I remember when we were locked down in Kerr Hall East on the Ryerson University campus during the Yonge Street riot. I wasn’t even a full-time student then. I was working and going to night school to pick up the required economics courses I still needed in order to apply for graduation.
I knew there was a peaceful protest planned that evening in response to the acquittal of the police officers who had brutally beaten Rodney King in Los Angeles, but there were protests happening all the time, there was a lot to protest about in the world. As I emerged into the warm Monday evening on May 4, 1992, and headed through the green grass of the Quad toward Gould Street, I couldn’t have imagined that all the people running weren’t part of some movie or television show being filmed on campus.
I remember pausing on the sidewalk to look for the film crew, and see if I could spot anyone famous. I had recently stumbled upon the stars of Street Legal filming on the sidewalk close to the campus bookstore, but it wasn’t beyond the possibilities to see big Hollywood stars working on films as well. Even with a police officer running toward me, waving his gun in the air, I was still looking for crew.
The cop yelled something like, “Everyone go back inside!” I was still not entirely understanding. I remember him swooshing me, “Go!” and someone yelling, “They’re rioting!” And I turned and ran back in, across the quad and into Kerr Hall East, where I knew the payphone booths were. The old wooden ones with the seat to sit on and the privacy door. Nobody had cell phones then.
About a dozen other students had the same idea. We sat quietly on the floor, lining both sides of the hall, taking turns using the Pay Phones to call our families. A professor or a security guard or someone came through and told us not to let anyone in. Some people came and banged on the doors, pleading to be let in, begging, but none of us moved to open the doors, none of us even discussed it. We knew the protest had somehow gone awry and now there was a riot. We could hear them, out on Yonge Street, yelling, glass breaking, screams. It was scary. I called my boyfriend and he was watching it live on TV, and he sounded worried, like it looked bad. This was frightening in itself, because he was such a calm and logical sort of person. He didn’t get flustered or excited or dramatic. But there was no way for him to get to me to pick me up and no way for me to leave. It was not only the first time anything like this had happened to me, but it was really the first time anything like this had happened in Toronto.
Eventually, we were told we could leave and that we could take the subway but the TTC weren’t allowing anyone to exit to the street at Yonge/Bloor. That didn’t matter to me, because while I would switch lines at Yonge/ Bloor there was no need to go to street level. I would descend underground and not emerge until Kipling Station in the city’s west end. I called my boyfriend again to let him know I was coming and about when to arrive to pick me up at the station.
The walk from Kerr Hall to Dundas Station was one of those walks when all you can hear is the buzz of fear in your head and the pounding of your own heart. Nothing looked unusual really, there was a steady stream of people heading to the subway but everyone was quiet. It was like we were making our sneak get-away. It was a relief to go down into the Subway away from whatever was happening in the streets.
When I stepped onto the subway car, everyone was silent, everyone sizing one another up a bit too closely, wondering about one another. I looked around the train and realised that I was the only white person. It was the first time in my life that I noticed my whiteness. I didn’t understand what it meant, but I could see everyone looking at the “white” girl, in the same way that I was looking at the young black man, the older Vietnamese woman, the Italian couple … for the first time ever I saw all the races, all the colours, including my own, and I felt very anxious … were they blaming me? Was this awful night because of white people? Were they part of the protest? Did they despise me just because I was white? Should I fear them just because they weren’t white?
It was one of those huge life moments for me that I will never forget. I was raised to be colour blind, everyone equal, everyone treated the same … but we’re not the same. Was my colour-blindness just another form of racism? I had never considered any of these things before that night. I was 22 years old, alone in a race riot that I would later learn was incited by white supremacists, confronting my own racism. I was forever changed.
I am trying to incorporate more structure into 2021 and follow a schedule of sorts, so that’s what Writing Prompt Weekends are all about. Every weekend I will write one new post that uses a writing prompt as its inspiration. What is a writing prompt? It’s the first few words of a sentence, something to begin your piece with. You must use the prompt, but where you go with it depends entirely upon you. I would love to read your posts using this weekend’s writing prompt. Please feel free to drop the link in the comments.
I remember when we …
Gratitude: easy peasy Saturdays, still having a Christmas tree up to enjoy, finally feeling back on track since the holidays
Focus: laundry, budgeting, home plans
Inspiration: “The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.” scott woods
Sounds: Glory, John Legend and Common
Connection: thinking of my niece, Anna, who said “Yes!” to the dress earlier today