The cost of policing public sex

OPINION: Five years ago, Toronto police cracked down on park cruising in a campaign called Project Marie. But LGBTQ2S+ activists fought back, reshaping the community’s relationship to the police

In November 2016, The Etobicoke Guardian, a Toronto community newspaper, ran a cover story under the headline “CRACKDOWN: Undercover police put an end to public sex in Marie Curtis Park.” The cover text is at once incendiary and, somehow, hopelessly naive. The idea that a newspaper would print a headline proclaiming the end of public sex is so dumb it’s almost charming. Oh honey.

Project Marie was a sting operation conducted by the Toronto Police Service over a six-week period at Marie Curtis Park, a west-end Toronto waterfront where the suburb of Etobicoke meets the bustling nearby city of Mississauga. A plainclothes police officer named Kevin Ward cruised the bushes, and when men made contact, he cited them for sexual activity in the park. Car cruising is also popular at Marie Curtis Park, and so officers surveilled one of its two parking lots late at night and ticketed everyone there. The park is technically closed from midnight to 5 a.m., so the police didn’t even need the pretext of sexual activity. The tickets were for trespassing. 

Even five years ago, Project Marie was hardly unique. In Canada, police have periodically taken an interest in park cruising, and crackdowns have been announced in a variety of settings. In 2017, Sûreté du Québec (Quebec’s provincial police force) raided the unofficial nude beach and cruising grounds at the Sainte-Marguerite waterfall in Sainte-Adèle; Ottawa Police announced an enforcement blitz against park cruising in the fall of 2010; and Surrey RCMP in the Bear Creek area of British Columbia undertook a similar crackdown in the summer of 2004

Still, it felt like we were being trolled. Earlier in 2016, then Toronto police chief Mark Saunders issued a half-hearted non-apology for the 1981 bathhouse raids, one of the largest mass arrests in Canadian history. Police were publicly offended over calls for them not to have a float or booth at Pride. For the police to be making these public overtures to the LGBTQ2S+ community at the very moment they were sending an officer to solicit men at Marie Curtis Park was pretty rich. The icing on the cake was a police event where Torontonians were encouraged to “take back the park”—adopting feminist language with its own troubling racial history—by walking through the cruising area in candlelight vigil.

“If police were going to hold a vigil to celebrate the end of park cruising, then we would crash their party.”

Two things happened in the immediate aftermath: first, queer and progressive lawyers moved to defend the men who had been affected. We organized through the Law Union of Ontario—the same group who provided legal support following the bathhouse raids through the Right to Privacy Committee. Although I was involved in organizing this, the heavy lifting was done by criminal defence lawyers. All of the men who contacted us and decided to fight the charges had them dropped eventually, though the process took more than eight months.


Second, a group began to coalesce to demand police accountability for Project Marie, meeting at Glad Day Bookshop, the world’s oldest LGBTQ2S+ bookstore nestled in the Village. (For transparency’s sake, I am part-owner of Glad Day.) If police were going to hold a vigil to celebrate the end of park cruising and invite the public to “walk the beat” with them, then we would crash their party; Queers Crash the Beat was born. The group remained active even after the court cases were over. A focus was police accountability: the first banner Queers Crash the Beat carried (counter-protesting the “take back the park” event) read “Same Cops, New PR.” The last one they carried was a mermaid sequin invocation to “Queers: Imagine a World Without Police.”

Project Marie is part of a long and ongoing history of police misconduct in Toronto. Among the most high-profile cases: the 1981 bathhouse raids, charges and arrests for so-called obscene materials in bookshops and a raid on a queer women’s bathhouse called Pussy Palace in 2000. But it’s not a matter of “then” versus “now”; it is part of a pattern of contemporary conduct. Still, there was something special about this moment: Project Marie was executed in the midst of two other crises in policing in Toronto. And this cluster of events—and the activist responses to them—helped to reshape the relationship between queer and trans people and the police.

In March 2016, Toronto’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU)—a squad that investigates, among other things, civilian deaths at the hands of police—cleared Const. Andrew Doyle in the shooting death of Andrew Loku, a 45-year-old father of five from South Sudan living in the city. Doyle fatally shot Loku in the early hours of July 5, 2015. The shooting was witnessed by another resident in Loku’s apartment building and many of his neighbours heard the shots. 

All witnesses agree that police acted extremely quickly—approximately 21 seconds from the time officers arrived to when Doyle fired his gun. The SIU also declined to release Const. Doyle’s name, which would not become public for two years. 

The Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protested the shooting, the refusal to prosecute the officer and the decision not to release his name. It called for a review of the SIU itself, a system that activists saw as protecting police accused of misconduct rather than bringing them to justice. 

“How long must the same scenes be repeated before we decide the police are irredeemable?”

A BLM-led protest at City Hall on Mar. 20, 2016, turned into an all-night vigil in front of Toronto Police’s 52 division. Then it became a 15-day sit-in, with members of Black Lives Matter camped at what came to be known as “tent city,” sleeping in shifts and relying on volunteers for food and supplies. It would have been an ambitious project at any time, but in March that year, the nights were frigid and the days not much better. Images circulated of the protesters dressed in layers, in some cases tucked into sleeping bags, their breath visible. It was an unignorable feat of endurance.

