Editor’s note: This piece includes descriptions of armed Toronto Police officers targeting, attacking, and maiming people in public.
An original version of this article stated that a press conference was held in front of mayor Tory's condo on September 14, 2021. We apologize for this error.
On September 16, 2021 organizers with the Encampment Support Network and allied groups defending unhoused people hosted a press conference in downtown Toronto. Speakers highlighted the lack of housing solutions provided by the City, as well as the police violence and crackdown on people who tried to defend homeless encampments.
The event began outside of Mayor Tory’s Yorkville condo in the morning. Within half an hour some noticed an organizer walking through the large crowd on the street, quietly mentioning key information to a few people. It seemed something was wrong. Within a few minutes the crowd was told that speakers at the press conference were arrested by plainclothes Toronto police officers minutes after leaving. You can read about the events of that day here.
Dave Shellnutt, also known as The Biking Lawyer, has worked on many social justice related legal cases in the city. He is now representing a group of plaintiffs who are suing Toronto Police Services and the City of Toronto for the violence they enacted on the plaintiffs while they were defending the homeless encampment at Lamport Stadium on July 21, 2021.
According to Shellnutt, the City of Toronto delayed filing the Statement of Defence on behalf of the City and Police until the plaintiffs sought a court resolution for the City. Shellnutt’s team has received relevant documents from the City and, “will be completing examinations for discovery of our clients and the police/city rep by October 31, 2022.”
“Finally, after months of delay we are moving these claims forward and our pursuit of justice on behalf of our clients heads into the litigation phase,” said Shellnutt about the state of the case this month. “We have countless new videos to review and will be keeping the public appraised of developments in the case.”
“As well, we filed a OIPRD complaint on behalf of Cha-nese Ila who was tackled and arrested after the September 14 press conference, walking while Black. Her complaint was first denied, but we have requested a review based on gaps we found in the investigation and that review was approved and now is ongoing.
We spoke with Shellnutt as well as two of the plaintiffs earlier this year about the events of July 21, 2021 and what they hope for the case and the city.
Dave Shellnutt, lawyer
The Hoser: Can you speak a little bit to the political dimensions as to why your team feels that this violence, and the way that it did, happened in the first place?
Dave Shellnutt: You can find visual evidence of why [the police acted with violence] when you see how police treat anti-vaxxers. The police shouldn't be assaulting anybody protesting. Period. But when you see them escorting anti-vaxxers and COVID deniers around the city, when these people show up at people's places of business. Officers go and talk to them reasonably without their masks on, or they stand in front of hospitals and are ushered away, politely. Then you see the stark difference in how having housing and poverty advocates were treated.
It's political, in that the powers that empower the mayor — who's backed by development lobbyists and in sort of ‘old money Toronto,’ who puts property over people, profits over people, and that set of politics permeates the Toronto Police as well. They're a civil service, but I think there's many examples to show that [the police] have their own politics.
One time an officer was agitating me at one of these related incidents, and later I saw pictures of him in a PPC hat, which is Maxime Bernier’s party. These are the kind of officers that we have coming face to face with poverty advocates. They simply don't hold the values that we hold.
TH: Mayor Tory said that the response from the Toronto Police Services on July 21, 2021 was ‘firm but reasonable.’ Can you comment on that?
DS: We just need to look at the pictures from that day. Compassionate and firm is not smashing people with batons. It's not holding them facedown on crates and smashing their wrists with batons. It's not indiscriminately pepper spraying young people. John Tory is lying at worst, and at best, he's just wilfully blind to what he unleashed upon the citizens of Toronto.
They've said they're not in control of the police, but in their press releases it's quite clear that the city asked the Toronto Police to be down there. And so that's why we've advanced a claim against the City, because they're responsible for the attack.
TH: Do you have experience representing people who the police have acted violently towards in the past?
DS: Yes. Normally, we represent Black folks who have been targeted and assaulted by police. [Anti-Blackness within the Toronto Police Service] is a common thread as identified by the Ontario Human Rights Commission in 2020. So traditionally, over the course of many years, most of our cases have been representing Black folks who have been assaulted by police.
TH: Can you speak to why the decision was made to name the Toronto Police Board and individual officers in the lawsuit.
