Arrest of homelessness protest leader continues disturbing pattern by police

by Aileen Leo on behalf of the Ottawa Witness Group

Submitted to Ottawa Citizen on August 29, 2003, not yet published

Since when is homelessness a crime?

On August 29, after two months of protesting homelessness, Ottawa police dispersed approximately 20 demonstrators under the Rideau St. overpass. Police arrested the protest's leader and confiscated demonstrators' belongings.

On August 22, Mr. Mike Ejainek, director of traffic and parking operations with the City of Ottawa, stated in the Ottawa Citizen that the city "can't prohibit demonstrating if it's in a lawful manner." ("Mayor, police at odds over sit-in protest") Sgt John Lamothe of the Ottawa police also stated in this same article that police visited the site at least four times a day, but no one has been seen engaging in a criminal act.

If there was no unlawful behaviour by demonstrators, why were they evicted, their leader arrested, and their property seized?

In April 2002, in advance of the report of the Citizens Panel on Policing and the Community (organized by concerned citizens regarding intimidating police behaviour against G-20 protesters in Ottawa in November 2001 because the Police Services Board refused to hold its own inquiry) the Ottawa Police Service released its Agenda for Excellence. This document states that "the OPS will optimize public safety, preserve the peace, enforce the law and provide quality service in partnership with the communities we serve while upholding the fundamental freedoms of peaceful demonstrators."

Over last winter during numerous anti-war demonstrations, police were professional, courteous and helpful in their interactions with demonstrators. More recent protests have, however, been marred by aggressive police action. For example, in May, protesters demonstrating in support of Algerians threatened with deportation were fired upon with tasers, a stun gun that shoots wire-trailing darts with hooks which affix to the body and then deliver a 50,000 volt incapacitating shock. One protester was already in handcuffs and on the ground when he was tasered. Amnesty International has called for the use of all stun guns to be suspended pending an inquiry into their use and effects. In April, five leaders in the social justice community were arrested during or shortly after peaceful demonstrations. Charges against four were later thrown out by the Crown as being unsupportable; one is awaiting a court appearance.

Earlier this summer, the Ottawa Witness Group, community volunteers who monitor police interactions with protesters to preserve public space for the right to dissent, conveyed our concerns to police regarding what appear to be the targeted arrests of leaders in the social justice  community.

Sgt. Lamothe has also stated that the removal of the protesters' belongings was not prompted by an order but rather a municipal mandate to clean the underpass twice instead of once a week. ("Camping protesters forced out", August 30) Curious that this decision followed shortly after the Ottawa Citizen article which characterized the demonstration as a "political hot potato" between police and the Mayor's office. Given that numerous homeless people have resided in this area over many years, is the zeal for cleanliness only manifest when homeless people who reside there are trying to make a political point about their plight? Which is the worst stain on our community ? refuse from protesters, or our city's appalling waiting lists for affordable housing?

This is the second protest against homelessness in just over a year which has been dispersed by the police through force. Last July, pepper spray, which has been linked to deaths in the U.S., was used to evict protesters from a house on Gilmour Street. Homelessness may be unsightly, but it should not be criminalized.

Police also stated in the August 30 article that protesters "intimidated" passersby so they had to be evicted for public safety reasons. Sgt. Monique Aukland said in this same article that the police had shown "tolerance" toward the demonstrators but now "we will not let them sleep there anymore . . . they do not have the right to demonstrate." I have walked through the site and never felt intimidated. Councillor Elizabeth Arnold stated in the August 22 article that she has visited the site and never had any problems. "I support protesters' right to protest."

The police and municipal government are public institutions and must be accountable to the public. The actions of either institution must not be capricious or arbitrary.

The protesters demonstrating in the Rideau Street underpass are members of the public. They were evicted from public space despite the fact that the police have stated that no laws were broken. They and all citizens have a right to know why this happened and who is responsible.

The right to dissent is critical to a free and democratic society and must not be dependant merely on the "tolerance" of police. The balance between the security of persons and property and the Charter right to freedom of expression and assembly, which the police have sworn to uphold, is tipping once again. This should be of concern to us all.