What happened chronologically after Project Marie is also burned into our memories. The following year, Selim Esen and Andrew Kinsman disappeared, the last known victims of Bruce McArthur, a killer who targeted men connected to Toronto’s Gay Village and who pleaded guilty to eight counts of first-degree murder in 2019. But in 2016, police chief Saunders insisted that there was no serial killer in the Village, which, after the belated arrest of McArthur in 2018 and the almost daily, grizzly news reports that followed, turned out to be spectacularly and horrifyingly untrue. The Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention (ASAAP) organized calls for a civilian review of the police’s handling of missing persons cases, which eventually led to Justice Gloria J. Epstein’s report, Missing and Missed

After the immediate response to the Project Marie raid was over, Queers Crash the Beat continued to remind our communities—the parts of our communities that needed reminding, anyway—that the police are not our friends. The group disrupted a Police Services Board meeting with a banner that read “stop racist policing.” They organized a letter-writing campaign urging the elected members of the police board to hold the organization to account. They released a “know your rights” video about what to expect if park cruisers are stopped by police.

BLM was invited to be the honoured group at the Toronto Pride parade in 2016, during which it staged a protest, halting the parade for an hour to call for better sign language interpretation at events, funding for community stages and for Toronto Pride to show due respect to Blockorama, an event stage devoted to Black artists. One of BLM’s nine demands was for Toronto Pride not to allow police floats or booths at the festivities.

The outpouring of racist vitriol levelled against BLM on social media that day and in the days following was venomous. In that moment, it seemed clear that white queer and trans people, but especially white gay men, were incapable of accepting that Black queer and trans people had something to teach us. 

It was also clear that for certain segments of white queer people, there was a feeling that police were unproblematic, and that any issues with homophobic or racist policing were in the past. But the year ended with a young Black man named Dafonte Miller being beaten and maimed by an off-duty police officer. And the next year started with six white officers beating a Black man while yelling at bystanders that “he’s going to spit in your face and you’re going to get AIDS.” It adds up. How long must the same scenes be repeated before we decide the police are irredeemable? 

I don’t think that our communities are any less racist, but I do think that the work of BLM, Queers Crash the Beat and ASAAP during this period drew attention to very real problems and helped to undermine confidence in policing among an expanded group of queer and trans people. 

In October 2020, there was an outpouring of skepticism about policing during the public meeting held at The 519 Community Centre as part of Justice Gloria Epstein’s independent review of how missing persons cases are handled. As Xtra noted at the time, a related survey showed that almost half of respondents “expressed little to no confidence in the police. Notably, that number was much higher for trans and non-binary respondents at 71 percent.” Participants at the public meeting persistently called for the defunding of the police

“The difficult truth is that half measures have not changed police culture.”

Police abolition can happen in one of two ways: the institution could be decommissioned in one fell swoop and the funds redistributed, or efforts could be made to systematically peel off police responsibilities to shrink and weaken them over time and for those responsibilities be transferred to civilian groups. The Epstein inquiry—given that its scope was limited to missing persons cases—was an opportunity to do the latter. Queers Crash the Beat and other groups argued that missing persons cases should be taken away from the police and handled by a civilian body where there is no mandatory police report, and instead connection to services and return to care, where appropriate, and crisis intervention. No guns, no criminal charges, no immigration challenges. 

The difficult truth is that half measures have not changed police culture. The Toronto Police have introduced sensitivity training, a police-LGBTQ2S+ relations committee, an outreach officer, floats in the Pride parade and recruitment at queer and trans events. They issued a non-apology for the 1981 bathhouse raids, and they commissioned a policing mural in the Village. Yet, overpolicing and underprotection continues in queer and trans communities, especially in communities of colour. 

Ultimately, the Epstein report was scathing in its diagnosis of the problem. Justice Epstein found serious flaws not just in the McArthur investigation but also in the cases of Alloura Wells, a 27-year-old trans woman of colour whose murder remains unresolved, and Tess Richey, a 22-year-old cis woman who was murdered in the Village. Justice Epstein also found that the police’s bad reputation among marginalized communities was a barrier to police work on missing persons cases. The reality is that people from minority communities fear reporting their loved ones missing, and many people who are missing fear being found by police. If a person fears that they or their loved one will be arrested for making a missing persons report, they will either not report, or will leave out crucial pieces of information. Justice Epstein ultimately proposed a police-civilian hybrid model and additional funding for police, neither of which addresses these fundamental problems.

In other words, we will have to keep fighting. And that is hardly a surprise. The activist project is one that must always be renewed. But when it comes to police accountability, the events of the last five years have changed the terrain for a generation. And that is no small feat.

Marcus McCann

Marcus McCann is an employment and human rights lawyer, member of Queers Crash the Beat, and a part owner of Glad Day Bookshop. Before becoming a lawyer, he was the managing editor of Xtra in Toronto and Ottawa.

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