DS: We named the Toronto Police Services Board broadly, which includes the leadership. Anybody who was acting in a manner that caused injury to my clients on that day or before would be caught by this. We named individual officers because we had pictures and video evidence of them perpetrating very unreasonable acts of violence against people. Any act of violence is unreasonable, but these were particularly horrific.
TH: Have you represented people in the past who have been involved with this kind of stuff in a social movement context, more so than a racial profiling context?
DS: In part of our claim we say that there was racial profiling going on at this encampment eviction. These are our first encampment eviction related lawsuits. I wouldn't equate that to a demonstration. Neighbours came together and linked arms to stop people from being kicked out of their homes. A protest we see as different.
TH: At the encampment defence demonstrations I went to last summer, on at least one occasion I saw police officers wearing thin blue line patches.
DS: Yeah it is a frequent thing that we see. That is a racist emblem. It’s evocative and causes harm to people. At the Lamport clearing, the way that police goaded and spoke to people was reprehensible: sexist, lewd, crude commentary. They were there for a fight from the moment they got there that morning. And it's simply baffling that we pay these people a billion dollars to protect us.
TH: A lot of the people that are named in the Statement of Claim, and a lot of the people that are part of the community around them, are people that are constantly on the frontlines of dozens of different social movements. What type of effect do you think this type of violence has on the burgeoning communities that actually try to push back and create community defence, mutual aid, etc. in Toronto?
DS: The organizing post-Lamport attack that I've seen is nothing short of remarkable.
I mean, social movements, since the dawn of time, have experienced police and state repression, and we continue to march forward, we continue to make gains, and we continue to push what's possible… You know, we're guided by our love for each other, and the hope that justice will prevail.
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Ollie D’Agostino, encampment supporter, plaintiff
The Hoser: Tell me a little bit about your background, what led you to encampment defence?
Ollie D’Agostino: I started getting more involved with community work and organizing — like lot of people — during the pandemic.
I saw inequities in how support was rolled out, where a lot of people were left behind, and our unhoused neighbours were a big part of that.
I think I started going to some community events organized by the Encampment Support Network. There was a press conference with people who were living in encampments. Other outreach workers were doing work on the ground. It was kind of a really nice community build, where we just came together and we helped create a bunch of foam domes for encampment residents that were looking for them.
And so I kind of accidentally started reaching out to ESN for things that I could help with in different capacities. Transcribing things, for example. Then I also started getting involved with Showing Up for Racial Justice Toronto. With SURJ I got involved in their Defund the Police campaign.
While working with SURJ [I started] to get together and meet people in my community. Encampment evictions were obviously way more publicized during COVID because there was just so much visibility to it. That's kind of how I got into encampment defence: if there was a certain call, or encampments were just looking for supporters, or they were looking for witnesses, things like that. I also started getting involved in rapid defence/rapid response groups.
I had gone to some of the other early evictions before Lamport. There was one earlier in the summer, before the one I was assaulted at. There was a big one at Trinity Bellwoods.
Then obviously, eventually, I also showed up to Lamport, and we know what happened that day.
TH: From the conversations with your lawyer it sounds like this is going to be something that takes several months, or perhaps even longer, to get this case through the courts.
What are you hoping will come out of this, apart from the potential settlement? What effect do you [want] this lawsuit to have?
OD: I want there to be hopefully some sort of ownership and accountability to what happened.
As of right now, the city is and the police…from what I understand they think nothing went wrong that day. And obviously, I feel very strongly that they're wrong about that.
And I think even just outside of the violence, the fact that hardly anyone actually got housing that day, even if there was no violence to me, that's a failed operation. So when you add the violence on top of that — it's outrageous. And it's not acceptable to meet poverty and homelessness with so much brutality and so much unwavering violence.
My hope is that if there is some sort of ruling that they are responsible for this… that it can send the message to people and show the public that what happened that day was not okay. I’m hoping that it will persuade the public to continue to advocate for less policing, not only specifically in encampments, but just in general.
I’m very much of the idea that we should be defunding the police. It's my hope that seeing the results from the end of the case would show people it's inhumane, it's a racist institution, and it's a waste of money. The amount of money that went to the police that were involved in the operation that day could have housed every single person.
TH: I know that you were attacked on July 21, 2021. Can you tell me how July 21 happened for you? I know it's a very upsetting topic, and I don't expect everything to be from perfect memory. But how did that date go down for you?
