It has taken me several attempts and more than 24 hours to begin to unpack some of the events that happened Saturday night in such a way that I may convey them to people who are not myself, were not where I was, and were not with me afterwards. This is about the best that I can do.
Saturday night, while out for Nuit Blanche, my friend Cara and I were looking for a washroom. The security guards at AMC told us that the nearest one we could likely use was at the 24/h Burger King on Yonge. When we got there the counter was lined up to the doors with customers; easily 40-60 people in line. The washrooms were behind a locked door on the main floor with a sign that stated that it was for customers only. We saw an opportunity to slip through the door while a group of people were coming out and we took it.
The women’s bathroom is down a narrow flight of dirty stairs leading into the basement. From there you go down a few metres to a corner, and then down the hall to where the ladies room is. A bit further down the hall and around another short turn is the men’s room. It is a dim, low ceiling area with halls; so narrow that you can’t comfortably pass others with space once down there. The stairs could not easily accommodate two-way traffic. There is no camera, offices, or anything but the basement and the bathrooms.
While we were down there a few people were around, both inside and outside the bathrooms. When I came out of my stall and didn’t see Cara, I assumed that she had decided to leave the gross bathroom and head upstairs. Figuring I had just missed her, I went into the hallway to see if I could see her on the stairs. When I exited the bathroom, the whole hall was empty; or at least it had appeared that way.
I looked around the corner and didn’t see her so I went to turn back. I was then met in the corridor by two men who had been standing around the second curve. They stood shoulder to shoulder so they filled the hall and began to walk towards me. Both had their hands in their pockets and one had a scarf covering the lower part of his face. They advanced towards me making eye contact the whole time, and without saying a word they suddenly took quick, aggressive steps which startled me, causing me to back up into the corner at the end of the hall. I’ve never been a big fan of male posturing or aggression and at this point, thoroughly terrified by the situation with my back against the wall at the end of an empty hall in a locked basement out-numbered two to one, I decided to fight back. I told them to “fucking move” and I walked past them and ran into the women’s washroom where I proceeded to slowly begin to lose my shit.
Cara was inside still and I made her wait for about 10 minutes with me before I felt like it was safe for either of us to leave. She checked the hall and it appeared empty again so we decided to leave with the next group of women. We did, and again, just like the time before, the once empty hall now had one of these men in it, at the corner, on his phone. The other was nowhere to be seen (If I had to guess he was probably behind us, around the second curve again). The very fact they were able to advance me into the corner without speaking a word to me or each other made me almost certain that their whole reason for being down there was to prey on women, and that they had previously discussed their strategy.
We left safely, but only after I was completely out did the adrenaline wear off enough for me to appreciate the gravity of what might have happened had I been down there alone, or had I not turned back at the stairs to then be facing their advance. I am upset about what transpired in that basement, but at the end of the day I am fine. I did the right thing and I am comfortable with how Cara and I handled the situation.
What happened next is why I am so upset today; an even ruder awakening about the safety and security of women in this city, and exactly where on the priority sheet violence, or would-be violence, towards women is located for the Toronto Police. (Spoiler alert: It’s at the bottom.)
Just across the street at the Eaton’s Centre, a police officer was talking with some security guards. The officer I spoke to: 1) could see the burger king, 2) could have thrown his baton and hit the burger king, and 3) was standing and happily conversing with the other men around him and seemed annoyed and unimpressed that I had approached him (in tears and visibly shaken) to report what had just happened to me not 10 minutes earlier. I explained the above scenario, and added that I strongly felt that both of those men were going to remain in the corridor until they had successfully preyed upon a woman. I stated that I felt extremely unsafe and that this was narrowly avoided on my part, and that others might not be so lucky. He got a call on his Walkie-Talkie and while running from me said, “I can’t help you. Call 9-1-1”
So I called 9-1-1. I informed the dispatch woman who took it very seriously. She took descriptions, the location and other details from me and told me she sent the call out.
This was serious to me however, because in real time I felt as though I was fighting the clock on an abuse that was almost guaranteed to happen if someone did not go over there. So friends and I split up to find yet another police officer on foot patrol. My friend Tyler and I found a group of 5 police chatting by a van parked just off Dundas, less than half a block from the Burger King. You could still see the doors from where we were, as Yonge was closed and the cops van was parked on the street. Of the five officers, one was female Officer M. MacNaughton. As I had no luck with the male officer earlier, I asked to speak to her and looked her in the eye and told her precisely what happened to me. I told her I was completely sure they were still there. I told her I was sure they would assault someone in a more severe way if they weren’t stopped. I told her that if I had been even one shred less bold, that it would have certainly have been me.
She stared at me, expressionless, without nodding, speaking, moving a facial muscle, opening her mouth, or adjusting her posture and just listened to me say everything I had to say. She then, calm as day said “Did you tell the manager of the b
Burger King?” to which I replied “no, I fled the Burger King…” We stood in silence for a moment and she said “Okay, well thanks for letting us know. We are pretty short staffed tonight so we’ll check it out if we get a chance.” And that was it. She broke eye contact and we were done talking.
That was the response from two police officers within a stones-throw of the actual incident. A full, fresh-within-minutes description and my still shaken, teary face was not enough; not nearly enough to warrant even a response. It was not enough compelling evidence to cause any of those officers to take even one fucking step closer to that Burger King than they already were. There were five officers in the group and they couldn’t spare two, for five minutes to even investigate my claim? The second police officer didn’t even tell me to call 9-1-1! She basically closed the case on my story. They took no statement, descriptions, or incident report. They showed no sympathy. What they did do was continue talking amongst themselves and standing clustered in their group. That was how important this was to them. That was how important every other woman in that restaurant and that hallway and that area were to them that night.
Why do we have these police all over the city on the busiest night of the year if not to police the area? What are they there to prevent if not assault in dirty hallways beneath restaurants by predators who sit in the shadows waiting for some poor drunk woman who needs to pee to not look back over her shoulder? Who precisely do they serve and protect when someone comes to them while they’re on duty, and begs for assistance, not only for herself but for every other woman present on Yonge Street that night?
I did everything exactly by the police vigilance handbook. I was firm, alert, in a group, had my phone, had running shoes on, a baggy sweatshirt and boy’s jeans. I was sober, looked my attackers in the face, memorized their clothing, took in my surroundings and memorized them too. I fought back. I fled. I found an officer and I told them everything. Only to be met with contempt.
Is this not everything that I have ever been told to do? Had I not satisfied every criterion, fair or unfair, that the police have said I needed to do to de-victimize myself, to protect myself? And what if that had failed? What if when I pushed through they had grabbed me? What then? Would it have satisfactorily not have been my fault? Or should I only pee in designated main-floor areas now? After all this, what more could or should any woman do to be taken seriously by the police of this city? What else needed to happen? What is the magic sequence of events that would allow me to compel an officer of the law to investigate my incident? Why can they choose not to take my crime seriously when I am a citizen of this city?
I will not be so naive as to pretend I didn’t already know why women do not report their assaults. I will not pretend to have been satisfied with the Toronto Police in any of my previous encounters with them. I will say this: The attack itself was stressful, it was terrifying but that was not the part of my evening that was the most unsettling. The most unsettling part of my night was when a fellow woman, a badged police officer, sworn to protect me looked me in the face and told me “no.”