By Morgan Yew and the Canadian Anti-Hate Network
Photo by Morgan Yew
When the anti-racist and anti-fascist community learned that lawyer Caryma Sa’d had invited her nemesis Chris Saccocia to a debate in Chinatown, many asked her to reconsider, or called out her decision as dangerous. Sa’d, a lawyer growing in prominence on social media for her satirical cartoons and takedowns of Doug Ford and anti-maskers like Chris Sky, decided to move forward anyway.
In response, local anti-racists and anti-fascists planned a silent blockade of the one entrance to the space. Arriving early, they deployed a large banner reading “Mask It Or Casket.”
Caryma blames the blockade, and not her event, for the ensuing violence.
Muddying the waters is an ongoing dispute between Caryma Sa’d and other mall residents. The former say that she’s not using the Chinatown Centre Mall space as intended, and is depriving community members of their use of the space. Sa’d says she is not disruptive and that “the quiet part nobody dares say aloud” is that she isn’t recognized as a community member because she is not East Asian.
Sa’d first alleged that the blockade was organized by Friends of Chinatown, before walking that back in a later statement.
Prior to the event, in a series of posts to both Twitter and Instagram, FOCT penned a statement with the Friends of Kensington Market, the Kensington Tenant Network and other concerned community members asking for the event to be cancelled. The groups noted Saccoccia’s Holocaust denial, racism, and antagonism, as well as concern for the safety of Chinatown’s residents.
The Chinatown and Kensington neighbourhoods saw a surge of hate-motivated activity over the pandemic, and community organizers have noted the struggle to get residents -- who are disproportionately elderly, and experience a systemic lack of support -- vaccinated, due to lack of accommodations including language and access barriers.
“Not only is this event not permitted by the mall board of directors, the potential for an audience would be against public health codes, and the risk of Sky's anti-mask supporters being present puts those who are most marginalized in our community at risk,” FOCT said in the social posts.
“A crowd of unvaccinated anti-maskers would endanger racialized senior community members, especially during a time when various grassroots organizations have been working to get first and second doses to the neighbourhood with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the city.”
Sa’d says the timing of the nighttime show meant that there would not be a significant impact on the community and that she obtained approval from the Chinatown Centre board for the event.
Despite both the public and privately shared concerns, organizers, including Toronto shock jock Dean Blundell, decided to proceed.
“At this point, any person or group interested in stopping conversations ought to be buried under a pile of elephant shit,” Blundell wrote in a blog post. “The effort any extremist group makes to prevent Caryma from having a conversation with anyone she wants will be met with a face full of ‘fuck you’ tonight.
“Toronto Police will be there (we made sure of it) and some of my friends to make sure no one from any fringe org stops this one-woman wrecking crew from putting on an event she worked very hard on.”
Leading up to the event, FOCT said it canvassed the area to ensure the community was aware and able to take steps to ensure their safety.
The show was originally intended to feature several comedians and speakers as part of Sa’d’s other venture, an outdoor comedy show called “420 Cannabis Court.” Multiple posts on social media referred to the July 10 event as the “kick off” to this year’s comedy season. Sa’d said this wasn’t about giving Saccoccia a platform, but about using humour to tear him down.
“We weren’t here to let him ramble,” claimed Leslie Bellack, one of Sa’d event partners.
According to Bellack, two performers had dropped out, allegedly due to online harassment. Sa’d reiterated this when reached for comment and in a statement, and in a live post to Dean Blundell’s Periscope account.
“We had a couple comedians who felt that they were almost in danger… some of them were scared,” Bellack said when asked for comment outside the venue on Saturday.
CAHN was unable to find evidence of harassment of the listed performers on public channels, save for one tweet by a known member of far-right hate groups. Sa'd says that the harassment had taken place over direct messages.
"And that’s not to suggest every (or any) messages were necessarily violent. It could have just been the volume," Sa'd wrote to CAHN.
When we followed up on this claim, one comedian indicated to CAHN that he had dropped out prior to the event for unrelated reasons, while the others did not respond to requests for comment.
Soccaccia was to be appearing in front of a “socially distanced” audience of 25 members. 420 Cannabis Court claimed that health orders would be followed. Through her lawyer, Sa’d threatened to trespass (have charged) anybody who showed up to be disruptive. Many, many more Saccoccia fans ultimately showed up, and nobody was trespassed. [Editor's note: Caryma Sa'd has subsequently indicated that the security she hired issued trespass notices to two individuals but then abandoned the tactic as futile.]
The Main Event
At around 7 pm, two hours before the scheduled start, demonstrators formed a barricade outside the stairs to Chinatown Centre Mall’s courtyard and Anti-Displacement Garden, where the event was scheduled to occur.
Holding a large banner reading “Mask it or Casket,” demonstrators tell CAHN their plan was to remain silent and non-confrontational, and to prohibit entry for as long as it was safe to do so. Unaffiliated community members were alongside and later instrumental in de-escalating violence.
Non-violent blockades are a standard tactical choice for anti-racists and anti-fascists. Similar to a sit-in, the purpose of a blockade is simple -- prevent access to, or protect, an event or a space from those who may harm the community.
“No platform for racists” is a fundamental principle of anti-racism and anti-fascism. In many cases, this manifests in campaigns to deplatform hatemongers from shared online spaces. In some situations organizing is called for to counter others in the community, like business owners, who choose to host them. Denying a platform to hatemongers is not divisive, controversial, or contradictory to free expression. In fact, it bolsters expression.
