An equity event hosted by parents at Clairlea Public School that was meant to discuss anti-Black racism, was hijacked Thursday night.
High school teacher D. Tyler Robinson, who recently took the lead on creating a Grade 12 university-prep course on anti-Black racism, joined a panel titled “Real Talk Equity Q&A” alongside Tanya Hayles and Alexis Dawson.
When the time came for Robinson to present, an unknown user took over the screen blaring Guns and Roses music videos, including “Welcome to the Jungle” — “jungle” being a term with racist undertones in relation to Black people. Some of the music clips also included partial nudity.
“It surprised me. For a second it almost derailed the conversation,” Robinson said. When he realized what was happening, he commented to the audience that this was a real-time example of what racism looks like.
“It reminded me of very real overt forms of racism I’ve seen and experienced in my life. It is disheartening to see,” he said.
The meeting’s hosts quickly removed the users who were disrupting the meeting, but a user under another screen name would stream another music video.
The meeting hosts tried to secure the room and limit screen sharing, but the hackers kept interrupting — all the hosts could do successfully was remove the offenders one at a time. But more kept taking over.
This continued over a dozen times until the end of the panel and audience question and answer period.
About 75 people attended and panellists, politicians and community members present told the Star it felt jarring and co-ordinated.
“It’s important to understand that the organized rush to disrupt a conversation on anti-Black racism is itself racism and hate in action,” said attendee Rima Berns-McGown, MPP for Beaches — East York, a neighbouring riding.
“It was really shocking, and really jarring,” said co-panelist Hayles, who founded Black Moms Connection. “Just because it’s digital doesn’t make it any less of an attack.”
“This is something that people on the call, almost needed to experience because as Black people, it is something that we experience every day,” co-panelist Dawson said.
The attendees who were there and interested in learning about equity, they got an example. “For anyone who may have been on the fence that this work is important, I think they now really understand why it is.”
Hayles and Dawson praised Robinson’s response: he turned it into a “teachable moment” and invited the unknown users to join in the discussion.
Given recent media coverage of the TDSB course Robinson cocreated in the Star and other outlets, along with the first disruption being when he started to present, several believe he was being targeted.
“Zoom bombing” became common early on during the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. As formal meetings, classes and such moved online and people became reliant on the video conferencing platform, there were countless incidents where people would interject saying racist slurs or sharing disturbing videos. Meeting hosts have been taking more precautions to secure meetings, but it is still happening.
In a letter sent home to parents, Clairlea’s acting vice-principal Marcia Dixon acknowledged the incident as an act of anti-Black racism and writes: “These individuals repeatedly shared their screens while playing loud music, which we believe was purposefully done to interrupt this important conversation about equity and addressing racism.”
The letter goes on to say that while the perpetrators remain unknown, the TDSB is investigating the incident and it has been reported to Toronto police.
The parents’ equity subcommittee at Clairlea was formed just last November.
Omar Henlin, who is vice-chair of the parents’ council and moderated Thursday’s event, said that he got more involved in the council after his eight-year-old daughter dealt with racism at the school.
When he realized other families shared similar stories, they formed the equity committee.
This was its first webinar. A link to the panel was shared on the event page in an effort to reach as many people as possible, although this approach has been cautioned against as Zoom bombing became more widespread.
Henlin said going forward, the committee will be making changes to registration to prevent this from happening. But the incident he said proves “we need to have more.”
“Maybe people need to know this isn’t just an isolated incident,” he said. “It’s just a means of shutting down people of colour who want their voices to be heard and for this topic to be ... discussed.”
Angelyn Francis is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering equity and inequality. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: email@example.com
Angelyn Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star