Inside Politics

UPDATED - Ann Coulter's Adventures in Ottawa: So, what happened last night?

levant-coulter-cp-584.jpgEzra Levant turns after addressing a partially filled auditorium with Ann Coulter supporters on Tuesday after informing them that her appearance has been cancelled at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa. (Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press)

Okay, so I've been trying to sort through the hyperbole and rhetoric emanating from all sides in the aftermath of last night's Ann Coulter incendiary non-appearance at the University of Ottawa, and as is so often the case with such chaotic events, it's proving a wee bit difficult to separate the truth from the spin -- and again, that applies to both sides here. I'm still in the process of attempting to figure out what, exactly, happened, but I thought I may as well post what I've been able to confirm so far. 

First, contrary to what Coulter seems to suggest in a brief phone interview with scribe Colby Cosh, it was not the police who "shut it down." I spoke with Ottawa Police Services media relations officer Alain Boucher this morning, and he told me, in no uncertain terms, that it was her security team that made the decision to call off the event. "We gave her options" -- including, he said, to "find a bigger venue" -- but "they opted to cancel ... It's not up to the Ottawa police to make that decision." 

Boucher's statements are seemingly at odds with the account provided via twitter by Ezra Levant, who was supposed to appear on stage alongside Coulter. Several hours after the event had been called off, he tweeted that "Cops advised that proceeding with Coulter event in face of protesters would be dangerous to her and crowd," and quoted a Sgt. Dan Beauchamp as saying that shutting down the event was "a public safety issue," as well as an unnamed "police officer" who allegedly said that the OPS "cannot guarantee her safety." He also corrected an early report from Calgary radio host Rob Breakenridge, who tweeted that the speech was kiboshed because of a fire alarm, claiming that "it was the threat of violence, say cops."  

As for Coulter's claim that the police "had been warning my bodyguard all day that they were putting up [messages] on Facebook: 'Bring rocks, bring sticks, you gotta hurt Ann Coulter tonight, don't let her speak,'" Boucher confirmed that the police were monitoring the situation - although how, exactly, he didn't specify - but was unable to provide any example of such a threat, as he did not have that information, although he assured me that if a complaint were lodged, the police would "surely" investigate, but he didn't know whether or not that had occurred. I haven't been able to turn up any of those alleged threats -- not on Facebook, and not on the unspecified "liberal blogs" that she has since cited as the source, so if anyone can point me to an example, please do so in the comments. 

And now, the numbers. While there is pretty much universal agreement that event organizer Ashley Scorpio's initial claim of "2,000 violent protesters" is just plain wrong; she seems to have inadvertently mistaken the total number of people waiting outside, many of whom were there to attend the Coulter event, with the number of protesters, which have been variously estimated between a few dozen to 200. 

In addition to the real-time coverage provided by Colleague Hicks -- whose post-event summary can be found here, and who was tweeting throughout the evening -- here's a rough timeline of how things unfolded, courtesy of someone who was on the scene both outside the venue and inside the room: 

6:30: About 400 people in line, which probably grew to about 600+ by 7:00
7:00: Doors still not open, people getting really antsy given poor logistics (more on this later)
7:10 or so: Started letting people in one by one, checking them off on a list
7:30ish: Fire alarm goes off, organizers stop allowing people in. Auditorium was 1/2 full = 200 people, but entire upper part was empty.  200+ seats open
7:45ish - Fire alarm stops, but still no more people get in
8:08 - Ezra comes out and comments about censorship, etc. 

[Friend] was outside the entire time until they said they weren't letting anyone else in, and said there were about 300-400 people waiting to get in and maybe 20-50 loud protestors.  

Inside - there were maybe 8 anti-Coulter types, and their big impact was to chant 'Ann go home' for about 45 seconds, which inspired two women in front to start yelling back and challenge them to a slap off.

They added: "At no time was there any evidence of physical threat.  To the extent that there were safety issues, it was because you had 600 people coming out for a talk and the organizers had absolutely no logistical plan to handle it.  People annoyed like they get annoyed waiting to get into a jammed hockey game.  But no 'threat' environment. 

Finally, an observation from a CBC reporter who was in the Foyer while Coulter was being interviewed by CTV's Power Play: At approximately 5:15pm, he overheard a member of her security team tell a Conservative MP that her event "may be cancelled," which would suggest that the decision to do so was already being considered before more than half the crowd had assembled outside the venue -- hopeful speech-goers and protesters alike. Coulter herself, meanwhile, told Cosh that she never actually left the Rideau Club -- where she was the guest of honour at a $250 per head private reception -- for the university. Given the travel times involved, and the 7:30 pm start time, she would likely have had to do so by 7pm at the latest in order to make it in time.  

So, what does it all mean? Was the cancellation motivated by genuine concern over "violent protesters" or Facebook threats -- or something else? I can't say I've come to any firm conclusion, but given reports that she plans to file a human rights complaint, it seems like it's worth it to keep digging away at the seemingly contradictory accounts of last night's events. I'll update this post with any additional information. I've also sent an email to both Levant and Scorpio asking for more details. 

UPDATE: According to a statement issued by the University of Ottawa, organizers informed campus security that the event would not go ahead at 7:50 pm. 

EZRA LEVANT RESPONDS: Here's a PDF that he sent along as evidence of threats being posted to Facebook: Click here to read the document in a new tab/window

He points to these two comments, in particular: "I want to throw rotten veggies and eggs at her evil barbie mask," which appears on page 10 and was posted on March 20, and "Can't we just tar and feather her?" posted the following day, which can be found on page 8. 

A quick scan reveals that, amid the myriad ensuing discussion threads debating the best way to respond to her then upcoming appearance on campus, there are also several references to pie-ings, and one that suggests the poster would like to "dip her in gravy and lock her in a room with a wolverine high on angel dust," which, I have to say, sounds a wee bit logistically difficult to necessitate a last minute cancellation for security reasons, but I leave it to readers to judge whether any of the comments constitute threats to her person or public safety. 

DAY AFTER THE DAY AFTER UPDATE: Over at The Shotgun, blogger Terrence Watson thinks he's found pretty conclusive evidence that at least a few of the protesters who showed up for Coulter's speech had mischief and malevolence in mind, although it's worth noting that the captions on the photos that he cites as proof don't seem entirely consistent with the images. (Generally speaking, it's difficult to take clear, focused pictures while storming barricades and accosting security personnel.) 

Meanwhile, Coulter continues to misstate the facts -- inadvertently, I'm sure -- in a self-penned column, in  which she claims -- twice -- that it was the police, and not the organizers, that called off the event, which was confirmed by OPS spokesperson Alain Boucher in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen: "We strongly suggested that this venue was not large enough to accommodate all the people that had attended ... We had safety concerns with the sheer number of people that were there...with different views on issues."
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