The Yonge Street Riot that took place in 1992 has been damagingly portrayed in the media in various ways. What had originated as a peaceful gathering in front of the US Consulate located in Toronto progressed into a chaotic series of events spiraling out of police control. The purpose of this analysis will be to present how the Toronto Star newspaper portrayed the event in order to uncover how the issues were framed and represented.
Firstly, let us unpack a televised news segment broadcasted by CITY TV News the day after the demonstration . The news segment opens by mapping out the progression of the events on May 4th by using time stamps in coordination with clips of random property damage and vandalism. To demonstrate how the violence escalated over the course of the day. At the 2:59 mark, the reporter says “We have seen groups like this before in Toronto –sporting hip-hop, rap or skinhead styles; witnessed last New Year’s Eve, or closing night at The Ex”. By describing those involved in this manner the reporter is employing what Boykoff calls the Freak Frame (Boykoff, 2007). This frame focuses on the non-mainstream values, opinions, age and appearance of dissenters in order to establish them as a deviant other. At the 5:29 mark, Police Services BD Chair Susan Eng is shown saying “We cannot ask the hooligans to restrain themselves, we can only ask that others who see this as a problem they share, find some way of doing something about it”. Aside from using the term “hooligans” to establish Freak Frame, this statement perpetuates fear of violence because it implies that police were not capable of handling these situations on their own.
Another Boykoff frame that is used in this news segment is the Disruption Frame. This frame portrays the general disruption of the lives of regular law abiding citizens as a means further depicting dissenters as violent and troublesome (Boykoff, 2007) At the 8:00 mark, a gallery owner states that “This doesn’t help their cause does it? – They’re talking about having it again and we’re afraid” , later mentioning that she is considering installing a gate for her store as a result. Another store owner at the 8:25 mark says that she will be putting grates on her windows, and confirms it is because of the events that took place. She concludes her statement by saying “crime is getting a lot worse so it’s time, time to protect ourselves”. By utilizing these commentaries, the report is able to establish the disruption brought onto business owners while using their fear for future events to create further intrigue in the story. The concept of False Balance is also depicted in the broadcast. False Balance is the illusion of the equal representation of two groups in the media (Boykoff, 2007). Throughout the entire broadcast there were only two brief segments where the intent of the original protestors was discussed as being unrelated to those of situational looters. At the 3:25 mark, there is a short clip of a woman identifying herself as being part of the protest from the beginning and she claims that they do not mean to cause harm in attempts to deescalate the situation. At the 5:34 mark, the reporter reveals there is a consensus that the violence was committed by those who attached themselves to the demonstration. However, blame is quickly put towards the Black Action Defense Committee (BADC) when the reporter says, “the question remains for the organizers of the demonstration, how to avoid a replay of last night’s chaos”. By doing so this implies that the root cause of the rioting stems from decision made by the BADC. Furthermore, it places fault on the BADC for not being able to control the situation.
In the article “Fun Street becomes Fear Street” by Michael Tenszen (1992), the portrayl of fear and violence is evident. The article opens by stating “ Canada’s most famous street is becoming an iron clad commercial fortress” creating a rather dark and negative image. A quote from a merchant as cited in Tenszen 1992; “The police were not prepared for this – and now I’ve heard there is going to be more trouble this Saturday”. Tenszen continues by writing “they say there is talk ‘on the street’ of more violence” (Tenszen, 1992). By including these statements Tenszen is contributing the construction of the Violence Frame. There is also an example of the Disruption Frame by quoting another merchant saying, “ I don’t know how we are going to pay for this, we can’t even pay our taxes”. Adding this demonstrates the financial disruption caused by the events. At the very end of the article there is an attempt to create a false balance by using a quote from a clothing store manager, “The protest was fine – It was a civil protest. But all of this was caused by a few crazy people”. This final quote did not match the theme of the article but is added strategically to create the illusion of objectivity. In the article “Mob Mentality” by Debra Black (1992), the rationale given for behaviours and practices of those involved was that “the anonymity of a crowd can lead people to do things they normally wouldn’t” (Black, 1992). The method in which the article is written evokes Boykoff’s Violence Frame. The article does so by implying society has become excessively liberal. Reitz, a University of Toronto Sociologist, is quoted saying “these situations have been related to the loosening of social controls and the outbreak of social aggression” (Black, 1992). Black also writes that “This breakdown in social order and control allows many to vent their anger in anti-social behaviour such as looting or vandalism” (Black, 1992). This effectively establishes blame on lack of social control.
“Hooligans” is a reoccurring term used throughout the media representations of the Yonge Street Riot. Premiere Bob Rae claimed “Hooligans – not racism – was at the root of the Yonge St Riot” (Bob Rae as cited in Maychak, 1992). In the Article a “Year after Yonge St. Riot Frustrations Still Simmering”, Lisa Wright describes the past event as “-hundreds of hooligans smashing windows, looting stores and hurling eggs and rocks at police” (Wright, 1993). The symbolism behind “hooligans” throughout the articles is to establish the “other” via the Freak Frame. These representations dominated news media effectively eclipsing the initial cause of the protest. With the focus drawn away from the issues of racial inequality stemming from the Rodney King case of 1991, the media was able to commandeer the event and frame it as an act of circumstantial vandalism. Fast Forward to 2015, and issues of systemic racism in the police force are still a prevalent topic. In another article published by the Toronto Star titled “A Year after the Yonge St. riot frustrations still simmering” by Wright (1993), the author described how after everything “Toronto continues to struggle with systemic racism, especially on the streets and in the courthouses” (Wright, 1993). The author chooses to include quotes like “As a criminal lawyer on the front lines, I continue to see the tensions building between the citizens of Toronto and the police” – Attorney of Race Relations (Wright, 1993), as well as “The only time government attention is focused on racial problems is when they reach a crisis point” (Wright, 1993) to perpetuate fear. This article demonstrates how ineffective the event was in achieving its goal of ameliorating the injustices of systemic racism. Through analyzing the coverage of the protest and the events that followed, it becomes rather clear that the intentions of the BADC were shadowed by the random property damage and vandalism as they were sensationalized in the media. Therefore, the effectiveness of the protest was less than ideal, and as a result it is remembered as the “Yonge Street riot” rather than remembering the systemic racism that started it all.
Black, D. (1992, May 07). Mob Mentality. Toronto Star, p. C7.
Boykoff, J. (2007). Mass Media Underestimation, False Balance, and Disregard. Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States, AK Press. 248-260.
Boykoff, J. (2007). Mass Media Deprecation. Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States, AK Press. 216-247.
Maychak, M. (1992, May 06). Hooligans to blame, not racism Rae says. Toronto Star, p.A7.
Tenszen, M. (1992, May 06). Fun Street becomes Fear Street. Toronto Star, p. A14.
Wright, L. (1993, May 03). A Year after the Yonge St. riot frustrations still simmering. Toronto Star, p. A1