Things intensified when peaceful protesters were pushed by cops with visible batons, guns and bunches of zip ties.

Dear mayor and council, you can’t blame the protesters because none of you were there

An open letter to Halifax Regional Council about the police violence last week.

I am writing to denounce the municipality’s complicity in the eviction enforcement that gave rise to the police violence around the old library on Spring Garden Road on August 18, 2021. I am especially outraged after seeing some post-protest comments from municipal elected officials and HRP spokespeople, which ranged from weak to odious. None of you were even remotely present for the occasion.

If you folks in power were all simultaneously unavailable, then 1. that is collectively poor planning on your part, and 2. you should have communicated with bylaw officers and HRP to hold off on enforcing the evictions while so many municipal representatives were out of the office. Unless you support the heavy-handed tactics used.

None of you have the right to (falsely) blame protesters for escalating the situation when not a single HRM elected official even bothered to show up on Wednesday. I was onsite for more than six hours that day, and any violence I witnessed was instigated by police and their heavy-handed tactics. The power dynamic at play intensified things, as unarmed and peaceful protesters were pushed by cops with visible batons—which I saw deployed within minutes of my arrival in the morning—guns, bunches of zip ties and, often, a lack of identifying information. (All of this was hours before the use of sensory irritants and riot gear, which only further exacerbated the situation.)

I witnessed protesters forming peaceful physical barriers, by linking arms and bracing each other from behind, and trying to hold their ground as the police pushed them backwards to get them out of the way of the first shelter’s removal. Civil disobedience and violence are not one and the same and it is gross to equate them.

I felt compelled to miss my entire workday and stay onsite on Wednesday after some abhorrent police behaviour that I witnessed as the first shelter was being loaded onto the truck on Grafton Street. As a line of officers formed to push the cluster of people in which I was standing backward, one officer said to me—a cis-gendered white person—and a fellow officer that he did not want to use force against me, specifically. They also avoided using force against the cis-gendered white person next to me. Instead, the police very clearly focused their efforts on visibly BIPOC and 2SLGBTQ+ people. This is evidenced in the proportion of BIPOC/2SLGBTQ+ individuals who were taken into custody then and there, and indeed throughout the day’s events.

“A good leader would acknowledge their role in what led to Wednesday’s events, instead of making excuses for how we got here and deflecting blame.”

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I was disgusted to hear Halifax Regional Police chief Dan Kinsella—who, along with the other HRP spokesperson, admitted during a press conference that he was not even there on Wednesday—blame a “hostile” and “aggressive” crowd for having an “agenda” and escalating the situation. I assure you that HRP members unequivocally escalated tensions over a matter of hours.

Kinsella also accused the protesters of being “armed” and “organized,” implying that they were there for more nefarious reasons than to stand with their unhoused neighbours for their human right to shelter. That is patently disingenuous: any organization to mobilize is merely a reflection of what is similarly happening in, for example, Toronto, because we are certainly not the only city in a housing crisis. Unfortunately based on recent events in Toronto, local activists were prepared for Wednesday’s worst-case scenario. That is NOT to say that protesters were “asking for it” so to speak, and the HRP’s lack of humility or accountability after its violence is heinous.

Protesters immediately condemned anyone who threw things—namely plastic water bottles and milk jugs—toward the officers and shelter. That was the work of a few people who, incidentally, were riled up by HRP's violent deployment of the sensory irritant. As someone who was onsite, unlike any of you municipal representatives or HRP spokespeople, I again assure you that this would not have escalated to violence without police provocation.

I was further disgusted by councillor Shawn Cleary’s audacious accusations that NDP leader Gary Burrill escalated the situation. I stood with and near Burrill and other NDP MLAs for hours on Wednesday, and their solidarity with their constituents and fellow citizens helped maintain a calmer atmosphere than there otherwise would have been as the police escalated matters. You would have seen this, too, had you been present.

While provincial leaders stood with us, you all hid in your offices/homes/cottages/? and used each other as pawns to deflect blame from your respective roles in this disgraceful culmination of municipal and provincial political (in)actions. HRM says housing is a provincial issue; the province says the eviction order was made by HRM because it relates to municipal property; the police justify their enforcement by saying  they are following the city’s orders; the mayor and some councillors say that the city can’t control police operations.

Despite those statements’ truthful elements, while each powerful entity involved focuses on how to spin the story for its own benefit, at the end of the day on August 18, a group of marginalized citizens was further—and violently/traumatically—dehumanized, criminalized and pushed to more dangerous fringes of society on YOUR watch.

Safety for both the city’s housed and unhoused populations is jeopardized by the forceful removal of tents and shelters when there are no other meaningful/appropriate options available to those experiencing poverty and/or houselessness. Shame on ALL of you HRM and HRP representatives for prioritizing deflecting blame for your respective roles in that dark day, over preventing it from happening/escalating in the first place.

Your hollow, self-serving statements following the protests and police violence have done nothing to quell the tensions and despair that many residents, including me and my spouse, feel thanks to the gross (in)actions by our governments and police. Wednesday’s police violence was grossly disproportionate to the protest, and the escalation to violence rests squarely on HRP’s and HRM’s shoulders.

A good leader would acknowledge their role in what led to Wednesday’s events, instead of making excuses for how we got here and deflecting blame. A good leader would acknowledge the power and privileges afforded to them by their positions and institutions. The good news is that, because no one has yet taken a stand with compassion, humility or accountability, there is an opportunity for YOU to be the first. In your heart of hearts you must know how inhumane and unjust it is to criminalize poverty and houselessness, and surely you see that this heavy-handed approach is not constructive to our city or its citizens, housed or not.

Thank you for taking the time to hear me out.

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