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Martyn Williams: Police violence last Wednesday endangered pedestrians, including children

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Last Wednesday police coordinated a forceful effort against protestors who had surrounded shelters and tents used by homeless people. 

This resulted in injury to the public, including pedestrians passing through the busy downtown area. A  traumatised ten-year old child on her way to the park with her father was pepper-sprayed. The incident was reported worldwide, including in the United Kingdom’s The Independent.

Many statements followed last Wednesday’s action from groups with members present at the protest condemning both the coordinated effort to evict the shelter and tent occupants, and police action. 

The municipal response has fallen short of expectations, refusing to acknowledge the truths evident from video footage, community group statements and accounts from witnesses including many journalists. No statements have been seen to date from any Municipal representative who was present at the protest.

Police Chief Dan Kinsella blamed protestors for the resulting issues, claiming they were faced with a group of organised protestors who came prepared and with intent to cause harm.

The police could have walked away from the protestors encircling the shelters or continued to negotiate, instead of facing them and using force. Recently we saw RCMP negotiating with protestors blocking a key road instead of attacking them – even desisting from arresting those present until the protest caused a major supply crisis affecting the entire Province.

If police had acted with negotiation and patience, events may not have escalated harmfully in a way that ultimately endangered everyone in this central pedestrian area, including children and seniors.

I write for the Nova Scotia Advocate about avoidable serious pedestrian incidents and fatalities – in particular wide multiple lane crosswalks that are unacceptably dangerous for vulnerable road users due to the absence of appropriate, widely used and often inexpensive infrastructure interventions. 

The Municipal response to last week’s events reminds me of inaction resulting from public and community group advocacy on pedestrian safety issues: They have failed to recognize and urgently rectify obvious and known infrastructure deficiencies particularly at wider crosswalks despite numerous reports, proposals, research, petitions, serious incidents and public pleas.

I would like to amplify a statement from the Coverdale Courtwork Society, who organised a legal advice drop-in session on 25 August for people affected by the encampment evictions:

The stories we heard from folks today were heartbreaking. An Indigenous woman tossed from her tent; her headdress taken. Another young woman charged with multiple criminal offences—a symptom of the chaos that unfolded. The collective trauma is unfathomable.

The Municipality is accustomed to deflecting blame and responsibility for their actions or inaction, for a lack of imagination and will to rectify safety issues affecting the public and for not holding those responsible to account. 

A communications strategy using deflection and spin is not in any way an appropriate response to widespread condemnation of the Municipality’s actions by community groups and the public.

I join the many people and groups requesting that Municipality decision-makers and senior staff step up, take responsibility and review their current harmful and aggressive actions. 

Municipal decision-makers cannot broadcast “friendly” overtures that downplay harm by day, and evict the homeless by night. I suggest they:

1. Agree to end the ongoing evictions of homeless people camping on public land immediately, and until such time as a suitable public location has been agreed and identified.

2. Reaffirm their commitment to support the civil public right to protest.

3. Ensure accountable and public decision-making on this issue by elected Councillors.

4. Acknowledge the harm and destruction caused by last Wednesday’s aggressive police enforced eviction action and the months of careful municipal strategizing that preceded it.

5. Propose a full investigation into both the strategy leading up to the evictions and the police response to protests.

6. Address root issues resulting in confrontation and aggression against homeless people, also community groups using best voluntary efforts to provide shelter for the homeless.

7. Implement widely used municipal short term measures that ensure homeless people have basic shelter, facilities and protection from the elements.

If you have not done so already, please ask your councillor to support action on this issue, including the above.

See also: Three somewhat remarkable images from today’s protest

If you walk, cycle or use a wheelchair and are affected by road safety issues, please join HRM Safe Streets for Everyone. If your local crosswalk needs a crosswalk flag, please contact the Crosswalk Safety Society. Please remember to report issues affecting your safety to our municipal authorities using the 311 service.

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