Toronto Deputy Police Chief Lauren Pogue warns residents ahead of a planned weekend of protests that police will arrest ‘agitators’

Toronto Police Service (TPS) Deputy Chief Lauren Pogue said that while the majority of demonstrators have remained peaceful, “there are individuals consistently involved in the protests who act as agitators and who are becoming increasingly confrontational and violent.” Pogue spoke to reporters at a press conference at TPS headquarters on April 5, 2024. (TPS/YouTube)

Toronto police responded to allegations of over-policing at a pro-Palestinian Land Day protest on March 30, where several people were arrested for assaulting officers and a police horse, and warned they would take action if protesters became aggressive.

Deputy Chief Lauren Pogue of the Toronto Police Service (TPS) spoke to reporters Friday, April 5 ahead of planned protests in the city over the weekend, including one April 6 for Al-Quds Day, which calls for the destruction of Israel.

“Our officers are well-versed in their authorities during demonstrations, and when they take action, it is unacceptable to obstruct them or become aggressive towards them,” Pogue said.

Pogue told reporters that while most protesters have been peaceful and law-abiding, police are aware of an unspecified number of “agitators” who have been “showing up on a regular basis.”

“I want to acknowledge that, not everyone participating in these demonstrations are law-breaking or aggressive towards police. That is not the case,” Pogue said. “However, there are individuals consistently involved in the protests who act as agitators and who are becoming increasingly confrontational and violent.”  

“We recognize that the vast majority of people showing up are there to for a cause, to speak out and be heard. But again, we have agitators in the crowd and we have seen an escalation,” she said.

Pogue said that while TPS has had ongoing contact, where possible, with protest organizers to make clear “what lawful demonstrations include and do not include,” some demonstrators at the March 30 protest in the Cabbagetown area “refused to cooperate or follow police directives” despite multiple warnings.

“This culminated in physical aggression towards our officers, a serious departure from the principles of lawful demonstration,” said Pogue.

“Two individuals were arrested for assaulting police officers with weapons on Saturday,” said Pogue. A 24-year-old woman threw horse manure at officers, and a 27-year-old woman attempted to “spear” at an officer using a flagpole, police allege.

TPS arrested one person this week for spitting on an officer and are seeking another person for striking a police horse, said Pogue.

Two days earlier, police charged a 34-year-old Mississauga man, who had turned himself in, with assaulting a peace officer at the March 30 demonstration.

“These actions are anything but peaceful. They jeopardize the safety of everyone involved, including those who get caught in the fray and had no intentions of engaging in altercations with police.

“We are seeing the same people showing up who are acting out in that way.”

Pogue said obstructing police means interfering with officers’ ability to maintain order.

“The choice to do so not only escalates tensions and may lead to confrontations, but it poses risk to the safety of all involved,” she said.

Police had attended more than 500 protests since Oct. 7, at a cost of $12 million to date.

TPS is upholding Charter rights to free expression and assembly, within legal limitations, she emphasized.

“Large protests are once again expected this coming weekend, we are asked to demonstrators to work with us to ensure peaceful and orderly demonstrations, and to recognize the city’s patience throughout months of disruptions,” she said. She noted that police must ensure “critical infrastructure” isn’t disrupted by demonstrations.

“While we remain dedicated to maintaining order with a measured response, we will not hesitate to enforce the law and make arrests where warranted.”

Protest organizers held their own press conference earlier this week. Some demonstrators accused TPS of police brutality and excessive use of force over some of its arrests and its deployment of officers on horseback, alleging police made deliberate attempts to trample and intimidate protesters.

When asked whether police horses were necessary to manage that demonstration, Pogue said the TPS mounted unit had been deployed on numerous occasions.

“Police horses… effectively replace 10 officers. They work very well in managing crowd control,” she said.

“With respect to last weekend, we haven’t changed our posture at all, but we did respond to what we were facing: A very hostile crowd who actually assaulted our officers [and] threw manure,” said Pogue.

Protest organizers say it’s TPS that has escalated or acted aggressively in protest situations.

Six Toronto city councillors issued a statement late on April 4 saying they had heard concerns from residents who participated in the March 30 protest and reiterated that freedom of assembly is a Charter-protected right.

