Protesters on both sides share blame for increased hostility in Beltline demonstrations, police chief says

Calgary Police Chief Mark Neufeld responded to protests held in Calgary’s downtown Beltline area over the weekend, calling the situation between anti-mandate protesters and counter-protesters a “stand-off” that left police in a “no-win situation.”

Police chief also calls some city councillors' social media comments about protests 'polarizing'

Chief Const. Mark Neufeld defended police actions at Beltline protests at a press conference on Monday. March 14, 2022 (Calgary Police Service)

Calgary's police chief is defending his department's response to protests held in the city's Beltline area on Saturday, calling the situation between anti-mandate protesters and counter-protesters a "stand-off" that left officers in a "no-win situation." 

At a press conference held on Monday, Chief Mark Neufeld said that while he understands the frustrations of residents and businesses in the area, police have a "very difficult" task in managing the drawn out protests that have become a "complicated legal environment." 

Over 2,000 protesters met along 17th Avenue S.W. on Saturday. 

In response to videos circulated on social media that showed officers pushing back against counter-protesters ⁠— in some cases using their bikes ⁠— Neufeld said that the use of force was regrettable but that intervention was necessary.

He said that the officers that used force were doing so to create a pathway for anti-mandate protesters to move past counter-protesters, an act he said many interpreted as the police choosing sides.

"This was definitely not the case," said Neufeld.

"This was simply the most effective way to bring this conflict to a conclusion." 

Counter-protesters said they are standing in solidarity with Beltline residents and businesses who are frustrated with the anti-mandate demonstrations that have been happening on Saturdays over the past year. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Neufeld called the protests "volatile" and said that both sides were to blame for increasing hostility. He said that there were professional protesters present in both groups on Saturday who "want to promote conflict."

In a Twitter thread posted on Saturday, Mayor Jyoti Gondek questioned why bylaws weren't being enforced, calling the anti-mandate protest a "parade" that was operating without the proper permits and licences. 

Neufeld said that police are looking into different bylaws to see how they could apply to the protests but cited the need for sensitivity around what he called "a new environment in terms of protests." 

He said police are trying to find a balance between allowing people to exercise their right to protest and protecting the interests of local communities. 

Neufeld also called the actions of city council members speaking out about the protests on social media "polarizing." 

"I just think that it's been sort of oversimplified by individuals, some of them elected and some of them appointed," said Neufeld.

"Does that fuel the fire? Sure. Do we have councillors that are encouraging people to go out and participate in the protests? Yes, we do. Do I think that's a good idea? No, I don't."

Protesters and police clashed in Calgary’s Beltline as anti-mandate protests continue and residents and their supporters stand their ground. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Gondek told CBC news on Monday that members of city council are not pointing fingers at police for the protests' escalation but are seeking a new strategy for managing demonstrations moving forward. 

"I am not a member of the police service. I am not an expert in crowd control. But I am an elected official that needs to raise the voice of the people that I serve, and they are saying they have every right to be out in their community — and they do. So we need a different solution," said Gondek. 

Gondek appealed to anti-mandate protesters to consider moving the location of their demonstration and to not take their concerns out on Beltline residents and businesses. 

"If you are taking issue with mandates or restrictions, then converge on the places where governments make decisions — come to City Hall and demonstrate, go to the McDougall Centre or the Harry Hays building, come to the place where the decision-makers can hear what you have to say." 

She said that, moving forward, she hopes that police can leverage the relationship they have built so far with anti-mandate protesters to encourage them to relocate their demonstration. 

Neufeld said police had reached out to protest organizers beforehand to persuade them to reconsider their routes but that both groups were insistent on using 17th Avenue S.W.

Anti-mandate protesters pushed through a line of officers who were attempting to block them from turning onto 17th Avenue from fourth street S.W.

"This represents a marked escalation in the behaviour of the freedom group who up to that point had been reasonably co-operative with police over the past months."

Neufeld said that the attitude of anti-mandate protesters seems to have changed since the group began demonstrating months ago. 

"They don't seem to have the same level of respect for people." 

He said police are looking at how to adjust their strategies to deal with the situation but warned that things may not be resolved by this coming weekend. 

Neufeld urged anti-mandate protesters to consider the negative impact that ongoing demonstrations are having on the community and to reconsider their approach in light of lifted COVID-19 restrictions. 

Conversely, he asked Beltline community members to not "ramp up your efforts to take over the streets." 

"It's not in their best interest."

City council has called for a special meeting on Tuesday afternoon to discuss responses to Saturday's protest.

Gondek said she hopes the meeting can clarify expectations on what city council, the police service and the police commission's respective responsibilities are.