OD: It was early in the morning, around six-ish. It was really early. I went to check in with, you know, there's usually a contact person just to make sure everyone is kind of aware of what's going down, what the request has been from the residents. Any risks you might have. Letting people know what their legal rights are.
There wasn’t much happening until the city actually showed up.
Once they started rolling in, we just started to create a preliminary border of people around the area. It was a little slow. City workers were just kind of showing up and hanging around, not really doing any actual contact with anyone who was [living] in the park. We were just responsible for keeping an eye out. If there were any city [workers] or police that approached, we were there to ensure that there was a witness.
One of the first things we noticed is that they were really ramping up the surveillance very early. People who were there daily noticed that [the City] had installed surveillance cameras at Lamport [park] itself and on top of the stadium. We also noticed that cops were getting access to the inside of Lamport stadium so that they could go on the roof and watch us from up there. We also noticed a bunch of drones. And as the morning went on, more things started happening, like helicopters constantly overhead.
When the police showed up with all the city workers it was unreal. Like, the amount of police, and private security.... The city workers were such a small percentage of that. And you think ‘this is supposed to be outreach, this is supposed to be transitioning someone into a home?’
If someone showed up to your home and were telling you, ‘you can't live in this home anymore, we have another home for you.’ What choice do you think you would feel if you had 20 cops with assault rifles fucking surrounding you. It's inherently violent.
So they show up. There's so many of them. At some point in the morning, the fence started to come up. They actually extended the fence to outside the road on the other side of the sidewalk. So essentially they ended up quartering off and kettling us into not only the park, but now the street. We're now inside this huge caged-off area.
It's really hard sometimes when I think back on that day. Being inside, actually in the park area, and just getting to talk to people. There was a barbecue, people were making food for each other. People were going around offering food, water, first aid stuff, making sure people were hydrated and wearing sunscreen. There was music playing. It was just such a wonderful thing. It was happy and joyful. And it was so weird because it's juxtaposed with being in this very violent situation.
So we started getting early accounts from people who were there as media, I'm not sure if you experienced this as well. But we were starting to hear from people in the media that the police were telling them that they had to leave. So that was something that was a big point of contention, and also confusing, because the cops were telling people who were there from the media that they had to leave and that they would be trespassing. We had to have lawyers who were on the ground doing legal support to try to clarify that with the journalists on the scene, to make sure they knew their rights. They knew what their real legal rights are. The officers were lying.
So that caused confusion because there was a lot of going back and forth with the city as well. The city was kind of flip-flopping at first. The cops were saying you can't be here. And then the cops are saying things like, ‘okay, you can be here,’ and then later being like, ‘you can be here, but you're gonna have to leave at a certain point, and then you can come back.’
The police had been preventing supporters from bringing us supplies inside. There was a high need for water because we were worried about being maced or pepper sprayed. We had medics who were going around, giving us prepared water bottles, so that we could have them in case we were pepper sprayed. And they were like going around doing demos, using each other to show how you can remove pepper spray from yourself, or if you had to do it for a friend. But the police were stopping that.
We were hearing [the police] talking amongst themselves, and the excitement that they had about the possible violence They were specifically pointing people out and kind of making threats against them.
It's terrifying because like I said, we were defenceless. There was no weaponry. No one has any kind of defensive anything. You're surrounded by these police on horses that can trample you, police with so much weaponry that can kill you so easily. And we're just surrounded by that. It's so terrifying to hear them speak like that so callously and with so much confidence, it's alarming that they have that much power.
Once the violence had started, we were trying to hold the line. There was a barricade there. People were holding pallets to try to stop the cleanup, to show the police a line to stop them from moving forward.
So I had a pallet, and I was moving down behind the line to the very end, and there were already people in front of me. And the line was kind of connected with where the fence was, and so I was there just kind of like waiting there, in case, you know, there was a break in the chain and I needed to move forward to stand there. By the time I got to the end, the fence had come down.
Essentially there was some struggle on the fences, the fence came down. People were pouring in and so it was chaos, and I’m shuffling forward to try to stand there and fill the hole in the line.
I didn't even see him because he came from behind my right I guess. I just remember…it's so weird. It feels almost like in slow motion, but I was shoved down. I heard this awful ‘whack’ sound before I felt it. I didn't even realize I was hit with a baton at first.
