n Thursday morning three encampment supporters were arrested after leaving a peaceful press conference outside of Mayor John Tory’s condo in downtown Toronto. After several hours of being detained at 14 Division on Dovercourt Rd. all three were eventually released separately.
Note: This story has been updated with details from the press conference organized at Bloor Street and Bedford Avenue on Thursday morning, as well as the City of Toronto's cost disclosures on Friday.
The press conference was organized by a coalition including the Encampment Support Network. Supporters with several other grassroots organizations attended, as well as individual allies and street medics. At its largest the crowd was roughly 100 people.
Early on in the press conference, Skyler Williams, a well-known spokesperson for 1492 Land Back Lane, was arrested minutes after speaking. He left the premises alone and was apprehended by two plainclothes officers who put him in an unmarked van.
Williams was hospitalized on July 21 for several hours after police attacked him at the Lamport Stadium encampment eviction.
An organizer moved through the crowd and informed other key organizers that there had been “suspicious activity” carried out by police. After a few more speakers, one of them confirmed to the crowd what had happened to Williams. Organizers were unsure where he was taken, but headed to 14 Division after it was confirmed that Williams was in custody there.
The crowd left in groups as per several organizers repeated insistence, to avoid being targeted alone. Upon arrival at 14 Division a local media worker (who requested not to be identified out of respect for the detained) said they witnessed a second arrest near College Street and University Avenue. Plainclothes officers grabbed the arrestee and did not inform them of their charges, the media worker said.
A third person was arrested in the early afternoon as well, though organizers did not release their name at the time of this writing. All three detainees were said to be at 14 Division.
Roughly 60 supporters arrived at 14 Division. At one point a local resident donated a bushel of fresh grapes from his father’s house to the organizers.
There were six plainclothes police officers at 14 Division, though they did not interact with the crowd and kept their distance. Dozens of police officers set up a barricade line with their bikes and a truck delivered dozens of metal barricades, which were not erected. Police flew a drone over the crowd all afternoon.
"I feel really bad being here,” said one of the organizers as he moved through the crowd giving food out that had been ordered to feed people outside of the station. He was present at Lamport Stadium as well as 14 Division on July 21 where police at both locations used extreme violence and indiscriminate pepper spraying to enforce the City of Toronto’s encampment eviction initiative. This followed several other incidents of police violence against unhoused residents, including the police attacks at Trinity Bellwoods park in June.
Toronto Police Services were not forthcoming with information about the detainees and took nearly eight hours to process three people. Among the charges publicly levied against them related to July 21 actions are “fail to comply with recognizance” against Williams. Toronto Police further allege that “[a] man and a woman were also both arrested for Assault With a Weapon and Weapons Dangerous [sic]. They will be charged later today.
After reviewing countless photographs over the past several weeks The Hoser was unable to find any evidence of weapons at these demonstrations.
Before Williams’ arrest and the beginning of the press conference at Mayor Tory’s condo that morning, eight police officers on horseback lined up at the top of Bedford Street.
The horses were not used on Mayor Tory’s street, but were transported by truck to 14 Division and sat beside the station on standby for the duration of the day. In an escalation of previous tactics (without the use of easily documented violence) the police press release encourages members of the public to help them look for organizers involved in the encampment support actions.
This tactic caused a chilling effect in the mid afternoon. Around 2pm several organizers told The Hoser that they were reaching out to their rapid response networks or friends to try to make the jail support crowd at 14 Division larger. Simultaneously, messages were sent out that the police had published this press release and were targeting organizers, especially those involved with July 21’st encampment defence actions at 14 Division.
For the sake of safety, many could not attend 14 Division on Thursday. “As the Service has stated before, investigations continue after the events, when warranted, and charges can be laid at a later date,” reads the release.
It is unknown why the police chose Thursday to begin these arrests and put out this statement.
Organizers active with encampment support for months said on social media that this tactic is a deliberate attempt to discourage people from attending these types of events and to bury the original message from the community. The press conference was scheduled for 10am on Thursday.
Organized under the banner #DropTheCharges, unhoused residents in attendance and their allies are demanding that the Crown drop charges for alleged offenses including trespassing and obstruction. The trespassing charges were laid on public land at Lamport Stadium. In addition, they are demanding “a roll out [of] permanent rent-geared-to-income housing for all.”
Joey, one of the encampment residents, discussed his living conditions last winter and warned the audience of the grave risk faced by people like him trying to survive the cold in this city. He said that at a certain point last winter the city extinguished the fires people were using to warm themselves. Joey rode streetcars for hours just to stay warm, and said that he almost lost his life last winter.
Despite proclamations from the city that there are safe alternatives available to living in encampments, many residents at the conference spoke of their real experiences within these alternatives. Aliya Pabani said that violence at shelters has tripled during the pandemic, and frontline workers have been demanding resources while overdoses have skyrocketed. She added that the violence at Lamport Stadium was in the name of “evicting about 24 people.”
On Friday the City of Toronto disclosed that it had spent $2 million evicting roughly 60 residents in three public parks this summer.
“The encampment was more of a community than the people in this building,” said Jason Lee Hoy at the microphone, pointing to the luxury condo behind the press conference. “What COVID did was open the door. More homelessness came...the demand today is to drop the charges...and answer the housing problem that is being neglected.”
The City has also put some people up at hotels. Resident Jennifer Jewell, who uses a wheelchair for mobility, said this is not a reasonable or safe alternative. She was living in encampments for months before being moved to the Bond Hotel, where she said her living conditions are terrible.
“It’s been eight months. I still don’t have an accessible shower. They refused all my requests for my doctor. They won’t even give me a grab bar,” said Jewell speaking to The Hoser after the press conference. Staff are not trained to deal with these needs and the spaces are physically not made to be accessible, she added. Jewell managed to make friends with people in the building during her stay.
“When someone dies there we don’t find out about it...I just found out the first friend I ever made died three weeks ago. I found out from someone outside the hotel. In the last five months there’s been two memorials, and that’s because the family was involved,” said Jewell. There have been COVID-19 outbreaks that the hotel was wholly unprepared for, she said, adding that they stopped testing residents for COVID-19 at least two months ago.
Around 6pm Williams was released. Upon his arrival outside of 14 Division Williams was greeted with cheers and clapping throughout the crowd. An ad hoc line formed at one end of the crowd to thank and support Williams. He was immediately interviewed by CP24 after embracing some of his friends. The final detainee was not released until around 8PM, 10 hours after the press conference at John Tory’s condo began.
Editor’s note: We urge all fellow members of the media in Toronto to take any and all efforts to verify claims made by Toronto Police Services in all similar press releases going forward. TPS have demonstrated repeated and flagrant disregard for the safety of homeless residents in Toronto and their supporters. It is incumbent upon every reporter to apply extreme skepticism to the most well funded and violent public institution in Toronto. Failure to do so is malpractice, and is dangerous to the people of this city. It is not the job of any journalist to assist in these searches nor to act as broadcasters for the Toronto Police.