Saccoccia arrived on scene just before 10 pm and was met by his fans. Snapping pictures and live streaming to the crowd, he claimed the event was originally intended to be a debate, but had been changed to an interview format because Sa’d was afraid.
Saccoccia managed to jump over a small barrier wall. He and others landed on the other side of the barricade, and disrupted the blockade line.
Chris Saccoccia pushing through the barricade. Credit: Morgan Yew
“What are you gonna do? You’re nothing,” he shouted. “All of you are nothing.”
Behind him, chaos erupted as his followers began to jostle the demonstrators, pulling at bikes used as part of the blockade. Video of the incident shows one of Saccoccia’s fans bashing the head of a demonstrator with a bottle. Ron Banerjee -- an anti-Muslim Hindu nationalist and regular fixture at Toronto “patriot” protests -- was nearby and filming.
He continued, yelling “Somebody should give these Antifa a beating! They deserve a beating!”
Ron Banerjee pulling on a demonstrator. Credit: Morgan Yew
At one point during the violence -- captured on film -- Banerjee reaches forward and sucker-punches one of the demonstrators engaged in a tug-of-war over a bicycle. He was pulled back and told to calm down by a community member.
Moments later he can be heard screaming again: “Take his bike, steal his bike.”
Ron Banerjee sucker-punching a demonstrator. Source: Twitter
The same clip also shows a grey-haired man in a white shirt emblazoned with the words “Not A Sheep” attacking demonstrators and marshals repeatedly, and attempting to take their bikes. Escalations happened repeatedly following calls of violence, taunts, and threats, directed at retreating marshals.
Unsatisfied with having easily pushed his way through the barricade, Saccoccia hung behind counter-demonstrators, grabbing a demonstrator’s bike and pushing them.
“Fuck you Antifa, you can’t stop us,” he called. “If you try to stop us, we’ll fight back.”
Saccoccia is also heard on camera saying, “I want them to fucking touch me, I’ll kill them.”
Attendees remarked on the number of open liquor bottles being carried by Saccoccia’s base, and the person filming for Saccoccia’s social feeds is heard remarking that they need to “sober up.” One of them threw a broken glass beer bottle into the garden, frequented by members of the Asian community who play Mahjong.
Later, Saccoccia was taken inside of a building by someone claiming to work for Sa’d, but some of his fans continued to face off with anti-racists outside. Banerjee could be heard taunting demonstrators.
The anti-racist demonstrators began to leave as planned when their blockade was broken and it became unsafe, but were followed onto Spadina Avenue by Saccoccia’s fans. A number of scuffles broke out, and ended when Toronto police arrived.
Multiple separate accounts from the scene detail describe someone from Saccoccia’s side with a bowling ball -- later seen in one of his videos. Saccoccia claimed he had confiscated it from the demonstrators.
However, CAHN has obtained a video clip that shows a member of the anti-mask camp holding the same ball and bouncing it in his hands, as well as what appears to be a beer can, before they had begun to clash with the blockade.
It was later revealed that this was likely a contact juggler and co-founder of an anti-lockdown publication.
Saccoccia also claimed that he had confiscated “batons.” Sa’d referred to demonstrators bringing “weapons,” which it turned out were taiko drumming sticks from someone who had arrived from practice. Both the drumming sticks and a cell phone were reportedly stolen from a demonstrator.
Since Saturday evening, Sa’d and Saccoccia have both blamed the demonstrators for violence, despite video evidence that it was the anti-maskers. Saccoccia himself has been bragging about how he “jump[ed] the barricades” to “disperse” the anti-racist demonstrators.
Sa’d’s statement, published on July 13, includes an apology to Saccoccia and Zee, one of his close associates. Saccoccia says that Sa’d invited the anti-racist demonstrators to set him up, which is demonstrably untrue.
“We know you set it up from the start,” he wrote, replying to Sa'd's statement on Twitter. “Your ‘apology’ is nothing more than self serving and poorly crafted damage control.”
Sa’d has been repeating anti-anti-fascist talking points we more commonly associate with the far-right. She repeatedly describes them as “violent,” “militant,” shares the unsubstantiated claim they brought weapons, and complains that the anti-racists have “censored” her. Sa’d has also been retweeting Rebel News, and Saccoccia himself. Her statement deflects all responsibility for the violence onto the anti-racist demonstrators.
Caryma disputes this characterization of her statements and says that she retweeted them because they referred to her event and not because she endorses them.
This doubling down has led to even further backlash on social media. Many accounts engaging with Sa’d were reportedly blocked. “The Office” of Sa’d threatened to file a complaint with the Law Society of Ontario when Dave Shellnutt, also a lawyer, asked Sa’d by DM why she had chosen to boost Rebel News’ reporting.
Sa’d’s statement names an East Asian community member and business owner as being the source of the trouble, painting the real issue as a longstanding tenancy dispute, rather than the widespread objections to giving Saccoccia a platform.
Sa’d says she looks “forward to hosting a town hall to air out these grievances in a meaningful and productive way.”
This article has been updated to include that Friends of Kensington Market, the Kensington Tenant Network and other concerned community members also contributed to writing the statement asking the event to be cancelled.
Editor's note: Following publication of this article, further information was provided by Caryma Sa'd, and the article was updated accordingly.
Morgan Yew is a Toronto-based video journalist and DJ. Follow Morgan at @weynagrom.