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Activists say police drew guns during 'No Pipelines' graffiti raid

Police confirmed they raided the East Vancouver home of four activists this week, but would not comment on residents' allegations that two of 16 officers pointed handguns at residents during a search related to "No Pipelines" graffiti.

The Vancouver Police Department said it executed a search warrant at the Parker Street house on Tuesday morning, taking four residents into custody. It did not confirm how many officers were involved.

According to a warrant left behind on the kitchen table, officers were searching for "graffiti vandalism paraphernalia" -- likely a reference to spray-painted slogans against bitumen and natural gas pipelines that have defaced walls and post boxes in the neighbourhood in recent years.

The raid came as the federal government is poised to announce its final decision on the controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway bitumen pipeline. First Nations and environmental groups have vowed to block the project from reaching the B.C. coast. But the use of graffiti has divided anti-pipeline activists, many of whom draw the line at civil disobedience, others at lawful protest tactics.

"Safety is our priority and that includes the safety of officers who are involved in this aspect of police work," VPD spokesman Const. Brian Montague said in an email, when asked about the firearm allegations. "Officers are not required to unnecessarily risk their personal safety.

"Every search is different, every search has varying levels of risk and in every search we have various tools for entry and protection available to us. In potentially dangerous situations, such as entering premises where there are always many unknown factors, drawing of a sidearm and having it 'ready' is one of those options."

One of the residents detained but not charged Tuesday was Gord Hill, an outspoken Kwakwaka'wakw nation artist and activist.

"We heard yelling outside our house, we looked out window and we could see cops on the sidewalk," Hill said, using a friend's phone as his was confiscated.

"Me and my girlfriend came downstairs, as we entered our living room, there was a man in plainclothes with a pistol pointing towards us. It was a nine-millimetre pistol sidearm. He said, 'Get down on the ground'... They pointed it right at us, at our centre mass."

He said that the suspect named on the warrant left on the table faced six counts of mischief under $5,000, but was released mid-afternoon after being interrogated about the spray-painted "No Pipelines" slogans by members of the VPD's graffiti task force.

"No Pipelines" graffiti has vandalized landmarks in East Vancouver since at least 2009, drawing criticism from moderate activists concerned it may tarnish the image of pipeline opponents or spark a crackdown by authorities.

Among the critics is Ben West, tar sands campaigner with ForestEthics Advocacy, which supports civil disobedience and other forms of protest but not vandalism. He admitted he is "not the biggest fan" of the spray painted slogans, but sees them as a sign of angst and frustration over perceptions the government isn't listening.

"In many political and social movements over the years, there's been graffiti of all kinds. There is a legitimate space for street art, but it's a shame if people are doing more harm than good," he said.

"When people cover beautiful murals and people's vehicles with 'No Pipelines,' I'm not sure it gets more people on board. But that said, to see this kind of heavy-handed response to at most an act of vandalism seems pretty extreme."

Hill said that his blog Warrior Publications and the political organizing of the home's inhabitants would have made them "known to police, they know what elements are in our household."

"Considering they used graffiti charges to do an armed entry into our house, when there was no evidence of violence associated with the investigation... it's definitely politically motivated," he said.

Hill said that the raid did not surprise him, considering the federal government's launch of an Integrated National Security Enforcement Team to protect oilsands infrastructure in 2012, made up of RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and local police forces.

The VPD's Montague referred to Hill's account of the events as "colourful" and added that in the case of most home search warrants, "an attempt is first made to request all of the occupants exit the home and surrender themselves to officers outside before entering.

"Unfortunately this search is part of an ongoing investigation and we would be unable to provide further details at this time," he said.

David P. Ball is a staff reporter at The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter @davidpball.

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