activists accused inexperienced organizers of trying to “hijack” their message. At the top of a list of concerns, BLMTO organizers pointed out that the March for Change began promoting itself from a “GTA Black Lives Matter” Instagram page, unaffiliated with BLMTO account. That new BLM account was created within the last week.
Some activists have accused the March for Change organizers of capitalizing on a viral moment. They say that unilaterally organizing a protest on anti-Black racism in Toronto without inviting or allowing broader community participation co-opts an already established conversation with the public and with decisionmakers, in a way that does a disservice to, or even disrupts, years of difficult and time consuming community engagement. Activists have also pointed out that inadequate communication heightened the risks for chaos or violence at the event itself.
Normally, an event created without the support or participation of the several-thousand strong cohort of experienced community organizers in Toronto would not gain much organic traction. Nobody would show up, simply because nobody shared it. However, many major media outlets moved to promote the March for Change protests themselves. Outlets did this without naming the leaders, messaging, location or even time of the protests. Somebody needs to direct these fly-by-night digital tabloids back to the 5w’s.
Narcity actually published only a few lines from the March for Change Instagram page and wrote an entire promotional article using messaging from Chief Mark Saunders of Toronto Police Service. Some of the messaging Narcity used was also drawn from the previous week’s #JusticeForRegis rally, which was organized by Black Lives Matter. The use of BLM messaging to promote the March for Change came after BLM publicly made a point about not co-signing the protest. Isn’t that just kind of plagiarizing to help someone else do their homework?
Lauren O’Neil from BlogTO simply decided that she would directly attribute the anonymous protest to Black Lives Matter Toronto, publishing this as fact before even bothering to wait for comment. That wasn’t just untrue, it was harmful fake news which furthered misinformation. When Black people say that systemic racism lives in the institution of Canadian media, this is what they are talking about. O’Neil has been called out elsewhere before over racial bias in her reportage. Here she is, inventing the narrative yet again.
UPDATE 6/6/20: After this piece was published, O’Neil fired back, doubling down on her claim that the ‘black bloc’ was coming to Toronto.
Why is this all a big deal?
During the 2016 US Federal election, the Russia-based Internet Research Agency disseminated many false social media stories about racial and religious issues. Some of these false stories were used as a pretext to organize completely fake real-world protests between racist and anti-racist demonstrators. Some of those events were completely fabricated. People uncritically attended these events, despite the fact that nobody in attendance actually knew the people organizing on their own side.
Not only did the establishment media promote the June 5 March for Change rally extra hard, but Chief Mark Saunders, head of Toronto Police Services, did a press conference on it. When pushed for answers, Saunders was strangely unable to define a time or location for the event.
“I can’t control what I don’t own.” The bewildered chief told a reporter when she asked what to expect. Saunders was not invited to last weekend’s #JusticeforRegis march organized by ‘Not Another Black Life TO’ and headlined by Black Lives Matter Toronto. Saunders has indicated that he will attend the March for Change. He isn’t just planning to attend, he was specifically invited to it by the organizers.
Veteran activists have pointed out that it is highly unusual in advance of any protest, to see a press conference, or predictions about crowd turnout coming from police, or from the press for that matter, especially when there are no open-source statistics which can help establish a possible crowd count.
The organizers of the March for Change are organizing on Instagram and a proprietary purpose-built webpage. Nowhere is there a publicly available estimate of attendees, yet journalists have had no problem treating conjecture about the size of the expected crowd as fact.
NEWSFLASH: Nobody is planning a riot.
As if on cue, agents of chaos hiding behind a series of fake Twitter and Facebook accounts began posting incitements and rumours. None of this is happening in a vacuum, you have heard these stories coming from the mainstream press in the United States with appalling regularity.
Stories about ‘looting’ ‘pallets of bricks’ ‘out of town anarchists’, ‘buses from Montreal’ and ‘Antifa’ have swirled on social media. A fake video posted to a page operated by the individual organizing weekly ‘anti-lockdown’ demonstrations was circulated regarding the weekend’s protests. The video makes the claim there will be looting and purports to show bikers ‘gearing up’ to attack demonstrators. It was, in fact, filmed at a weekly motorcycle meetup unbeknownst to the other Bikers present. There’s lies, there’s damned lies, then there’s whatever the hell this is.
So, lets parse the claim here for a second: It is true, there was rioting in Montreal as events in the United States unfolded, but Montreal frequently has riots at police brutality demonstrations. No Montreal based left-wing groups, individuals or organizations have represented anywhere on closed or open channels to the best of our knowledge, an intent to travel to Toronto for the purpose of causing chaos.
There is a particularly boisterous demonstration against police brutality which takes place mid-March in that city each year. The Montreal demonstrations of May 31 were an organic response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Following the rally, videos of alleged looting surfaced, and a number of guitars were apparently stolen from Steve’s Music Store.
Steve’s is a business which began on Queen St. W in Toronto. Steve’s has since released a public statement honouring racial justice and explaining that while property can be replaced, lives can not. Still, as rumours swirl of pallets of bricks appearing on Queen St. W, local business owners are no doubt feeling an acute fear of loss.
