Over 48 hours in 1992, I attended a rally protesting the raid of an LGBT bookstore and a rally protesting the acquittals of white police officers in the beating of a black man in LA. The experience inspired my very first newspaper story.
Below is the very first newspaper article I ever wrote. (My only previous published piece was a poem.)
May 1992. Within the span of 48 hours, I had attended a protest over the raid on Toronto's LGBT bookstore Glad Day, with obscenity charges being brought against owner John Scythes, then I attended the rally outside the US Consulate to protest the acquittals of four LA police officers in the violent beating of Rodney King (a horrific event caught on video). That second rally turned violent, an event that came to be known as the Yonge Street Riot.
It's a little terrifying how contemporary this article feels. It could be ripped from today's headlines: The failure of Canada's criminal and judicial system with regards to Aboriginal Canadians, the ongoing tensions between police forces and black communities....
But for all that has stayed the same, there are crucial differences between then and now.
1992 marked a low point in relations between the black community and Toronto police. While more work still needs to be done, there have been considerable improvements. And, of course, the biggest change since 1992 has been the level of legal protections and social acceptance afforded the LGBT community across Canada. Again, it's not perfect but the difference is night and day.
For all the legitimate grievances being aired these days that's one crucial piece of the puzzle that we need to hold onto: Activism, protest, reform, engagement... they work. The world, your city, can change for the better.
Xtra, May 15,1992
By Gordon Bowness
A cold wind blew through the streets of Toronto and sent chills down my brown spine. But then, this city has always been cold.
“There’s a riot, did you hear?” A preppy fag at Woody’s squealed his question to me as I waited for him to finish with the phone.
“Yes, I know… I was there.”
“Is it dangerous?”
Before I could answer, he said, “I phoned the police and they told me to stay inside.”
He proceeded to phone every one of his friends to tell them the big news, swallowing the media hype and relishing his role as on-the-ball gossip. He did not give a second thought, a human thought, to the dramas unfolding one block away.
I knew everyone would be taking about the riot and that I would have to rise to the occasion and respond to the usual ignorance, laziness and fear of my co-workers almost all of whom are white. I resented this responsibility. How would I explain a mob? How would I explain anger?
When was the last time any of them felt it necessary to explain, justify or even comment upon the violence of their community? How would they explain eight young black people shot by police? Or the Donald Marshall trials. Or why the Native Canadian percentage of prison populations is 10 times larger than their percentage of the general population? How would they explain the judicial system’s behaviour, its irrationality, incoherence and anger? Would they fear a legitimized mob, operating under the pastel colours of authority?
But I must speak of what I saw in the shadows. There was a most beautiful man with pain welling up in his eyes as police let a group of racists approach a rally in front of the US Consulate. I saw fags, familiar from the Raid on Glad Day protest, hang a sign above the entrance to City Hall which said: “Stop the violence. Stop the hate.” The crowd chanted, “Leave them alone!” when the cops tried to have them moved. I saw someone with a Spanish accent warn a Chinese cop that his white partner, despites his hugs and back-patting, couldn’t really like him. I saw a white punk break a corner store window and many black arms extended to grab cigarettes; then a number of blacks helped the terrified and angry Asian shopkeeper pick up what was left on the sidewalk; blacks argued with blacks. I saw more blacks putting out a fire in Holt Renfrew [I got that wrong: I should have written Stollery's] five minutes before the fire department got there.
I saw hundreds of laughing, smiling suburban spectators enjoying a carnival. I saw a line of mounted police repeatedly charge into the crowds, wielding two-foot clubs.
I did not see one professional politician.
A friend asked whether or not the presence of hundreds of non-rock-throwing non-punch-throwing protesters, like me, legitimized the actions of the small number of more violent individuals. Maybe. But did his absence from the protest legitimize inaction and the deadly status quo?
So there you are. We are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Now it is time for everyone to get to work. The myths of this country are falling apart. The heterosexual white male middle class knows this, but they dare not believe it. We do.
As fags and dykes, we know that straight sexual and emotional repression is projected onto the perverts that they so terribly hate with envy.
As people of colour, we know that social inequality and thwarted ambition throughout the country means that a beastly other must be constructed by whites.
As Native Canadians know, whites were lost in this wild land, so they projected the evil of the stranger onto the rest of the world.
The time has come for new storytellers.
God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time.