The BCCLA is deeply concerned about the political manipulation of police in the wake of the police’s response to demonstrations at the University of British Columbia and elsewhere during the recent APEC Conference.
Craig Jones, a BCCLA Board and Executive Committee member, was arrested on the morning of November 25, 1997 outside of Green College at the University of British Columbia. RCMP officers arrested him for holding a sign that stated FREE SPEECH that was in view of the motorcade route for transporting APEC delegates to UBC for meetings. Mr. Jones’ arrest reflects a pattern of incidents in which the police targeted demonstrators for exercising nothing more than their fundamental right to freedom of expression.
Mr. Jones, a law student at UBC and a resident of Green College, had been acting as an observer of political demonstrations at UBC during the week leading up to his arrest. Increasingly concerned with activities of the police that seemed more to do with silencing dissent than legitimate security measures, he decided to erect signs outside Green College on the security fence surrounding the College.
The signs read FREE SPEECH, DEMOCRACY and HUMAN RIGHTS. The police removed the signs despite his protests that he had a legal right to display them. The next morning Mr. Jones borrowed two coat racks from the College, which he placed on the sidewalk in front of the College in view of the designated route for transporting APEC delegates. Two signs that stated FREE SPEECH and DEMOCRACY were displayed on the racks. An RCMP officer immediately ordered him to move the signs off the sidewalk and on to the grass 12 feet behind the security fence. Mr. Jones complied with this order. After approximately ten minutes the same officer informed him that the signs could not remain at this second location, though he could. According to the RCMP, if he wanted to display the signs he would have to move them to the designated protest zone.
Mr. Jones decided that if free speech meant anything he would remain with the signs and held the coat rack with the FREE SPEECH sign so that the police would have to forcibly remove it from him. Three officers grabbed the sign from his grip and took him the ground and handcuffed him. He was told he would be charged with obstruction and taken to an RCMP detachment. He was released approximately 14 hours later. At press time, it is not clear whether charges will be formerly laid.
In Craig’s own words: “I was stunned, frankly, and saddened. The RCMP told me I was standing in the right place, but I couldn’t stand there with a sign that said free speech. I cited the Charter and Ramsden v. Peterborough, which I had noted on the signs. Apparently the police had orders to suspend rights now and apologize later. They should be ashamed.”
The BCCLA has received several complaints about the activities of police that appear to single out political demonstrators. One person who had received media accreditation had his media pass confiscated on the basis that he had been seen with protesters at a democracy village set up at UBC. A leader of APEC-Alert, which organized demonstrations, was arrested for assault the day before major protests at UBC. The allegation is that he had used a bullhorn in a way that burst blood vessels in the ear of a security guard. The BCCLA has received several other reports of incidents of the arrests of protesters placing signs or the police removal of signs.
To be released from jail, persons arrested for protesting at UBC were required to sign an undertaking that they “would not participate or be found in attendance at any public demonstration or rally that has gathered together for the sole purpose of demonstrating against APEC or any nation participating …” at APEC. We have learned that these conditions for release were drafted well in advance of the APEC conference by an organizing committee that included police and federal agencies.
The police have an important and legitimate role in providing adequate security for APEC visitors and delegates. However, the arrest of Craig Jones and other incidents raise concerns that police actions were motivated not just for legitimate security measures but also for cleansing areas in proximity to APEC leaders of expressions of dissent. Our Association wants to know who is responsible for crafting policy and guidelines for the cleansing and arrest of those dissenting or organizing dissent about APEC.
In a free and democratic society, we demand that the police not be used as pawns by our elected representatives for purely political purposes. Nor do we expect the police to follow policies that direct them to do so. The irony of these incidents is that in hosting APEC, Canada hoped to exhibit its government and police as models of democratic institutions in action. The spectre left over from the arrest of Craig Jones and other incidents is that our state institutions have proven not to be a models of democracy but rather arbitrary censors of legitimate political expression.
The BCCLA will continue to attempt to get to the bottom of the APEC demonstration debacle. Our options include using the RCMP Public Complaint process, civil suits, access to information requests and plain old demands for accountability of politicians and the police. We’ll keep you posted.