I like riots, they’re pretty much my favourite thing. My very favourite is riots whose common feeling is rooted in overcoming an injustice, something with a bit of content. But even stupid riots are fun, and I find them worthwhile, even if they don’t have more content than playing basketball with your friends in the park.
I was hoping for a stupid riot when the Raptors won the NBA final. Yes, it’s Toronto, an incredibly dull and pacified place, but still. So on game 6 of the series, a crew of friends and I came in from out of town. With the exception of one pal who has been a Raptors fan for years and was excitedly following the score on her phone, the rest of us don’t pay any attention and didn’t mind not seeing even a single play of the final game. With our knock-off Giant Tiger Raptors gear and multiple layers of clothes, we spent the last minutes of the game eavesdropping on police radio conversations and watching the public order cops deploy to try to figure out what might happen next.
It didn’t seem promising. Compared to the previous game, there seemed to be fewer people down at Jurassic Park watching on the big screens, and there were way more cops. But this changed quickly once the game ended – York St filled up with people coming from Front St, who ignored the police positions and began filling all available space. We took apart a few sections of crowd control fence to ease the process along. The cops were completely overwhelmed and stopped making any effort at controlling the crowd, at least where we were. Fireworks, climbing lamp posts, singing, passing around bottles of liquour.
Once the action was in the crowd rather than on the screens, a dynamic emerged that would define the rest of the night for us – a significant majority of the people in the crowd were more interested in filming what was going on around them than participating in it. This maybe makes sense, since it’s the same kind of alienated process that leads people to have huge feelings about millionaires playing a game on TV, a game that any of them could play too if they wanted to. It’s more suprising though to see people insist on staying in that consumer mode even once the chance opens up for them to be participants.
But still, it was an improvement – even if nine out of ten people just wanted to film the guy who climbed the lamp post, one in ten people saw that and thought, “I could be a guy on a lamp post too” and started climbing.
We figured people wouldn’t stay down there, but would make for Yonge St and go north. Going north on York was impossible, the flow of people hadn’t died down, so we went south, around Union Station, then back up Bay. It was during this time that the two cop cars on York St got smashed up – in echoes of the G20 riot, some have speculated that these cars were left out unguarded deliberately so that the crowd could destroy them, not as some sort of provocateur story this time, but rather as a way to allow the crowd to let off steam on a couple of old Crown Victorias. Weirdly, even if this conspiratorial version is true, it still allows that a lot of people out that night wanted to attack (symbols of) the police.
The cops were still more or less in control of things at Bay and Front, trying to keep people on the sidewalks. The least we could do was ignore them, block traffic and yell “Go Raptors in the street!” Soon again, the cops were swamped and gave up on crowd control though, as Jurassic Park began to empty out and tens of thousands of people spilled up onto Front St.
Just to give a few highlights, at Yonge and Queen and at like, Yonge and Gerrard, there were TTC buses left in the middle of the streets that got completely destroyed. I guess Toronto Police left them there to close the road, since it blocked Yonge and Dundas square from both sides, but people climbed all in and over each one for hours, and others crowded all around, and since vehicles couldn’t get in, it meant that each formed like an autonomous party zone. At around 1am, there was some pepperspray used near the Yonge and Queen one – it seemed at first like the police were attempted to access the bus, but other people closer by told us someone in the crowd was bearspraying into the air. Who knows. Later, at around 3am, the cops did use some sort of tear gas to retake the inside of the bus and establish a perimeter around it.
Up near the Yonge and Gerrard bus, right at Ryerson University, some beautiful people looted the 7-11 and threw tons of goodies into the streets outside. Whoever did that, you are heroes, high point of my month. I had a conversation with some confused folks holding a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups right outside that went something like this:
“I don’t think this was paid for though, I feel bad taking it.”
“You should just enjoy it. How often do you get to just loot shit from a 7-11? Go Raptors.”
While this looting was going on, there was still a long line up of people inside waiting to pay. I hope those people felt like fucking idiots, because they sure looked foolish. Interestingly, an ambulance showed up even though no one was hurt and the crowd let it through, but police used the space it opened to push in as well and try to secure the 7-11. To any paramedics reading this, don’t go along with that shit, hundreds of people saw that happen and you don’t want to end up thought of as health pigs. People shifted from there towards the Shopper’s Drug Mart and the 7-11 up at College, though the looting was less open.
A few shop windows got broken, perhaps by accident. Lots of graffiti went up. A couple of cop cars got hit with paint bombs. The police were so overwhelmed that it was possible to do what you want, but the window for acting safely was pretty narrow, since within a few seconds, the wave of cellphone cameras would swivel towards you – that 9 in 10 people who were just there to gawk. For next year, coming ready to act quickly and then retreat is probably the way to go.
There were a few moments where a hundred people got into yelling “Fuck the Police” to the tune of “Let’s Go Raptors,” but then there were other moments where a hundred people shook this one cop’s hand while he stood smiling at Yonge and Jarvis. Could we have retaken the bus at 3am? Would it have been worthwhile? The difference between a crowd and a riot is determination, and people were just more into yelling “Fuck Steph Curry” than “Everyone Hates the Police.” When one friend yelled, “Fuck you piggies!” as the cops pushed us back, a little crew rushed over, not to have our backs, but to ask, “Could you yell that again for my Insta?” Sorry bro, no.
In the end, it didn’t happen. It was an epic party. People climbed everything that could be climbed, from the scaffolding at the Eatons Centre to every truck and subway station along Yonge. It was bigger than all the biggest crowds I’ve been in put together. But by 3:30am it was clear that the riot that had felt so close was receding, and it was time to wander off to find where the transit was still running.
If anyone gets charged for the looting or for trashing the cops cars, solidarity to them. And solidarity to Masai Ujiri, the Raptors president, who (allegedly) punched a cop in Oakland right as the game ended. Fuck the police, against cellphones and all forms of passivity, see you next year.