By Matteo Cimellaro
On November 19, demonstrators rally at Ottawa City Hall to demand action against police violence and institutional racism. They quickly move on to Nicholas Street and Laurier Avenue, a significant intersection due to its proximity to the highway, city hall, and courthouse. They have been summoned by a small army of local grassroot groups:
- the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project (CPEP), an Ottawa-based coalition of criminologists, students, community members, front-line workers, and those affected by criminalization and punishment who seek to challenge the punitive status quo through activism, pubic education, and research;
- KZ Land Protectors, Algonquin organizers from Kitigan Zibi, the closest Algonquin Anishnaabeg reserve, whose land Ottawa occupies;
- the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition, who seek to challenge racial inequity, increase support for mental health needs, and secure justice for Abdirahman Abdi and his family after he was killed by police in 2016
- and the Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition (OBDC), a coalition of Ottawa residents fighting anti-blackness and working in solidarity with marginalized communities.
The organizers list ten demands, starting with a freeze on the ballooning police budget, which is set to increase by 13 million dollars in a global health emergency. They occupy the intersection, bringing traffic to a halt. They aim to inconvenience and halt business as usual in a society marred by systemic racism and violence against racialized bodies.
The occupation becomes entrenched and the demonstrators encamp. There is much to denounce, much that needs changing: Black and Indigenous folks arrested and imprisoned at disproportionate rates, discriminatory and weaponized language in public schools and universities, racism in the healthcare system, police killings without repercussions. Just in the past few years in Ottawa, Abdi Abdirahman, Gregory Ritchie, and Anthony Aust have died because of police actions — and many more examples could be piled on.
A day later, they are still holding the line. That evening, November 20, the pressure pays off. They have won two meetings: one with city councillors in Ottawa’s urban core and the other with Ottawa Police Services Board (OPSB), scheduled for 10 am and 12 pm the next morning.
The demonstrators go to sleep, but are awakened at three in the morning by winds that have damaged their encampment, knocked over a tent, and blew food wayward. A demonstrator notices two figures walking over.
Two police liaisons announce the demonstrators are being given their official and final warning. The demonstration has ten minutes to pack all valuables and leave, or else arrests will commence.
A line of 30 police officers march forward, supported by 20 more officers behind the main line.
Behind them is an ambulance, paddy wagons, and the OC Transpo buses that have transported the officers. Other police officers stand by the vehicles in the distance with rifles — according to later reports by Vanessa Dorimain, co-chair of the Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition (OBDC), reports which the police later deny.
The police wait ten minutes. Dorimain and other organizers try to negotiate more time — eight hours until the meeting the next morning, four hours to dismantle the encampment properly, one hour to simply collect valuables. Ten minutes pass. 13 choose to stay, to stand up and be counted, and are arrested.
One of the 13 is released as a minor. The 12 adult arrestees are charged with mischief. The last of them are not released until the after 1 pm, past the time of the scheduled meetings.
The remaining demonstrators have already broken off the scheduled meetings in solidarity with those arrested, citing an erosion of trust.
Why the Arrests?
Chair of the police board Diana Deans has confirmed with The Leveller that she spoke with Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly about the scheduled meetings the evening before the arrests. Meanwhile, the arrest operation came as an unpleasant surprise to city councillors and the police board.
The timing of the arrests led to questions like “Is it a coincidence that [police] actions sabotaged a democratic protest and meetings with elected leaders that might have threatened their funding increase?” (At least, that’s how an earlier Leveller editorial put it).
The Ottawa Police Service (OPS) said that the demonstration had to be cleared because it was a safety concern via the obstruction of emergency vehicles.
Demonstrators argue that they were not obstructing emergency vehicles, but were cooperating with the city and OPS to maintain an emergency vehicle lane. Alicia Marie, a demonstrator who was coordinating with police around safety concerns, told The Leveller that after the second day, demonstrators permitted city workers to pylon off a fire lane for emergency vehicles.
Marie said demonstrators had to put up caution tape to prevent cars from driving through their blockade. The demonstrators placed four marshals standing on alert to protect the encampment and to remove the tape in an emergency situation, she said.
(Multiple intrepid Leveller correspondents and sources who visited the site have confirmed the presence of marshalls and a designated emergency lane. We cannot resist pointing out, once again, that CBC News and the Ottawa Citizen don’t seem to have bothered to check this fact when they regurgitated police claims about this.)
Marie also noted that “About four or five times, the police would purposefully let cars go through towards us.” Worried about safety, volunteers placed a pylon in the lane in the early morning of Nov. 21, shortly before the police operation.
Marie also described an unidentified white man in a MAGA hat, who arrived during the protest with a concealed weapon to intimidate demonstrators. Murray said he was given 30 minutes of negotiation time to leave. The officers confiscated his weapon, but he was allowed to leave without charges.
When asked to confirm the incident, Ottawa police told The Leveller that “a counter protestor was indeed removed at the scene; to our knowledge, he did not threaten anyone with a weapon.”
“When it came to Indigenous and Black folks, they [were] arrested immediately and aggressively. And somebody who was clearly an antagonizer, because he was a white man, was given plenty of time,” Marie said.