I was scrambling on the ground. People were yelling and stuff and my glasses were thrown off. I was trying to grasp them because I can't see without them.
I felt hands on me helping bring me out with people, someone grabbed my glasses and told me they got them. They were escorting me out and a medic was rushing to me immediately. It was very immediate that there was an injury. The way my wrist looked, it was like a huge softball and it was bent in a weird way. One of the first things I remember them saying was that I was in shock. They said I'm gonna go to the hospital, and I think when I heard that, that's when it kind of kicked in. Something serious just happened.
It just kind of felt like I was running on adrenaline for a second. They treated me on the scene. We were literally in the middle of triaging, but there was so much chaos that we had to retreat and go further into the park just to sit down because the police hadn't breached that part of the line yet.
Luckily, a good friend of mine saw what happened to me. She came over and she was helping me talk to the medics on the scene. It was scattered. They immediately treated my wrists. They had a large ice pack and then like a tensor bandage over it, and gave me a couple of… I don't know, Advil or Tylenol. Some people came and took some photos of my wrist.
I remember them asking to call an ambulance, but I didn't have the money to afford that charge. My friend was there, and she was able to give me a ride. Once I was treated and we exchanged contact info with the medics so that they could follow up with me, we realized we needed to get out of there quick. Things were escalating.
The police…I think they were just almost breach[ing] the line. And just as we were getting up and going another medic had come up to the medic who was helping me and explained that the police were specifically targeting medics. All of them were removing the red cross because they felt that there was a danger to them, because the police were specifically trying to pick off the medics.
The chaos continued and we really started running off because the [border line] just kind of broke at that point. We were running and then there was more chaos. A bunch of people were running because the police then started their mass violence on everyone. And then what was more terrifying is, we were kettled in there all day. By the time we were running down the street towards one of the exit areas it was closed. So it's that fear of, ‘oh my god, are they going to keep us in here and just go wild and just beat on all of us?’ But then luckily the security had been trying to open the gate. By the time we got there it was open and so we managed to get out.
I had to watch more cops on horses come down the street at that point, too. It was so jarring to see these huge horses and these imposing officers as I'm scrambling waiting to get to the hospital.
My friend drove me to the hospital. Because of COVID, I had to go in alone. I couldn't even ask my wife to come be there for support. That was hard. There were a few people at that hospital as well from that day too.
It was very difficult, because as I'm in the waiting room CP24 is going in the background, and I can see the coverage of the day. That's when I learned that the officers were saying that apparently some officers were hurt, and there was no mention of any [encampment] supporters there that were hurt. I remember just being so...just sitting in shock and looking at the TV and thinking ‘this is just unbelievable.’
Essentially I had gone in, and I had to, they wanted to get an x-ray right away just based on how [my wrist] looked. Eventually, I saw someone there after they did the x-ray. They couldn't find an obvious break. But she was so concerned about it, she was asking, ‘did you make sure they did the right wrist?’ She wanted me to see an orthopaedic surgeon the next day. I left the hospital that day with a temporary cast that would be removed the next day for the x-rays.
She talked a little bit to me about shock as well. In the moment it was hard to understand how much shock I was in. It was very difficult to kind of sit with the violence.
The aftermath has been very difficult. I'm still dealing with PTSD, but just the physical [hurt] was obviously difficult. I was on disability at work [in the fall] actually just due to the physical and psychological impacts. It's been very difficult, a lot of therapy. The community has been very supportive to me, which has been a godsend.
Calla Moya, encampment supporter, plaintiff
The Hoser: What are you hoping that this lawsuit accomplishes?
Calla Moya: I hope it sets a precedent. Basically, that the cops can’t get away with dividing and conquering us because we're better fighting as a collective. You know, the white boys club: the justice system and policing.
The way I see it, they wanted to accomplish all of the evictions by arresting people or brutalizing them or issuing tickets and making people feel alone and intimidated by the process. I was part of a collective that's now taken off doing its own thing, as like a group of people who were ticketed, charged and injured at these evictions specifically, in Lamport mostly, called TorCH (Toronto Coalition for Housing). I was a part of the founding of that group. We had a lot of meetings, and we’re in collaboration with the People’s Justice Movement, some people from the Malton People’s Movement, and of course the people who are affiliated with encampment evictions. It's a lot of different opinions in that group, but we all stand for the same thing. We all agree that housing is a human right. Housing should not be a commodity. And people should not be criminalized for being homeless.
