The Yonge Street Riot: Significance of Criminalization and Dissent

Through analyzing facts, depictions, and representations of the Yonge Street Riot of 1992, it is clear that there are many underlying theoretical and conceptual frameworks that can be applied to this event. To refresh our memories of this event, the Yonge Street riot was an act of dissent in response to police brutality and police racism. The trigger was the acquittal of four white police officers in Los Angeles after the beating of Rodney King. Furthermore, another black man, Raymond Constantine Lawrence, was shot four times in the chest by a police officer within the same time frame of the Rodney King beating (Lawton 1992).

The core of the Yonge Street riot exhibited the racialized elements that are evident in Canada along with other countries as well including Los Angeles. According to Gordon (2006), when specific people have been racialized or become gendered in a certain way, they have been excluded from full citizen rights. Although this process seems to be essential for the formation of the state (Gordon 2006), it is still infringing on the rights of those who have been victims of racism and police brutality. With respect to the Rodney King beating, the enormous amount of controversy that arose from this event relates to the racism and inequality displayed by the state. Even with solid evidence – the beating of Rodney King being videotaped – the police officers were still acquitted. Rodney King was not treated with respect to his rights nor was he given justice. Moreover, the police shooting of Raymond Constantine Lawrence was the eighth police shooting of a black person in Toronto since August 1988. The yonge street riot was an attempt made by citizens to show the state that racism and police brutality that was bestowed upon Rodney King will not be accepted in Canada. Furthermore, the shootings occurring in Toronto is another concern and will also be given no tolerance by citizens. These events display the notion of “exclusion” through the lens of racism. The protests and acts of dissent display the peoples’ attempt in eliminating being labelled as “the other” and possibly move towards building a nation of impartiality. Although the protest transformed into a destructive riot, the main cause was a fight against racism and nothing more.

The notion of inclusion/exclusion proposed by Rose (2000) becomes evident in this event. Being included or excluded can have a great effect on an individual, groups, or society/community as a whole. Everyone, whether they are included or excluded, are subject to control (Rose 2000).

On the one hand, there are strategies that seek to reaffiliate the excluded and on the other hand, there are strategies which deem affiliation impossible for certain individuals and sectors, and seek to manage these anti-citizens and marginal spaces through measures which seek to neutralize the dangers they pose (Rose 2000: 330).

In relation to the Yonge Street riot, exclusion is distinctly evident. There was no attempt made to use reaffiliation as a strategy. The main strategy utilized during this riot was that of neutralizing the dangers that the dissenters posed. The protestors were seen as a threat from the very beginning of the event. With most protests, including the Yonge Street riot, there is a distinction between the “us vs. other” phenomenon. You are either with us or against us. This phrase goes hand in hand with the mentality of the state. Those who commit acts out of disobedience are seen as the non-citizens who become excluded and are therefore labelled the “other”. This shows that there are  power dynamics that are present during this event. The state is seeing the protestors as the “others”, and therefore, they are automatically being socially excluded. Protesting is a form of dissent, which shows resistance, which in turn is essential to power. During the Yonge Street riot, everyone who was involved in any part of the protest eventually became powerless. Their exclusion made it clear that the state/police had the upper hand and the protest’s origin was no longer given any recognition. The protestors were called hooligans and the Black Action Defense Committee (BADC) – who were the initial peaceful protestors – were immediately deemed deviant. In the midst of all the commotion, the main issues at hand had become invisible and all those involved became labeled as the ‘non-citizens’.

The criminalization of dissent during this event gives recognition to state power. According to Rose (2000), ‘actualarism’ is possessing the knowledge of risk, however, that same knowledge is what is empowering you to avoid those risks. In relation to the Yonge Street riot, a group of people stood up for what they believed in, but in the end they were given little or no recognition of their fight against racism. The main portrayals of this event show violence, deviance, and coercive policing. The way that the police responded to this event portrays the controlling nature of the state through the police force. With the numerous representations of this protest, it has shown the many ‘risks’ that must be taken in order for you challenge something that is wrong. During this event, those who took the risk are not recognized for their ability to challenge the wrongdoings of the state. Everyone has the freedom of expression and the right to challenge something they believe to be incorrect. It becomes problematic when even given these rights, people begin to have second thoughts about standing up for what they believe in. This is where it becomes clear that we are all being targeted by power (Foucault 2009) but the main question still remains: is there any way out?


Foucault, Michel. 2009. “Security, Territory, Population.” Lectures at the College de France 333-358.

Gordon, Todd. 2006. “Producing Capitalist Order: Police, Class, Race, and Gender.” Cops, Crime, and Capitalism 29-51.

Lakey, Jack. 1992. “Raging Mob of Hooligans riot, loot, and battle police.” The Toronto Star, May 5, Retrieved December 9, 2012 ((

Rose, Nikolas. 2000. “Government and Control.” British Journal of Criminology 40:321-339.



  1. […] Two days prior to the rally, a white plain-clothed police officer in Toronto shot and killed Raymond Constantine Lawrence, a 22-year-old Black man, who police alleged was dealing crack. Lawrence was the fourteenth Black […]


  2. Hey Msingh29
    I think you have some great insights about the State’s Colonial intents on racializing and criminalizing of dissenters that counter their hegemonic agenda. This event is still fresh in people’s minds and I believe that you provided a good analysis, especially with your inclusion of Rose’s theories on inclusion/exclusion. We can see, through the process of “othering”, that the state has not changed its agenda since the times of Colonial settlement (with their treatment of the Aboriginals and their troubled fiduciary relationship). Ultimately, I think your strongest point came in your last line – where you bring up Foucault’s theory of power and ask us whether there is a way out. With the power of the state, and their intents on criminalizing acts of dissent that counter their hegemonic practices, we are placed under the watchful eye of the state. They will not allow any activities that threaten their status quo, and I believe the case you explored is a great example of this. Good Work!


  3. Dear msingh29,
    Great job in your criticall analysis of the yonge street riots, I really enjoyed it. I like how you talked about inclusion and exclusion. You say that it doesn’t matter if you are excluded or included you are still being controlled. I disagree with you on that because there is a difference, the people that are excluded, they know that they are controlled, where as the people that are included they don’t know that they can get in the excluded category if they commit a crime. It is not a conspiracy theory but the ones that don’t believe that the government is using surveillance technology of sorts to gather information and therefore extend control over them are highly mistaken and those people are usually in the included category. You talk about freedom of expression and how you have to second guess yourself when you are committing an act of dissent. I would like to expand on that and to say that if a person does decide to use what was technically granted to them when he or she were born, the freedom of speech, he or she might and probably will be hypothetically relocated from the list of included in society into the excluded, the rebels of society and its norms.



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