Racist Police Treatment
Demonstrators argue that this different, racist treatment continued for those arrested.
While in custody, many of the demonstrators of colour reported that they were not allowed access to their phones. Meanwhile, Marie said that the only one who was given their phone in custody was a “very clean-cut, handsome white man.” During the arrest, the police had told him that he could go home “at least ten times.”
Vanessa Dorimain, co-chair of the Ottawa Black Diaspora coalition and member of the 12, said that her headscarf, which she had been wearing for religious reasons, was removed during her arrest.
“I was fasting that day. As a Muslim woman, going through a holy time like that, that’s not something that’s acceptable at all,” Dorimain said.
The demonstrators also report that sacred Indigenous medicines and a drum were treated as if they were garbage.
Speaking on the Monday after the weekend arrests, Sloly told the police board that “mistakes were made” in the handling of demonstrators’ sacred valuables. He also “acknowledged there should have been clearer lines of communication between police, the board and other officials involved in setting up the meeting,” according to the CBC.
Dealing with the Charges
Chief Sloly also told the board that the OPS was talking to the Crown about arranging “post-charge divergences,” so that those arrested and charged could avoid criminal litigation.
The legal team representing the 12 arrestees agreed to the Crown’s stay of proceedings at their court date on Dec. 11.
This stay on the arrestees’ charges will remain for a year before they are removed. The conditions of the stay require that the 12 arrestees cannot be charged for a separate incident.
This means that “charges could resume in the next year should the courts deem it in the public’s best interest or if any future charges arise,” according to a statement from Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition. “Records on us, such as mugshots and fingerprints, can only be petitioned to be removed as of December 11, 2021.
“This is a clear intimidation tactic by the OPS and the Crown, and part of a long history of criminalizing Indigenous and Black resistance. They intend this to hinder our ability to mobilize in our city against systemic racism,” the statement concluded.
The Limitations of Police Oversight
In an interview with The Leveller, Councillor Rawlson King, Ottawa’s anti-racism liaison and a member of the Ottawa Police Service Board (OPSB) said that the police board’s hands are tied by provincial legislation.
King said that the OPSB can only provide oversight and suggestion, but due to provincial legislation like the Police Service Act and the Mental Health Act, the OPSB is limited in their ability to create institutional change. The board could not completely and singlehandedly replace the police as first responders to those in a mental health crisis, for example. This is because the police are mandated to provide direction to any other organization that will aid the police in “crime, call and public disorder analysis,” under section seven of the Police Service Act.
King also cites the statutory obligations of the collective agreements, as well as provincial oversight when it comes to funding.
“The law says [the police have] to have adequate funding and if we don’t… it goes to the Ontario police commission in terms of the management of the police service.” King said. He added, “Arguably if we cut a budget by 63 per cent [as called for in the alternative budget], that’s substantive… Could we rationally do that and then not expect the province or the [police] commission to get a complaint and step in?”
Despite serving as council’s anti-racism liaison and saying he is “cognizant of what people are fighting for,” King seems to not understand that calls to defund the police aim to limit what police can do. “How do you then do tomorrow all of the things you were doing today by restricting it 63 per cent?” he asked.
In his interview, King repeatedly said the public should call their MPP when voicing concerns about policing, not just city hall.
Consciousness, Change, and the Path Forward
The demonstrators continue to promote their 10 demands:
- Freeze the Ottawa Police Budget
- No police in contested Indigenous territories
- End dynamic entry, mental health checks and sexual assault by police
- End discrimination against Indigenous & Black students in schools
- End School Resource Officer Program
- No racial slurs in our classrooms
- More Funding for Indigenous & Black students
- Funds to fight the public health crisis of systemic racism
- End racism in healthcare systems & public services
- No more evictions. Affording Housing Now!
Ironically, the only institution to take action on a demand was a school board, not the police or city. Demand six was taken up by the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB).
A statement on December 2 from Camille Williams-Taylor, director of education of OCDSB, said the school board has forbidden any staff from uttering, writing, or using racial or other slurs in the classroom, including while reading aloud or quoting literature.
Meanwhile, the city budget passed on December 9, and the police will receive the 13 million dollar increase to their budget. (For details on the budget and alternatives to it, see our article “A Tale of Two Budgets.”)
Deans told the city council that the police board will hire a working group to consider freezing the police budget in 2022.
Meanwhile, King said, “We have to look at diversion to social services, we have to look at freezing the budget, which is what that task force will do, we have to do those things.”
Lydia Dobson, a member of the Criminal Punishment and Education Project, believes that it will be a matter of when and not if policing and criminalization is reorganized in our society.
“The ways people treated and punished each other 200 years ago, we consider those barbaric and inhumane now. I think, 100 years from now, when people look back on the ways Black, Indigenous, and people of colour are disproportionately targeted, policed, and caged in prisons, they’re going to look back on us and say ‘Fuck, that was disgusting.’
“We haven’t gotten there yet, [but] it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. The way we police and imprison is violent and wrong.”