Individuals who protest the status quo are targeted, individually intimidated, incarcerated. In incarceration, in being injured, they expect these people to go alone, and feel alone, and not like they're part of a collective fighting for a specific project.
TH: What inspired you to get involved with [encampment support]?
CM: I was doing outreach work through ESN, specifically in Moss Park in the downtown east area…I feel particularly attached to this area, its history, my neighbours, because we all share this lived experience of being racialized, disabled, and specifically poor.
I was doing outreach at Moss Park since November . I just got involved through internal organizing. I see a definite problem with this city. And being on the ground and seeing it with my own eyes: watching people I made relationships with die, deaths of hardship, opioid overdoses, or just tragedies and being poor. That's what motivated me because I just have this experience of growing up poor and being houseless as an adult later.
I grew up with a single mom on ODSP and it was very tough, both in community housing and other low rent areas. I grew up in Hamilton and also in Brantford, kind of in between. Core areas that are slowly becoming gentrified.
TH: Can tell me what happened to you on July 21 . You can go into as much detail as you want or be as general as you want.
CM: Absolutely. I got the call because I was part of the organizing team preparing for the [encampment] eviction, because we knew it was going to happen. We have specific contacts who have intel into internal city workings. We knew it was pending because…pretty much all the [city] councillors agreed that there is a ‘no encampments’ policy, they instilled that at the beginning of the summer.
So I was scheduled to be there really early before the fencing went up at Lamport, and I got there at 5 am with an Uber because I live in the East End. It would take forever if I didn't have a ride. I just pull up, the fencings already going up, so much security.
[The city] got private [security] contracts, millions of dollars just to hire these workers who didn't get the memo that they don't have this experience. Most of them are living on precarious visas and them and most of them are racialized. They're up pulling out the fences, and police start hanging around.
As supporters were coming in I made sure people had the number for the jail hotline written on their arm wherever they can access it easily. I had a sharpie and I was going around, I'm like ‘you know your rights, just a disclaimer there might be some really fucked up shit happening today because it's increasingly getting worse.’
I was also in charge of transporting things through the fence because police and security weren't letting us. People on the outside of the fence were trying to get supplies to us and the police were not letting them.
And then it became early afternoon. I forget his name, but he is one of the main guys in charge of Streets to Homes, he started going around with police going up to tents and encampment residents, asking them one last time, ‘do you want to go into the respite? Do you want to go to shelter hotel?’ giving the shitty offers that no one wants. And obviously residents are like ‘no, no.’ Some of them went, but the whole point is that we just want permanent housing for people.
Then we saw a group of police start going up to the protesters and telling them that like they're trespassing, anything could happen, and that they can get arrested if they don't leave now. That happened like once or twice and then suddenly the police just start fucking moving very, very, very strongly.
We took our positions. You're trying to lock arms so that police can’t come in to the actual encampment. But of course the police started pushing people down and like [body] checking, making people go out to the other side of the fence where the exit was and just slowly pushing us away.
Then we got pallets dividing the middle of the area to get the police to stay away. And that was unsuccessful because the police just started indiscriminately pepper spraying us and I got pepper sprayed while holding a pallet. That hurt. I ran like hell and a medic washed out my eyes with a bottle of water. I'm just like, ‘wow, this is mania because there's like so much going on. I'm overwhelmed.’
I ran to my comrade who was linking arms around the tent with some other comrades, so I joined, and that was near the top of the encampment. They were actually pushing people to the left, so I was kind of one of the last people hanging around. I was linking arms with my buddy and the police started shoving everyone down to try to break the arm circle. Then they pepper sprayed us.
I got pepper sprayed twice and just like ‘what!?’ Basically people started moving towards the exit of the fence, because there was no other choice. Police have their batons out and are whipping people. They’re taking people and like tearing individuals away from the group to go arrest them. They're just like picking people out to just mitigate the critical mass, and like it was really scary. Most people just started running. People couldn’t handle seeing this kind of unfathomable fucking violence and chaos from the state. It was just too much.
