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Why the U of A Protest Camp Raid Was a Disaster

Police and university head need to answer for the violent, likely illegal eviction.

David Climenhaga 17 May 2024Alberta Politics

David J. Climenhaga is an award-winning journalist, author, post-secondary teacher, poet and trade union communicator. He blogs at AlbertaPolitics.ca. Follow him on X at @djclimenhaga.

Almost a week after some of his officers violently cleared out a peaceful Palestine solidarity protest on the University of Alberta campus, Edmonton Police Chief Dale McPhee finally showed up Thursday to make his case at a police commission meeting.

But not before the doors were locked and the public was barred from the meeting because 100 or so still-peaceful protesters made the official participants nervous.

Notwithstanding the metal detectors and heavy security at Edmonton City Hall since a shooting in January, protesters were told they’d have to watch the proceedings online because, in the words of commission chair John McDougall, “we had our back to a very, very large crowd. Admittedly they were peaceful… but when you know you have angry people behind you and you can’t see what’s going on, that’s a bit of a challenge.”

Well, nobody likes criticism. I guess no one thought to suggest that if it made them that uncomfortable to have people staring at their backs and grumbling, they could always turn their chairs around. Really, people, you can’t make this stuff up.

For his part, McPhee can be heard on various news organizations’ broadcasts claiming that his officers “protect free speech and we protect the very essential right of free expression, when both police and protesters respect their rights and responsibilities.”

On Saturday, in the chief’s opinion, those protesters’ responsibilities, apparently, included not camping on the campus of a public university even though there’s plenty of legal opinion that in fact they had every right to do just that.

To quote the recent open letter by 19 law professors from the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary, “Students have a right to protest on Alberta’s university campuses. Their right to protest is protected by sections 2(b) (freedom of expression), 2(c) (freedom of peaceful assembly), 2(d) (freedom of association, and 7 (right to life, liberty, and security of the person) of the of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

So confusing. One supposes this is why, now as ever, a policeman’s lot is not a happy one.

Failure “to obey all laws and to respect private property,” the chief continued, “and deliberately attempt to bully, harass, dox — in other words, intimidate — the community, impacts the safety of our community and means the police response will come to adapt to the conditions on the ground.”

The effect of police adapting to conditions on the ground, presumably, might include being whacked with a baton, sprayed with a gas (not tear gas, the chief insists) or subjected to “special munitions” (also not defined) by police officers not wearing name tags or regimental numbers. Leastways, that’s what happened in the wee hours last Saturday at the U of A.

It should be noted here that there has been no evidence presented to date, notwithstanding the claims of McFee or University of Alberta president Bill Flanagan, that any protester bullied, harassed, doxed or intimidated anyone.

What is striking about this situation is that neither the public relations strategy adopted by the university administration nor that of the police seems to be working very well.

The controversy continues to grow, and while there is no objective way for a mere blogger to measure this, skepticism about the appropriateness of the police response seems to be growing too.

It sure looks as if both the University of Alberta and the Edmonton Police Service acted without paying attention to either the legal niceties of protest in Canada or the unjust but nevertheless very real fact that there is a class system in this country even though we often politely pretend there isn’t.

Rudimentary class analysis — nothing fancy, neither Marxist nor Methodist – would have warned them that just because you can get away with bullying street people camped on the boulevards of a Canadian city doesn’t mean you can get away with doing the same thing to young people camped on the quad whose parents can afford to pay their increasingly overpriced tuition.

Even parents who disagree with their children or disapprove of their activities still love them and want to protect them — and that includes protecting them from out-of-control cops wearing sap gloves and swinging billy clubs.

In the case of the Palestine solidarity encampments at the universities of Alberta and Calgary, everyone understands that the students and their supporters in the encampments were not intent on causing “social disorder” or attempting to wreak violence against the institutions they attend. And everyone includes the universities’ administrations, the police in their military-style uniforms, and the UCP government.

Some of them, though, may have been fooled into thinking the cries of the usual far-right hysterics on social media gave them the social licence they needed to open a can of whoop-ass on young people protesting one of the cruellest injustices in modern history.

But if they did — and one gets the feeling from Flanagan’s silence and McFee’s belligerence that this thought is starting to sink in — they were making a big mistake.

No one should be fooled into thinking students here and elsewhere who put themselves in the path of police to protest the destruction of Gaza are snowflakes or crybabies. They understand the risks they are taking and they believe their cause is worth it.

Indeed, this is exactly how the Vietnam war was brought to an end and how, for all practical purposes, the military draft was eliminated in the United States.

It’s university administrators who are now turtling and police commissioners and senior officers who refuse to face a few protesters who are acting like snowflakes and crybabies.  [Tyee]

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