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Judy Haiven: Policing at Halifax bridge rally needlessly heavy handed

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KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – On Monday in Darmouth, it was the police who closed the MacDonald Bridge – not the protesters. Police also closed bike and pedestrian access to the bridge in both directions, which seemed needless and punitive. Especially since earlier the protesters had promised to allow this traffic. By contrast, in Toronto, the protesters and police allowed bike and pedestrian traffic over the blocked bridge.  Why couldn’t Halifax police do this?

About one hundred activists, many with signs that said Extinction Rebellion, marched from the parking lot at the Zatzman Sportsplex early this morning. Extinction Rebellion is an international organisation dedicated to non-violent civil disobedience for action on climate change, 

Near the bridge, there was a phalanx of more than 40 police blocking entry, including a dozen cops who stood behind their bicycles to barricade the toll booths. 

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The police lined up in an aggressive manner, shoulder to shoulder right in front of the toll booths. This meant the protesters were sandwiched into an area about the size of a school gym. Protesters were stuck between the police in front of the toll booths and the other cops who milled about their cruisers parked across the intersection of Wyse Road and Nantucket Avenue. The intersection itself was deserted –with buses on detour and only one lane open to traffic on Wyse Road.

Police were everywhere, in uniform and in plain clothes. I overheard one, dressed in a trenchcoat, laughingly tell another cop to wear his ear-plugs if he couldn’t be bothered to listen to the activists’ chants. 

It was a peaceful protest, with dozens sitting on blankets on the road in the designated space. In the crowd were young people, and about 20 seniors. Activists sang songs, and made speeches about the climate emergency.  With no sound system, they had to shout into a hand held megaphone. One woman threaded through the crowd with a loaf of homemade bread and a slab of butter; some protesters gladly took a slice or two. Other women offered apples, oranges and muffins to the crowd.  

Extinction Rebellion called for protests world-wide. In Edmonton, nine protesters managed to block the Walterdale Bridge for an hour during the busy morning rush. In Toronto, dozens blocked the Bloor Street Viaduct – a main route for commuters. In Vancouver, nearly 200 activists poured onto both sides of the Burrard Street Bridge and are still holding it (as of Monday 7:00 pm Atlantic time).  

As recently as last Friday, Dan Kinsella Halifax’s new police chief wrote in the StarMetro, “At the core of good police work is an integrated response approach which uses… respectful interactions and community co-operation and goodwill.” Little to none of that goodwill was evident at the Dartmouth demonstration today. He also wrote about “our officers [using] empathy, concern and kindness,” and the necessary “shift from a …command and control policing model to a community-focused, people oriented approach.” 

Halifax police not only prevented cyclists and pedestrians from using the bridge, but police also arrested 18 activists– probably more than 30% of protesters.  Why did the police decide to criminalize peaceful protest after three hours? The police action was punitive and even provocative. Clearly in using a command and control method to contain and punish activists – it seems the chief has some explaining to do.  

In Toronto and other cities in Canada, the police seemed to do more to consider the communities’ needs to peacefully protest; there were few to no arrests.  

The attitude of Chief Kinsella is more ominous when we recall that he said little about the harm that police street checks have done to racialized citizens of HRM. 

Both the RCMP and the Halifax Regional Police still refuse to apologise for street checks against African-Nova Scotians. The 2019 Wortley Report shows that African Nova Scotians are stopped by police six times more often than white people.

Chief Kinsella, though, does not want to jump to any conclusions. He has said that before making any decisions on street checks, he wants to speak with members of the African-Nova Scotian community. Let us hope – unlike with the climate protesters — he uses some of the “empathy, concern and kindness” he wrote about. 

Judy Haiven is on the steering committee of Equity Watch, a Halifax-based organization which fights bullying, racism and discrimination in the workplace. You can reach her at equitywatchns@gmail.com

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One Comment

  1. The police here are ridiculous. And it would appear that Kinsella, though he may have an understanding of what words to speak, has no intention of making any kind of meaningful change. Until we have a body that monitors the police (I mean really monitors), absolutely nothing will change. So it is up to “we the people” to do the monitoring and hold them and our government accountable.

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