The executive director of the 519 Church Street Community Centre admits that police should never have been allowed to host a June meeting that quickly escalated into a confrontation after queer and trans people were barricaded from entering.
That confrontation was on the agenda at a public relations consultation at The 519 Monday night, and the emotional discussion included personal stories of those affected by police violence during the G20 summit.
Maura Lawless, executive director of The 519, listened as the small group of about 13 people shared their opinions and suggested ways the centre could mend its fractured relationship with the community.
“What happened here at the Pride reception was not OK,” Lawless said. “We expressed our concerns. It didn’t need to be managed the way it was. The way to effect change is through dialogue.
“In retrospect, the event should never have gone ahead and that’s clear. We were trying to find a balance.”
The June 30 Pride Week reception, hosted by police chief Bill Blair at The 519, turned ugly when police kept queer and trans people out of the centre for more than an hour as a growing crowd on the sidewalk demanded answers about police conduct during the G20.
The protesters accused police of segregating gay, lesbian and trans people in the Eastern Ave detention centre, sexually assaulting lesbian and trans women and spitting homophobic slurs at those held against their will.
Activist David Demchuk said police violated the safety of The 519 space that day. “There’s lots of other spaces in this city police can use,” he said. “Has there been an apology? Any acknowledgement? People, quite frankly, are traumatized by police.”
Anna Willats, with the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, suggested The 519 hold a public meeting for those who experienced violence firsthand during the G20.
“A lot of what we are talking about here is bigger than the G20 event,” she said.
During the summit, many of the openly gay detainees reported having been transferred to a “segregated zone.” In cages built for one, couples of men and women were held, some without access to food and water, and stripped of their rights.
“It’s appropriate for the community to have the chance to speak about the queer and trans people detained and demand an apology,” Willats said. “That’s what protesters were saying at The 519 that day.”
Tears welled up in Michelle Le-Clair’s eyes as she recalled the violence during the G20.
“Just thinking about it brings back tears,” she said. “It was so terrible. To see trans women and trans men put into detention cells. It was so degrading.”
When Blair arrived at The 519 on June 30, he made a now-infamous gesture that spoke louder than words for many in the room. As he made his way through the throngs of people, he turned to the crowd, smiled and tipped his hat at the protesters as they repeatedly yelled, “Shame!”
“I want to see Blair apologize for tipping his hat to the crowd,” Le-Clair said. “That was unprofessional and disrespectful.”
Willats suggested The 519 hold a public meeting for those who experienced violence at the hands of police during the G20.
But dialogue is not enough, she said. Police need to take accountability for their actions.
“Dialogue only gives the sheen of doing something when nothing is actually being done,” she said.
Willats put much of the onus on The 519 itself, saying the community centre had the power to deny Blair access for the reception.
“How hard would it have been to say to Blair, ‘Sorry, police can’t have the meeting here?’” she asked. “The 519 as an organization has some clout in this community.
“The 519 takes a position when it hosts police events.”
It should be noted, comments made by Lawless at the public consultation were in contrast to the tone of the statement released by The 519 a day after the tense standoff. The release accused protesters of disturbing the centre yet absolved the police of any responsibility.
“If protesters plan to significantly disrupt a meeting or an event, they are expected to protest on the sidewalk in front of the building to ensure that The 519 is able to provide a community centre that is safe and respects the diversity of opinion and expression in our communities,” it read.
The release made no reference to police blocking the doors or Chief Bill Blair’s antagonism of the protesters.
Also at the consultation was Christopher Hudspeth, Church-Wellesley Village Business Improvement Area (CWVBIA) police liaison, who said the experience was frightening for him as well.
“I saw two hands try to grab an officer’s gun,” he said. “It was disturbing enough for me and gave me nightmares for weeks.”
During the confrontation at the police reception, Hudspeth was on the front lines, trying to temper the rising tension by taking on the role of security, said Casey Oraa, an activist with Queer Ontario.
At the end of the meeting, Lawless said The 519 will consider all the suggestions and recommendations and follow up with the public in about a month.
“As an organization, I’ll be frank: we’re not going to shut the door and never speak to police again,” she said.
Former Ward 27 candidate Susan Gapka said police left an indelible scar on the gay community that day.
“I felt under surveillance,” she said. “Even when I just went to the store to buy cat food. It took me a couple of weeks after the G20 before I was no longer scared when a police car drove by.
Dianne LaLonde said police simply don’t have enough training when it comes to the gay and trans community.
“My rights were infringed upon. It was horrendous,” she said. “I see no transparency from police. People were forcibly confined with handcuffs.”
Demchuk said Blair is no friend to the gay community. It was under his leadership that queer people were singled out, attacked, assaulted, made to feel unsafe in custody, and taken to Scarborough and told to walk home, he said
“We are still a community that is policed. We still feel that. This is not something overcome by dialogue. It is overcome by change,” he said. “We saw in one weekend how easily rights can be rolled back.
“People weren’t angry for no reason. There were very real reasons for people to be here that day.”