“It is deeply concerning to hear residents voicing fears about their freedom to engage in protests, demonstrations and large gatherings,” said the statement signed by Amber Morley, Gord Perks, Alejandra Bravo, Ausma Malik, Paula Fletcher and Lily Cheng.

“Our city must be a place where all people are free to demonstrate and engage in protest as a form of democratic expression,” the councillors wrote.

Police chief Myron Demkiw responded to the six councillors saying in a statement, “allow me to be very clear again. The Service will always respect the right to lawful assembly, which we have done, consistently since Oct. 7.”

“It must be understood that when individual behaviour crosses into criminality, endangering officers or the public, we will enforce the law as is our duty.”

Police arrested protesters who assaulted officers, their horses or tried to obstruct officers, Demkiw said. “Other demonstrators continued to exercise their freedom of expression and were always free to depart the area.”

Toronto City Councillor James Pasternak, meanwhile, urged police and city staff to enforce the “City of Toronto Hate-sponsored Rallies policy, the Criminal Code and other statutes” ahead of the Al-Quds Day rallies.

Named after the Arabic word for Jerusalem, al-Quds Day is an annual protest coinciding with the end of Ramadan. It was started in 1979 by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini to call for the destruction of Israel.

In a statement released April 5, Pasternak said past organizers of the annual Quds Day event have invited Holocaust deniers to speak, while “other speakers incited violence against Jews and spread conspiracy theories” to support their claims, he said.

“Some of these speakers have demanded that Jews in Jerusalem be exterminated and called for the annihilation of Israel. Given the months of dangerous protests that have occurred throughout Toronto, it is anticipated that this year’s Al-Quds Day will be menacing,” wrote Pasternak.

Pasternak said the annual event was known for “inciting antisemitism, demonization, and violence” and that incidents in previous years “generated serious concerns for safety in Toronto’s Jewish community” and the general public.

“This event does not come close to meeting Charter protection for peaceful assembly,” Pasternak wrote.

He called for police and city staff to ensure “all federal and provincial laws are adhered to, City bylaws are enforced and the city remains safe,” and that protesters must not be allowed to obstruct ambulance routes.

Noah Shack, vice-president for countering antisemitism at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, says it’s encouraging that police clearly acknowledged there are some “agitators” adding to the increasingly aggressive tenor of many protests.

“This disruption is deeply impacting the Jewish community in particular… seeing signs, hearing chants calling for the elimination of Israel in particular,” said Shack.

“Seeing this rise to the level of physical violence is deeply disturbing for our community, but it’s distressing for the broader community. This is not just a problem that’s impacting the Jewish community. This is something that’s impacting our entire city,” he said.

“It’s absolutely unacceptable for people to throw horse manure at police, to spear police officers with sticks, to beat a police horse. That is a reasonable position,” he said. “The fact that’s proving a tough pill to swallow for some people really calls into question what kind of a city they would like us to be living in, one where there are no consequences for violence… absolutely no limits on the extent to which the city can be disrupted and brought to a standstill.”

“I don’t think that’s the kind of city that people the Torontonians want,” said Shack.

“I think everybody respects the fact that people have different perspectives and want to raise their voices in demonstration. But there are limits, and certainly violence should never be tolerated, and hate needs to be dealt with.”

Shack echoed what Pogue and Demkiw, have said since Oct. 7 about protecting Charter rights to demonstrate—safely.

“We absolutely need to protect fundamental rights to demonstrate and to protest, but ultimately, this city has to be a safe place for all of its residents, including the Jewish community,” said Shack.

“Police are sending a very clear message that if you break the law, you’ll be held accountable and that while everyone has a right to demonstrate, those demonstrations have to be peaceful… and that disruption to the city should be kept to a minimum.”

In addition to the Quds Day protest Saturday, the Jewish community is holding a rally at Nathan Phillips Square on Sunday, April 7, calling for the release of the hostages who have been held for six months by Hamas in Gaza. Of the 253 hostages captured Oct. 7, about 130 remain under Hamas control in Gaza, with around 100 of them thought to be still alive.

“There are positive demonstrations that are happening as well,” Shack says. “And we’re grateful for police ensuring that that doesn’t get disrupted, and that we’re able to gather together as a community to focus attention on what started this war in the first place and why it’s still happening.”