Business owners can probably rest easy, despite the fake news campaign
The “black bloc” isn’t a group, it is a tactic: wearing dark clothing, masks and moving together. This means that the person who spread this rumour is ignorant to the language activists use to describe themselves. The source of that rumour was not an activist, or even a particularly politically astute person. There has not been a proper black bloc in Toronto since the G20 of 2010. Activists will be quick to confirm there isn’t one planned this weekend.
That’s right, the people who might be members of a ‘black bloc’ at a particularly boisterous protest are genuinely confused: taking to social media to disavow this weird slander which has been perpetuated by mainstream journalists, carefully ignored by the Chief of Police, and subsequently spread by legions of anonymous trolls on social media. It is a campaign of harassment and libel directed against Canada’s left-wing activists for no other reason than that they stand opposed to the same bigotries and oppressions here, as have become the focus of much anger south of the Canada-US border.
It is likewise concerning to see the rehash of the ‘out of town anarchists’ narrative. Following civil unrest in the United States, mayors and police chiefs in multiple cities took to the mainstream press to allege that ‘out of town agitators’ destroyed their towns. Almost all of those public figures subsequently admitted those statements were false, after being confronted with facts such as jail records. This didn’t stop them from lying, or from unwittingly receiving false information en masse. As America sits in the throes of a political crisis, information warfare, especially within online civil society spaces, will become ever more widespread. Civil servants and mainstream journalists are far from immune to fake news and can rapidly become superspreaders.
So what is the March for Change?
The organizers of Saturday’s rally appear to be a sort of a ‘Rich kids of Instagram’ crew. They have used that platform to organize, eschewing the preferred activism platforms of Facebook and Twitter.
There’s a videographer with a habit of creating fake social media posts using his own likeness, a musician or two, a barber, a quirky Albanian nationalist, a security professional and a wealth manager for a major bank. We only found one old selfie with Rob Ford between the whole lot.
One highly noteworthy fact is that the ‘March for change’ does not appear to have specific demands or policy positions. The group has not publicly shared ideas about how to concretely change the system they purport to fight. It’s not exactly an unheard of situation for novice activists to be in.
The organizers of the event itself are polished , well heeled and telegenic, and the majority are people of color, though as was pointed out by one Black twitter user, there are no black women listed as organizers for the event.
Also atypical of a normal Toronto protest, organizers did not respond favourably to external communications. Many dozens of critical comments, suggestions and even requests for basic information were removed from the event’s main Instagram page as well as from the organizers’ personal pages.
Some people who left comments and queries on the Instagram page reported hostile, misogynistic and vaguely racist messages back from organizers and friends of organizers.
The main Instagram page for the March for Change was made private sometime overnight.
It is necessary to again reiterate how different this protest is from almost any other which been held in Toronto.
This is a distinctly corporate, yet incoherent communications style, more akin to event promotion than traditional protest organizing. There’s even a t-shirt giveaway.
How ARE the organizers communicating with prospective attendees?
March for Change is holding a protest somewhere downtown, but will not divulge where the rally is, or when, until prospective attendees submit their e-mail to a web form first. No information about the rally is provided without an e-mail up front.
That is positively alarming in a civil society where privacy can mean the difference between life and death for anti-racist activists. This means that many well-intentioned activists seeking to support a pro-Black cause in a time of heightened awareness and rapid social change, were asked to provide personally identifying information to strangers in order to learn how to support.
Many community activists have expressed grave concern over this potential breach of privacy. With far right groups ominously pledging violence at the Toronto rallies this weekend, real people could be harmed or killed if their identities are exposed or if organizers fail to keep instigators, who will be unfamiliar to them, from wreaking havoc in their crowd.
The group calling for kinetic actions against protesters this weekend is ‘Free North Patriots’. The group is linked to a security professional who spreads 5-G conspiracy theories and organizes Canada’s “nationwide” anti-lockdown protests. In a strange twist, that’s not the only security professional organizing a protest downtown this weekend:
March For Change also widely promoted a ‘call line’ to report trouble at the demonstration, though it isn’t clear where this line goes and it appears to have since been disconnected. Organizers declined to establish a bail fund in the event anyone was arrested. Their Instagram page also briefly listed the Movement Defence Committee (MDC) website as a support resource, implying the MDC was active in providing legal observer support for the event. The MDC was not informed of this by the organizers and thus could not possibly provide legal support for any protestors present. That constitutes a complete failure to gain consent from people who the organizers seem to have assumed would just get involved.
The most contentious of the issues being flagged by activists is the problem of police involvement directly in the protest. Many activists in racial justice spaces are uncompromising in rejecting partnership with the police or police involvement when planning their own demonstrations. Toronto’s broader anti-racist community has eschewed voluntary contact with the police for years.
The whole bent of Black Lives Matter’s campaign strategy has been driving a wedge between the police and institutions, as happened with Toronto’s Pride parade. Forcing divestiture is an effective campaign strategy that hits at police morale and then, ultimately, their budget. That is coherent and strategic campaigning.
What we’re seeing with the March for Change is an apparently affluent set of activists who lack for messaging and who failed to effectively communicate with other activists. This kind of organizing risks directly undermining or even reversing the work that came before it came before.
