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Black teen claims excessive force by TTC fare inspectors and police

John Doe, who is Black, launched a lawsuit this week, seeking more than $3 million in damages from the Toronto Police Services Board and the Toronto Transit Commission among others. He alleges racial profiling, assault, unlawful detention and negligence.

“Look at me. I’m a normal guy.” It’s a simple, gut-wrenching plea by a teen captured on video in February.

They looked at him, but I don’t know what TTC fare inspectors and Toronto police saw.

Part of the video of a violent takedown captured on YouTube shows 19-year-old John Doe crying desperately while pinned to the ground by three men in TTC fare inspector uniforms. “I’m hurting, I’m hurting,” and “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

When Toronto Police officers arrive, they swarm the scene, keeping him down and then haul him up to take him to the cruiser and handcuff him.

At one point there appear to be at least seven men piled on to him.

Such excessive force. Why? Nobody knows. He was unarmed. He was already pinned down by three grown men. He wasn’t in any position to run.

A screenshot from an edited version of a video taken by bystander Bethany McBride of an incident involving TTC fare enforcement officers and an unnamed Black man on Feb. 20.
A screenshot from an edited version of a video taken by bystander Bethany McBride of an incident involving TTC fare enforcement officers and an unnamed Black man on Feb. 20.  (BETHANY MCBRIDE)

Why was he caught in the first place? Nobody knows.

“Look at me. I’m a normal guy.” They looked, and perhaps they saw the “wrong” skin colour.

A skin colour that translates into danger not innocence.

Young John Doe, who is Black, certainly thinks so, which is why he and his mother launched a lawsuit this week, seeking more than $3 million in damages from the Toronto Police Services Board, the Toronto Transit Commission, two unidentified police officers and three unidentified TTC fare inspectors.

The lawsuit alleges racial profiling, assault, unlawful detention and negligence among others.

John Doe, a student of paralegal studies also working as a food courier, was just another guy on the 512 St. Clair streetcar preparing to exit at Bathurst St. when he was grabbed.

“He was suddenly and without warning attacked and thrown to the ground by TTC fare inspectors despite crying for help, held there, not told what was happening,” said Hugh Scher, one of his lawyers.

There was never any indication that the fare hadn’t been paid. And he had paid, Scher said. Nor was he charged with any offence of TTC bylaw infraction.

At one point, the claim says, the fare inspectors twisted and pinned John Doe’s left shoulder and arm, “held his right arm behind his back, and kneeled, sat and held on his back and his legs.”

Despite the fact that he “noticeably suffered a head injury,” he got no medical assistance. “At no time did any of the defendants take steps to advise medical personnel of the nature of the force (used) … or of the injuries he sustained,” the claim says.

Strangers ultimately accompanied him home to ensure he was safe. “Citizens of Toronto and TTC passengers were so distraught with what they saw they wanted to ensure this young man was home safe,” said David Shellnut, Doe’s other lawyer.

The TTC would not comment on the claim. “There is an ongoing investigation by the TTC on this matter,” a spokesperson, Brad Ross, told me. The transit agency is investigating code of conduct violations by a fare inspector.

One of the fare inspectors has been suspended with pay. Toronto police did not want to weigh in, “as it would be inappropriate for us to comment while the statement of claim is being reviewed,” according to a spokesperson, Kevin Masterman.

John Doe suffered serious physical and psychological injuries as a result of this incident, his claim says.

The list of physical damages include traumatic brain injury, injuries to his head, neck and shoulders. The half-hour ordeal of pain and public humiliation also left the teen suffering from anxiety and depression, nightmares and flashbacks, blurred vision and debilitating headaches.

Here is the tricky thing about racism. How do you prove it? There is data, tons of it to show that Black people are systemically discriminated against by authorities. The newest one is an analysis by CBC News that shows in deadly encounters with Toronto police between 2000 and 2017, more than one-third of the victims were Black.

There is data, tons of anecdotes and studies and court cases to show that Black people are individually discriminated against. But Black people can be violated and killed, and it’s never enough. Despite all the data, media pundits, responding to the recently announced Liberal plans for a cross-country public consultation on systemic racism, have said either there is no systemic racism or it’s not a big enough deal.

This incident was captured on video and made the headlines. How many other such passengers are harassed, violated and humiliated out there? “Our hope is that people will take note and these kinds of profiling will not be tolerated,” Scher said. “To ensure that people are treated with dignity and civility. And that there’s a level of accountability.”

His dignity was fundamentally attacked all because of what? “Effectively, he was arrested for being Black.”