Months after police operations to clear three central-Toronto homeless encampments resulted in chaotic clashes with protesters, lawyers for a group of about 50 people facing charges – ranging from $65 trespassing tickets to criminal allegations of weapons possession and assault – want what they call “political” prosecutions dropped.
Those charged include both homeless people and their supporters. Police cleared about 60 residents from the encampments this summer, in operations that cost an estimated $2-million.
The group’s lawyers allege police violated their clients’ rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, quashing the protesters’ free expression and detaining them for hours while denying them access to legal counsel. The lawyers say multiple protesters were injured in the mayhem.
Seven of the accused appeared in a virtual courtroom late last month, but most of their cases were put off until the end of October. Assistant Crown attorney Melissa Atkin told court she had not yet received enough information from police to screen the cases and decide how to proceed.
Arash Ghiassi, a lawyer for one of the accused, told court the charges were “of a political nature.”
“They all relate to violent police operations to evict unhoused people from several parks in Toronto. But the police who enacted that violence did not face any charges,” he said.
Sima Atri, a founder of the Community Justice Collective and a lawyer acting pro bono for most of those facing charges, said she and Mr. Ghiassi have sent a letter to Crown prosecutors urging them to drop all the charges. Ms. Atri and Mr. Ghiassi argue that it is not in the public interest to proceed, because the cases lack any reasonable prospect of conviction.
Ms. Atri told The Globe that her team is planning to challenge the bail conditions that police originally imposed on some of the accused. Those included bans on being within 500 metres of a park while the city is “relocating” an individual from an encampment, and bans on attending any “unlawful” protest. Ms. Atri said Crown lawyers have agreed the provisions are too broad, but still want to impose bans on being within 50 metres of an encampment that is being cleared. She said both conditions violate her clients’ rights to free expression and protest.
“Protesting something happening from three blocks away clearly is not an effective protest,” she said.
About 20 of the 50 charges are for criminal offences, such as weapons possession, assault or obstructing police. But Ms. Atri and Mr. Ghiassi say the only alleged weapons so far documented by police are bottles of water, or of water mixed with milk that was meant to clean police pepper spray from protesters’ eyes.
Toronto’s municipal ombudsman has launched an investigation into the city’s role in clearing the encampments. But some city councillors have called for a judicial inquiry that would also look into police conduct during the raids, an idea voted down at council earlier this month. Mayor John Tory, who has vehemently defended the clearings, called the notion of an inquiry “insulting” and “publicity seeking.”
Meanwhile, activists last week condemned notices from the city given to two encampment residents identified as key organizers of the recent protests. The notices banned those two people from all city parks and recreation facilities for a year.
One of the letters, signed by City Manager Chris Murray, said the resident had been “harassing, hindering or obstructing” city outreach workers and recording the workers’ conversations with other encampment residents without consent. Ms. Atri said that, if the bans are not lifted, she may challenge them in court.
Among the protesters facing criminal charges is Kelsey McNulty, a 36-year-old woman who plays keyboards for the folk-rock band Great Lake Swimmers. She and some fellow musicians became involved in the Encampment Support Network, an activist group that has, during the pandemic, provided food and other aid to those living outside.
But she said she had never attended a protest against an encampment clearing until around 11:30 a.m. on July 21, when she joined a crowd that had gathered near a tent community at Lamport Stadium Park.
A smartphone video shot that day shows a wall of police pushing protesters away from the park. Officers are shown snatching Ms. McNulty without warning and throwing her to the ground.
She said in an interview that she was handcuffed, detained for almost six hours and charged with possession of a weapon. She is a type 1 diabetic, and she said she wasn’t given any food to help stabilize her blood sugar.
A police document describes her as having had a weapon: a “plastic bottle with some type of unknown white liquid in it that was used at a protest towards” police. Ms. McNulty said she did not throw anything at officers. She said she and others had been using water mixed with milk to treat protesters police had pepper sprayed.
“You know, you’re shouting stuff. I couldn’t help but point out the ridiculousness. The riot police’s suits say ‘Public Order.’ And I was like, ‘You call this public order? Come on,” she said. “... I was looking away when they grabbed me.”
Initially, police said she had been charged with assault with a weapon – information that still appears high up in Google searches. Now, with a criminal charge hanging over her head, she is worried she might not able to cross the border for gigs in the United States when the pandemic recedes.
She said she believes the charges were meant to intimidate her and other protesters: “Maybe they wanted to make an example. Who knows? Whatever it was, it’s had the opposite effect.”
In a press release last month, police said protesters threw “objects” at officers and assaulted them as they cleared homeless people and activists from the lawn outside Lamport Stadium. Police have also said a crowd that later gathered outside their west-end 14 Division station became violent, and that more objects were thrown at officers, including soup cans. Police have continued to arrest people weeks after the incidents, including a handful who attended a recent protest in front of the mayor’s downtown condominium building.
In an e-mailed statement, police spokesperson Meaghan Gray said she could not speak to any specific allegations before the courts. She said some of the water bottles thrown at police that day were full of ice and that 11 officers were injured, two with concussions. She also said that “any object, when used for the purpose of causing harm to a person, can be considered a weapon.”
Ms. Gray said suspects are “generally” allowed to speak privately with a lawyer and that police can hold them for up to 24 hours before they are required to appear in court.
She also defended the force’s approach to the homelessness protests, which critics say has been more heavy-handed than the police response to recent anti-vaccine demonstrations in the city. Ms. Gray said police respond to protests on a “case-by-case” basis.
“Each event is unique and dynamic in its own way and officers respond accordingly,” she said.
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