To many activists who work on issues of police brutality and police accountability, there is an unspoken agreement: Police aren’t invited to the demonstrations and they certainly don’t hold press conferences promoting them. At the end of the day, this protest looks an awful lot like a great photo op for Chief Saunders and the police service.
So what are the lessons?
Well, if you’re a young or novice activist—particularly one of the organizers mentioned above, welcome! Please know that people in the broader community were reaching out, not because they want to shut you down, but because they want to help you effectively wield the power that you are owed.
Activism in Toronto is solidly a “union” matter. It is a family. Even without a formal membership card, there is a process by which people learn the fundamental theories of activism and how to apply those theories in the streets. People are vetted. People are vouched for. It keeps everyone safe. Lots of great community organizations offer detailed trainings on how to organize your first demo. Every activist in the city has been there once.
For the most part, activism processes are democratic, transparent and accountable. Deleting critical comments from Instagram makes your protest movement look like a corporate PR account. Not being open about your organizing, intentions or structure is anti-democratic and exclusionary. Having easily traceable connections to security companies or banks is going to understandably raise suspicions.
Having people who subscribe to, or espouse ideals rooted in European nationalisms on your anti-racist organizing committee is going to result in a hard pass from every experienced organizer in the city, and that’s the kind of information that will spread like wildfire if you don’t figure out who your problem characters are.
In short, organizing in Toronto is always about who you know (though, not in the same exclusionary way as a country club, or a job writing a national opinion column.) This is a critical security measure. Everyone has the right to know who they are dealing with and who is leading them into possible arrest or danger.
It goes without saying, the history of the civil rights struggle in the United States is also the history of COINTELPRO, the systematic subversion of Black led, white-supported organizing by infiltrators, police plants and people hired to sow chaos in the broader movement. I’m explaining this for the white people in the room who have probably never seen that acronym.
None of this is intended to directly draw a parallel between novice organizing and COINTELPRO of course! It is an undeniable political reality that the state engages in the systematic surveillance and disruption of social movements, especially racial justice movements. In the 1980s the FLQ and Black Panthers were set to discuss making common cause and the RCMP just burned down the barn they were supposed to meet in.
Alliances between radical Blacks and radical whites are terrifying to the police. We just witnessed how that fear manifested in America. Don’t think for a second that the police and the elites they serve won’t do whatever they can to divide and conquer. Our very friendly advice: show a united front.
With a renewed focus on policing and racial justice, Black politicians like the conservative leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis, a Toronto based lawyer, will no doubt be looking to stake out organizing space in the political landscape to push a pro-Black social-conservatism. When that happens it won’t be the place for white activists to confront her for statements she makes which might equivocate or sow division or undermine social and anti-racist movements: it will fall to the Black community to challenge her at every turn.
Activists must be vigilant and share information about agitators, infiltrators and police plants, certainly. They must also guard each other’s work against political entryism as well, especially if people from directly impacted communities are sounding the alarm that entryist behavior can subvert, (or is subverting) effective or successful campaigning.
This is why, at a moment when the world is transfixed by racial justice activism and discourse, new activists ought to look to the leadership in their own communities and listen to the wisdom of their critics—because in an era of heightened vigilance, the failure to do so might be misconstrued as something else entirely. This means responding to criticism, this means relinquishing a degree of control to people already working in your issue-space and above all, it means taking the best advice of the thousands of well-intentioned people of all backgrounds, who have been organizing in Toronto for years and decades.
No matter what happens today or tomorrow at the planned rallies, there are a number of the city’s best activists, including many Black community leaders and anti-fascist activists, who will not be in attendance over security and leadership concerns. That’s a bad look for a first demo.
There are often white supremacists who hang around Toronto demonstrations waiting to attack or harass attendees, particularly innocent attendees. Anti-fascists know what they look like, their names, sometimes what they had for breakfast. In the fraught political conditions of mid-pandemic 2020, you very much want the movement security professionals on your side.
If you’re going to organize a demo in Toronto and it’s your first time or you’re new to it, Please give the wonderful Black community leaders like the great folks at BLMTO their due and use your platform to reiterate their demands to defund the Toronto police. Please also consider consulting with Anti-fascist organizers about how best to secure your protests against the risk of far-right and neo-nazi attacks.
There’s so much dishonesty, fake news and information warfare flying online about these issues right now, it just doesn’t make sense to be anything but open, honest and communicative with members of a broader activist community who are only trying to help. Only we can keep us safe.
Update: Tremaine Nelson published the following statement in response to public criticisms of the March for Change event, but did not reply to our specific request to comment on details in this story. We have decided to publish screenshots of his response in its entirety, in lieu of comment.
Correction 06/05/20: This article previously attributed the May 30 #JusticeForRegis rally to Black Lives Matter: Toronto when in fact that rally was organized by ‘Not Another Black Life TO’ with BLMTO participation and support.
Correction 06/06/20: This article previously stated that the May 31 Montreal rally against police brutality was an annual event. The annual march against police brutality is in fact, on March 15 and the May 31 rally was an organic response to George Floyd’s death.