Anyway me and my comrades are running towards the fence. It's like, we're pepper sprayed again, we're flailing. I was so close to the fence and I was holding up my friend who got pushed down, I picked her back up. We're being pushed and pushed. The police are facing us. We're face to face with the police. They're just plain pushing the entire crowd. I think people at the same time and they're just like yelling, ‘you're assaulting an officer, you're going to be charged,’ dragging people before the crowd as a chance to grab them back.
What happened to me was, I turned around as I’m picking up my friend and I saw a cop pulling out the baton. Right here in my face. And I do this [gesture] so they know my head is about to be beat in because it's right in my face. They claimed I was assaulting an officer by doing this. And like five big boy cops, kick me out of the crowd. My friends are trying to grab me back. The police were too quick and too strong and pulled me out and lifted my entire body right off the ground. I was levitating, and they threw me really hard and really fast onto the concrete.
The back of my skull hit the side of a curb, just completely slammed. I was incapacitated. I lost consciousness for a bit. And I wake up and two cops, including the one who had the baton of my face, are on either side of me holding my elbows in dragging me across the pavement to the paddy wagon.
That one cop who had the baton out, it seemed to be like she was like, new to the job, because the other one was like, ‘okay, so what you're going to do is this, and this,’ because she didn't know. ‘We're gonna charge her with this, that and this. We can write down what numbers they are and you can get her to sign the papers, read her her rights, and then put her in the paddy wagon.’
She takes me to the paddy wagon and she's like, ‘okay, I've got to fill out these forms.’ And I'm handcuffed just standing there. She's just completely fumbling with the forms, and doesn't know what she's doing. Standing there, I'm really lightheaded, I'm seeing stars and I’m really thirsty.
Another cop was holding me, holding my arm so I wouldn't run away. I'm begging these cops to let me sit down and give me a drink of water. The cop is like, ‘we'll do that, once we fill out these forms.’ And I’m like, ‘no, I need to see a paramedic, my head really hurts.’ And she’s like, ‘we’ll get you to a medic once you fill out these forms and we officially charge you,’ and I’m like ‘no right now, right now, please, I'm not letting you get away with this.’
She's like, ‘fine, fine.’ I see a medic and they're like, ‘okay, we got to put her into the ambulance that's like not in the fence, outside the fence on the side’. So they want to take me to the hospital, and this lady [officer] is like, ‘okay, so do you want to go to a hospital? You can go to the hospital. After we're done processing you, and after you get out of jail.’ I’m like ‘no I’d like to go now’. She says, ‘if you go now, that means that officer has to be present. And, you know, you don't know how long of a wait in the ER it could be. It could be like over three hours and we're just sitting there. You could just go after you're done being incarcerated.’
‘No, I'll go now.’ I know exactly what they're doing. And I know I need medical medical attention because I know I need this to be documented. And so then the paramedics are checking me out at the other ambulance are like, ‘okay, that's good.’ I said ‘The hospital. Yeah, thank you. My head really hurts. I need to see an ER doctor immediately.’ Then the cop supervisor comes in and talks to her outside. Okay. Giving her a talk. And she comes back and she's like, ‘okay, we're gonna let you go. You're not being charged. We're just gonna let you off with a ticket. Okay. See ya.’
I was taken to the hospital and another person who was a supporter at Lamport was in the ER of Toronto Western. He was there because he got whipped on his shin with a steel baton. It was nasty. We're just talking. Later on, he told me I was really not myself. We had never met before. But we started being buddies after that. He's like, ‘you're way different than when I first met you. You're like back to reality. But in that emergency room, you were a completely different person, and you had no idea what was going on where you were’. I was just sitting in that room and just hanging out not even knowing what's going on.
I guess I was sitting there for hours without [being triaged] and had no idea what's going on. This was considered a huge emergency, I could have had a brain bleed. So I saw a doctor and yeah, and then I was enrolled in the concussion clinic and a friend picked me up at the hospital and took me home and took care of me. That was my day.
I'm committed to the project. I want to get their asses. They can't get away with this. There's no way. I was guessing at this point, because [the City and TPS] have taken so long to even respond, I'm gonna guess like two years [for the lawsuit to finish in court].
TH: Any other context that you wanted to add that you might think would be useful for me to quote?
CM: Yeah the only thing which is pretty obvious is: defund and abolish the police. That's what's important to me.