Sarah Brown and her husband decided to have a date night last Friday. Their three-year-old was at the grandparent’s for the night, so the couple planned to go out for dinner and take their 8-week-old to the Yorkdale Shopping Centre in Toronto for a photo with Santa.
Upon arriving at Yorkdale, Brown immediately sensed that something was amiss as the parking lot was relatively empty for a Friday in December. Once they got inside, they started to hear shouting.
Brown’s husband initially thought that it might have been something festive, a holiday-related event. But as they rounded a corner they spotted about 30 to 50 pro-Palestinian protesters.
Brown, who is Jewish, suggested they leave but her husband pushed forward.
“They were doing a demonstration of some sort, it wasn’t just a protest,” she said. “I gather they were upset about Zara’s ad campaign and that’s what they were demonstrating.”
‘I’ll put you six feet deep’: Masked pro-Palestinian makes threat in front of Toronto police officer
The unwritten, and mostly effective, rules of protesting in Canada
Several protests unfolded across GTA malls last week, including at the Eaton Centre, believed to be related to a Zara ad campaign called “The Jacket,” which featured a model standing in front of some stylized rubble and holding a mannequin wrapped in a shroud.
Many people pointed out the resemblance to images of destruction in Gaza since the start of the Israel-Hamas War. Zara, based in Spain, has since pulled the campaign.
As they attempted to navigate the crowd, Brown said they were shouted at and harassed and one protester put a megaphone inches from the stroller.
“Imagine 50 people screaming at you, all at once, some with megaphones. All because you continued doing what people come to the mall to do, walk and patronize the mall,” she said. “It was scary. My husband just kept telling them to leave. Go home, get out of here, let us enjoy our time at the mall. Not like that’s going to do anything but that’s just what he kept saying over and over again. I just kind of was making my way through the protest. It was scary. 100 per cent it was scary.”
In the days that followed, video of the couple being harassed was shared on social media and even became fodder for talk radio. The account that shared the video has since deleted it but National Post viewed a screen recording.
In the video, the protesters can be heard shouting “genocide supporters” and telling the couple they are “disgusting.”
“Nobody was confronting them,” said Brown. “Nobody was yelling back. Nobody was walking through. Everyone was just standing, hundreds of people standing around, including the cops and the security.”
Brown said that the response from security and police has left the couple concerned. Similar sentiments have been echoed in response to the other recent mall protests.
“It was shocking, not so much the protests but the inaction on behalf of security and police. It was literally unbelievable to most people. That is the main reaction we are getting, bewilderment. How was this allowed on private property? How were all the protesters allowed to threaten bystanders and police and cover their faces? How were they able to lock human beings, and families with young children inside a store?”
Brown said she has since written a letter to the CEO of Yorkdale and is in the process of filing a complaint with the United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Toronto.
She said that she included Yorkdale’s code of conduct in her letter and noted that the protest violated those rules.
“I reminded them how historically Yorkdale has not been shy about enforcing this code of conduct and that this protest went against not only laws in our country but almost every single facet of their code of conduct,” Brown said.
Living just minutes from the mall, the couple became concerned about individuals following them to their vehicle as they made their exit.
“My husband was like, ‘OK, let’s continue on our night. Let’s not let them bother us.’ And I was like, ‘Absolutely not. They’re still following us. They’re still threatening us, we need to make it back to our car as soon as possible in the fastest way possible, and get the hell out of here.’ So that was my main concern because they were threatening to follow us to our car.”
Brown adds that she supports people’s right to protest but the setting needs to be considered.
“I totally support people’s freedom of expression. You want to go in a park and have a rally, you have every right to do that and to do it peacefully, and to not interrupt our culture and our Canadian way of life. But it’s really scary that they can just come inside a privately owned space, and essentially ruin everyone’s night and threaten people. It’s very, very concerning that this is being allowed to happen.”
In a statement to National Post, a Yorkdale spokesperson said that Yorkdale security, along with on-site Toronto Police Service paid-duty officers, “immediately responded to a group of demonstrators that spontaneously assembled in a key corridor on Friday, December 15.”
“The group created considerable disruption, and we understand the sight of masked protesters caused distress to some of our guests. It saddens us that our guests had this type of experience,” they added.
They clarified that the approach taken was to “de-escalate the situation.”
“The demonstration was quickly contained, and all participants were escorted out of the shopping centre within minutes. TPS has confirmed that there were no reports of injuries. To be clear, this group did not seek or have permission to gather for this demonstration. Disruptive behaviour, such as demonstrations and protests, are not permitted in our spaces.”
The spokesperson added that security is increased this time of year, including multiple paid-duty officers who actively patrol the corridors.
“Yorkdale is a safe destination and one that safely welcomes millions of guests per year. We will continue to work diligently with our TPS partners to ensure Yorkdale continues to be a safe and enjoyable experience for all members of the community,” they added.
Toronto Police also corroborated Yorkdale’s response, stating that the demonstration was “quickly de-escalated and participants were escorted out of the shopping centre within minutes.”
As with all demonstrations, officers must use their discretion when it comes to policing in dynamic situations. When tensions are high and there are large crowds of people, including the general public, officers must use their best judgment at the time, taking everyone’s safety into consideration,” said a TPS spokesperson.
While Brown remains frustrated by that response, she did have praise for the mall Santa, who she said did an excellent job comforting children who were scared by the demonstration.
“I think that (Yorkdale) should do something for those poor families that had their appointments with Santa ruined and I think that they should do something to compensate their Santa because their Santa was a very cool customer,” she said. “He was comforting kids and being joyful and cheerful and festive with the kids, saying ‘Don’t worry, don’t cry. It’s OK.’ I thought he was great under pressure.”
On Friday, Toronto police issued a statement, urging demonstrators to follow the law ahead of planned protests related to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.
Deputy Chief Lauren Pogue said demonstrations inside private property, such as malls, and those that block critical infrastructure, such as highways and bridges, are not legal.
She added that there will be a visible police presence at demonstrations over the coming days, including a pro-Palestinian protest planned for Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square on Saturday.
According to Pogue, police have noticed an uptick in people acting “antagonistic” at the protests. She clarified that people can be arrested at the event or in the days after if they cross the line from lawful demonstration to criminality.
Toronto has seen 250 protests since the Israel-Hamas war began on Oct.7.
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