Members of Black Lives Matter Vancouver say they’re feeling discouraged and betrayed after police officers failed to protect them from a group of men who pushed their way through an anti-racism rally, allegedly throwing smoke bombs and provoking violence until a skirmish broke out.
Coming on the heels of a disappointing meeting with police and the Pride Society two days earlier, BLMV members say the officers’ failure to intervene sooner and more decisively at the rally confirms the strained relationship between the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) and the city’s racialized residents.
A video shot by a photojournalist at the anti-racism rally on March 26, 2017, shows members of Soldiers of Odin, a group linked to anti-immigrant groups internationally, swaggering through the crowd and antagonizing speakers, before violence breaks out and police intervene to briefly detain some of the alleged attackers on site before releasing them again.
After the rally, several queer and trans people of colour say they were followed and harassed by the released Soldiers of Odin but police did not intervene.
VPD spokesperson Sergeant Randy Fincham says the officers on site made a judgment call about when to intervene while upholding citizens’ rights to counter-protest.
“Where it comes to a challenge is you may have two groups with opposing views who both have a legal right to have their voice heard, even though their voices might not match, even though their agenda might not be the same,” Fincham says.
This is why Black Lives Matter doesn’t want the Vancouver Police Department walking in the Pride parade, says Daniella Barreto — the officers’ response demonstrates the institutionalized racism that BLMV objects to celebrating alongside.
“We do know that the police have a lot of systemic issues that influence that discretion,” Barreto says. “When the attack happened the counter-protesters had already thrown a smoke bomb, were already engaged in threatening conduct harassing the crowd. That, to us, should have been the point at which the police intervened, if their job is to prevent harm and criminal acts from taking place. They should not be waiting until harm has happened, when there were clear instances that these people were there and harassing us.”
Fincham says people are generally detained when they have criminally breached the peace, and are either held on-site or taken to jail until the event is over to preempt further disruption. Whether they are removed depends on the size and duration of the event, he says.
In some situations, officers may decide to step in sooner to prevent an incident, he adds. “To de-escalate a situation, quite often the police will step in to separate those groups and, if necessary, apprehend or separate those groups so it doesn’t get violent or escalate the problem.”
Two days before the incident at the anti-racism rally, members of Black Lives Matter met with the VPD’s LGBT liaison officer, Constable Dale Quiring, and directors of the Vancouver Pride Society to discuss policing, racism and the Pride parade.
But in a Facebook post, BLMV alleges that Quiring “shut down the conversation, refused to acknowledge the relevance of racism and police violence and ended the meeting prematurely with hostility.”
BLMV member Joy Gyamfi says Quiring wouldn’t entertain the suggestion that the Vancouver Police Department could do more to support queer people of colour.
“When we were in the meeting with the VPS and VPD, Constable Quiring would talk about all the good things he’s done with the LGBT community,” she says. “It’s great that that they are doing these things, but when we brought up Solomon Akintoye, who was recently assaulted by police on a case of mistaken identity, feeling that it was a relevant example of institutionalized racism, Constable Quiring shut that down and said it isn’t relevant.”
Akintoye’s case is currently awaiting a verdict from the BC Supreme Court. He is suing the VPD for allegedly beating him after mistaking him for a crime suspect.
Akintoye’s case is relevant, Gyamfi says, because “that is happening to a black man in the city. We aren’t just queer; we are queer and black and it seems like VPD only wants to focus on the black community and the queer community separately.”
Quiring declined to comment for this story and instead referred Xtra to the VPD media email address, through which Fincham responded:
“We are continuing to work with our community partners with the Vancouver Pride Society and Black Lives Matter, to ensure that we appropriately recognize the interests of all persons involved, regardless of ethnicity, gender or sexual identity.”
Gyamfi says BLMV members were starting to feel tentatively hopeful, after a few positive meetings with Pride, that the parade organizers might be supportive — but the meeting with Quiring changed that.
“It was disappointing because when we met with the VPS and the board in February, it felt that they were on our side, that they understood where we were coming from, and it seemed like they were going to help us get to that end goal,” Gyamfi says.
“But at the [March 24] meeting, it felt that had flipped. For example, we were discussing the possibility of having police out of the parade forever and a board member asked, ‘Are you prepared for the backlash that would happen?’”
Gyamfi says BLMV members heard this question as more of a threat than a potentially well-intentioned note of caution.
“We took offense to that because we get backlash every day for being black, being BLM and doing what we do,” she says. “It felt like a threat. That approach didn’t seem helpful to us at all. What about, ‘We are worried for you when the police step out of the parade?’ What about, ‘We will back you up when you do get backlash?’ It felt instead like saying, ‘This terrible thing could happen if you pursue this path.’”
Gyamfi says it’s hard to believe the comment came out of a real concern for BLMV members’ safety. “It’s almost saying, ‘Are you okay with bad things happening?’ instead of saying, ‘I’m an ally and I’ll be there and have your back when bad things happen.”
The VPS’ co-executive director, Andrea Arnot, says the events of the meeting and the protest are being somewhat misrepresented.
“We disagree with some of the account of what happened on Friday night [at the meeting], as well as at the march against racism on Sunday, but we are not going to get into details,” she says.
Arnot says the door remains open to talks with BLMV, and all offers around Pride participation remain on the table.
“We’ve offered support with getting venues or gift cards to do their events, and any support they might want, and they still have the right to critique us. That support is offered with no strings attached,” she says.
“We will continue to reach out and invite BLM to participate in things that we are doing, as well as any community groups that wish to,” she says. “We just feel like getting into defending ourselves is not fruitful.”
No future meetings between VPS and BLMV are presently scheduled. Arnot says consultations around police participation in the 2017 Pride parade are still in process and should yield concrete decisions in the coming weeks.