A viral video prompts an apology from Toronto police—and highlights the ongoing tension between protesters and suburban residents

Pro-Palestinian supporters on the Avenue Road bridge, Jan. 6. (Credit: Lila Sarick)

A Toronto police officer’s delivery of Tim Hortons to protesters on a Toronto highway overpass has brought worldwide attention to ongoing demonstrations that have been disrupting a suburban and predominantly Jewish neighbourhood.

In a video taken Jan. 6 that has since gone viral, a Toronto police officer was filmed delivering a cardboard carafe and cups to pro-Palestinian protesters demonstrating on the bridge that links Avenue Road to the city. Police had blocked the bridge at both ends and would not allow someone on to deliver the order—so an officer handled it on their behalf.

A day later, Police Chief Myron Demkiw was forced to apologize for the move.

“Questions have been raised regarding one particular interaction between officers and a person on the Avenue Road bridge during an hours-long demonstration. Whatever the intent, the impact has been to cause concern and confusion and for that I am sorry,” Demkiw said in a statement.

The chief said he has ordered “a thorough review of the day’s events,” noting that the protest was one of a half-dozen demonstrations on local highway overpasses that Saturday.

Since Oct. 7, police have managed almost 300 protests. Two police command centres have been parked in Jewish neighbourhoods, since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.

Residents in the neighbourhood on the far side of the bridge are fearful about the demonstrations, where protesters regularly wave flags, launch smoke bombs—and on one occasion occupied the street to pray.

They are also deeply frustrated that police and politicians seem to be unable to prevent the disruption to their lives. The bridge, which arches over 12 lanes of traffic, has been frequently closed in the last month as protesters occupy the only entrance to a neighbourhood that is also home to synagogues and a Jewish school.

Saturday, Jan. 6 was no different. The bridge was closed by police, who strung yellow crime tape on the neighbourhood side, as they moved flag-waving protesters to one side of the bridge. Buses were also used to block off the entrance, while an empty ambulance waited on a sidestreet. Police cars with flashing lights also monitored the scene from the busy highway below.

Police tape closed the bridge at Avenue Road as pro-Palestinian supporters demonstrated, Jan. 6. (Credit: Lila Sarick)

A steady stream of cars was forced by police to turn around as they reached the bridge and a small knot of residents gathered and watched.

One arrest was made, but no one was charged in the bridge protest, a police spokesperson said.  

(Two weeks earlier, on Dec. 24, alleged behaviour at this location by 58-year-old Nicole Ziegler from Thornhill, Ont., led to criminal charges of uttering threats/death or causing bodily harm. She is scheduled to appear in court on Feb. 9.)

The protests, now in their fifth week, have neighbours both alarmed and fuming.

“It is becoming more violent, more intimidating. The lawlessness that is being allowed in the city is just inexplicable,” said Sharlene Wilder, who lives nearby.

The protests are an accident waiting to happen, as drivers are distracted by the flags being waved on the bridge, she fears.  “I’m all for peaceful rallies and protests, but this, the intention of this is to incite and intimidate a Jewish community that is already on edge.”

Rinat Samuel said her teenage daughter had to be driven across the bridge by police a few days ago, to avoid the protesters.

“We need to make a major change with Trudeau, and with Chow and Ford,” she said, referring to the prime minister, mayor and premier.

“They were there for the first night at Mel Lastman Square, standing united with Israel and where have they been. Silence, zero, nothing.”

Protests have been held at highway overpasses across the Toronto area, but the Avenue Road one has attracted the most attention.

“It cuts a Jewish neighbourhood in half, so they’ve strategically chosen this location. And I just think it’s disgusting that the authorities are allowing this to happen,” said Daniel Cohen.

Politicians for the area say they are frustrated as well. City councillor James Pasternak, who represents the area, said he was “shocked” when he heard about the police officer delivering coffee.

“You have a situation in which these protesters, these angry mobs are defying police at every opportunity, they’re baiting police by continually going back on this 401 crossover and there has to be barriers between the mob and police,” he said in an interview with The CJN.

“It created a very unbalanced, inappropriate interaction between people who have been calling for the genocide of Jews and officers handing out coffee to them.”

However, he points out that Toronto’s police force of about 4,800 officers is under-resourced for a city of 3 million. Police are stretched thin controlling the protests, which he estimated have cost “millions of dollars.”

Pasternak has asked the provincial minister of transportation to make it illegal to protest on highway overpasses and is working this week with the city’s licensing and transportation departments as well.

The unruly protests and vandalism, which have targeted Jewish-owned businesses in some cases, have violated federal and provincial statutes, he says, with few consequences for the lawbreakers. But the City of Toronto could do more as well.

The municipality of Ottawa has recently charged protesters with noise violations, which he refers to as the “low-hanging fruit” in tackling the issue.

Toronto passed legislation against hate rallies four years ago and the city could also issue trespass letters, he says.

“We have this hate rallies policy and staff have just not been enforcing it and I’ve never gotten a straight answer on why they’re not. Whether they don’t have the motivation, or they don’t have the resources, or they think it won’t do any good.

“But if they had been on that in the beginning, in the early stages during Al-Quds Day, it would have sent a signal that angry mobs targeting the Jewish community, or any community, are not welcome here.”

Provincial Solicitor-General Michael Kerzner–who also lives in the neighbourhood near the bridge–is adamant that the province has been combatting hate. He is meeting today with police chiefs from the 12 largest cities to discuss the strategies they have been employing.

He cautions, though, that as solicitor-general, he does not dictate to any police department how to run their operations.

“I’ve got every confidence that the command leadership of Toronto police will make the best decisions to keep our community safe. The command centres on Bathurst Street have been proof positive of just how concerned police services are with the Jewish community specifically,” he told The CJN.

The ongoing protests have created an environment ripe for escalation, Pasternak and Jewish advocates say. They point to a Jan. 3 fire being investigated as a hate-motivated crime, at International Delicatessen Foods, a Jewish-owned business in the same riding as the Avenue Road bridge.

“This incitement almost always leads to violence. All the warning signals were there,” Pasternak said. “Sadly, a Jewish-owned store, which has nothing to do with the Middle East, was firebombed.”

Jaime Kirzner-Roberts, vice-president of the Greater Toronto Area for Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), told The CJN last week that the incident appears to be part of the rising levels of antisemitism in the city.

“I wish I could say I was shocked, but I’m not, because we have seen antisemitism escalating rapidly in the city over the last three months,” said Kirzner-Roberts.

“We have seen, for example, the protests coming closer and closer into our neighbourhoods. We’ve seen protests targeting random Jewish businesses,” she said.

“The community has been very concerned about what’s been going on on the bridge and out on Avenue Road, and now this seems to be taking the concerns to another level,” she said.

Politicians from all levels of government denounced the suspected arson and graffiti at the restaurant. A group of anonymous donors have offered a $50,000 reward through Crime Stoppers for information about the incident, Kerzner said.

Pasternak is also planning on meeting with Toronto’s police chief on Jan. 8, to discuss what he calls the increasing “lawlessness” he has observed.

Some politicians, including the mayor’s office, believe the protests will eventually blow over, an idea he calls “unrealistic.”

“We have to find a balance to keep the community safe, to make sure these don’t spiral out of control and that there’s no more violence or firebombing.”