A Tale of Two Protests, Discrimination, and a Somewhat Public Space

by Asaf Rashid — last modified 2008-10-29T12:31:42-04:00
When does a protest become illegal? Do rights to freedom of expression depend on who you are? These are only two questions amongst many that come to mind in response to the differential treatment by City of Fredericton staff and members of the Fredericton Police force to two different groups in the summer of 2006.

By Asaf Rashid

When does a protest become illegal? Do rights to freedom of expression depend on who you are? These are only two questions amongst many that come to mind in response to the differential treatment by City of Fredericton staff and members of the Fredericton Police force to two different groups in the summer of 2006.

On July 16th and 17th, a group of anti-abortions activists from Ontario going by the name, “Show the Truth” (www.showthetruth.ca) made their graphic presence in Fredericton, with their members setting up alongside busy roadways with large, full colour signs of dead babies, which they claimed were pictures of aborted fetuses—though as Fredericton Abortion Clinic director Judy Burwell confirmed, the pictures appeared to be of miscarriages with doctoring of photos to create more impact (CBC, July 18).

Fredericton Mayor Brad Woodside received over two dozen complaints and the police received hundreds of angry phone calls in response to the in-your-face graphic images; however, the groups was still allowed to continue their actions until they decided to leave. The mayor indicated that the group would not be welcome back in Fredericton because of their actions, even saying to the CBC: “it’s time for them to get back on their bus and get back to Ontario”. But they did come back on July 26th, setting up their offensive placards in Front of City Hall. They were allowed to stay for the full hour that they chose to make their presence there. The mayor didn’t follow up on his insinuation that the group was not welcome in the city. It took the actions of counter-demonstrators (pro-choice) to support the public outcry against the grotesque and misleading images. The counter-demonstrators showed that the group was not welcome by blocking the images with umbrellas and other items. although the police did the popular thing by NOT stopping the counter-demonstrators from bringing reality to the mayor’s otherwise empty comments, the police did nothing to actually confront the anti-abortion group themselves.

A couple of months earlier, on May 27th, a diverse crowd of 30-something residents of Fredericton participated in the National Day of Action for the Status for All, a day of action against the deportation and detention of migrants and refugees, which called for a full, inclusive, unconditional and ongoing regularization program for migrants and refugees. The action commenced with an afternoon potluck in a park near the downtown, which was followed by a march (with a car leading the way) to City Hall that proceeded along the streets, really only interacting significantly with traffic when we took one lane of Queen Street on the final leg of our short journey to City Hall. Members of the group handed leaflets to passer-bys along the way. The police stopped us along our way. I briefly argued technicalities with them about our right to use the public streets, but we eventually complied and got off the streets, moving to the sidewalk. When we arrived at City Hall, our two speakers made their brief comments in support of the rights of migrants and refugees. We didn’t obstruct anyone’s movement into or
out of the building and politely handed out leaflets to those walking by. But still, the security at City Hall responded to our presence “I get paid to keep people like you away from city hall for the tourists.”She got on her dispatcher and the police arrived as our short rally was winding down. They eventually came towards us just as we were leaving saying tat we were ordered to disperse. I questioned them as to why we were being asked to leave from the public space; we had done nothing to violate any rules over the use of public space (we did not obstruct the ability of other people to use the services of City Hall). It didn’t take long before I was suddenly under arrest, roughly taken down with handcuffs placed on me; and all the while I showed no resistance other than my words. Three others were un-forcefully arrested (not handcuffed) as well; however, when we were in the police station I was the only one asked about my origins, citizenship, as well as other condescending questions.

Sure enough, in the aftermath of the incident on May 27th, the police were on the defensive with regards to their reputation, due the actions of the officer who arrested me. They were also questioned about the discriminatory practices of that same officer. There was major media attention on the issue and now an investigation into the incident is underway. The mayor even responded (to a group of rally attendees and supporters in a private meeting) that he supported our message and rights to speak out about our concerns. Those are all words though. It’s the differences in actions taken by City staff and police in response to the two groups that stand out. The questions I asked at the beginning of this article still require answers. There are others that can be asked as well. Is there something particularly threatening about a rally containing several people of colour as well as young people dressed in stereotypically punk and hippy-style gear? What did the security guard at City Hall mean when she referred to us as “People like you”? Why was it that the anti-abortion activists, despite multitudes of complaints, were allowed to continue their actions without an order to disperse from the police? These questions are still overhanging, clouds that shadow over the rights of some illegal people.

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