Ottawa protesters are on alert to protect their right to free speech after two arrests that occurred after a peaceful demonstration on Aug 11 had ended.
Many are calling the arrests a blatant effort by police to intimidate and demobilize opposition to the upcoming summit of North American leaders in Montebello, Quebec.
But protesters say that the police’s attempted “fear mongering” has only strengthened their resolve and mobilized them to stand up for free speech and their right to public dissent.
Dan Sawyer, 32, and Matthew Morgan-Brown, 31, were arrested after the peaceful demonstration in front of the Château Laurier hotel. Their charge? Assaulting police. But according to eyewitnesses, it was the police who took an aggressive stance at what they say was a peaceful demonstration, from start to finish.
The group was protesting a summit that will bring together North American leaders. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, US President George Bush , and Mexican President Felipe Calderon will meet in Montebello from Aug 20 to 21 to discuss the Security And Prosperity Partnership pact. The agreement was signed between the three nations in 2005 and was billed as a way to boost cooperation on security, trade and public-health issues. But opponents say it will erode Canada’s authority on issues such as the military and natural resources.
Ottawa police acknowledge the protest was not hostile, but a police press release says “During the demonstration, several protesters were confrontational and aggressive with the police officers that were assisting in a safe and peaceful demonstration.”
“The police were very confrontational from the beginning,” says Frederico Carvajal, who attended the protest. “They were pushing people, but the people didn’t respond or push back.”
The protest began at the Human Rights Monument on Elgin St, where police joined the protesters as they marched towards the Fairmont Château Laurier hotel. The hotel was chosen for the demonstration because it belongs to the same chain that will host the summit in Montebello.
Confrontation between police and protesters began when the group of approximately 60 protesters arrived in front of the hotel to listen to several speakers.
Terry Stavnyk regularly attends demonstrations and other protests, but he says the police presence on Aug 11 was overwhelming.
“There were a lot of police, about two dozen uniformed police. They were everywhere,” says Stavnyk. “I’m been to larger protests with less police presence. There were plainclothes police. I don’t know what they were expecting to happen.”
Officers lined up in front of the hotel and assumed a combative stance, according to Stavnyk.
“They were standing in an aggressive way, it looked like they were ready and wanted to attack,” says Stavnyk. “They looked ominous.”
Stavnyk says he was taking photographs of the demonstration when he was approached by an officer who demanded Stavnyk’s name.
He also recalls a scene he describes as “very appalling” — the police pushing an elderly woman out of the way in their attempt to confiscate chalk that some protesters were using to write messages on the sidewalk and pillars in front of the Chateau Laurier.
“The reaction was very heavy handed,” says Stavnyk. “People brought their children and infants to the demonstration. Nobody goes to a protest with their kids if they expect it to be a confrontational thing.”
Carvajal calls the police’s actions towards people writing chalk messages “ridiculous.”
“The were pushing people out of the way and rushing to get the chalk. They just took it and tossed it on the ground. It was really ridiculous. I’ve never seen [the police] be that silly.”
Ironically, after the demonstration Dan Sawyer, one of the men who was arrested, used a megaphone to instruct protesters to disband into groups to walk home so individuals wouldn’t be targeted by the police.
Although Sawyer himself left the scene with a group of about six people, the police followed the group and arrested him as he walked down the stairs beside the Unites States Embassy, says Carvajal, who was with Sawyer at the time.
“The police pushed [Sawyer], but he didn’t react,” says Carvajal. “He was a clear target…it was a bogus targeted arrest.”
Stavnyk says he believes Sawyer was arrested because police saw him use the megaphone and interpreted him as the leader of the group.
“They were arrested after the protest had ended,” says Stavnyk. “The crowd had already dispersed. Even at the police station afterwards, [the police’s] reaction was ‘Who is your leader?'”
As officers brought Sawyer to a police cruiser parked behind a Chapters bookstore on George St in the Byward Market, Carvajal says protesters started to hear about what was happening and returned to the area to bear witness to the arrest and demand answers.
In the scuffle, police also arrested Matthew Morgan-Brown for assaulting police.
“Matt’s arrest was circumstantial,” says Carvajal. “No one would have even been there if Dan hadn’t been arrested.”
After the arrests, protesters gathered outside Ottawa Police Services headquarters on Elgin St to object to what they call the arbitrary arrest of the two men.
Between 9:30pm and 11:00pm when Stavnyk was at the police station, he says over 40 people had come to demand the release of the prisoners.
The two men were released on bail the day after their arrest, but must abide by several conditions, including not going within 500 metres of several sites that include the Chateau Laurier and the US Embassy, and not organizing or attending a demonstration against the SPP.
Carvajal says if police think they can squash protest by arresting the perceived leaders of the group, they are wrong.
“This just has the opposite effect — it mobilizes people,” says Carvajal. “We have a common objective…This is one of the few ways we have to express a public opinion.”