Hamilton

'Defund the police' protestors have until midnight Sunday to remove tents from city hall

Mayor Fred Eisenberger said a call from demonstrators camped outside city hall to cut 50 per cent of the police budget is "not a rational notion."

Demonstrators calling for police budget to be cut have been camped outside city hall

Bylaw officers present Sarah Jama (centre) and other members of a demonstration calling for police to be defunded with notices calling for them to remove their tents by Sunday. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

"Defund the police" demonstrators camped outside Hamilton's city hall have until midnight on Sunday to remove their tents and structures from the front of the building.

The protestors can stay as long as there are fewer than 25 of them — but their tents must go.

A statement from the city said offering a deadline on Sunday was "reasonable time for dismantling and removal."

The notices to remove the tents are issued under sections 17 and 18 of the city's parks bylaw, according to a city statement, and do not impact people's right to gather in front of city hall to demonstrate.

As bylaw officers taped notices onto tents Thursday evening, demonstrators chanted, "Hey hey, ho ho, these bylaw officers have got to go."

Demonstration organizer Sarah Jama declined to say what's going to happen between now and Sunday, adding she didn't want to share the group's plans out of safety concerns.

"We're going to do our best to make sure the houseless people and the protesters that are here are safe and protected," she said.

"We definitely have our own plans and our own steps in our mind for what we're going to do next. So, I'd say 'Keep watch.""

50% cut not 'rational,' says mayor

The notices were posted after Mayor Fred Eisenberger said a call from demonstrators camped outside city hall to cut 50 per cent of the Hamilton police budget is "not a rational notion."

He also warned that the city would tell the group that the tents have to come down.

"That's certainly not supported in the broader community and that's certainly not where we're going," he said during a media update Thursday.

Housing has been a focus of city council, according to the mayor.

"We're doing more than most municipalities. Is it enough? It's never enough. We need to do more and the focus on that continues."

Demonstrators calling for police to be defunded have set up tents outside Hamilton City Hall. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The demonstrators have set up more than a dozen tents and have stayed in the city hall forecourt for the past four days.

They're demanding that the Hamilton Police Service budget be cut in half.

They're also calling for a request from the service for a budget increase to be denied, and that the amount police are asking for, along with any surplus in the service's budget, be invested instead in free housing.

Jama previously said the demonstrators are looking for a multi-government response so people in Hamilton who don't have homes do not die this winter.

On Thursday she said the tents set up at city hall show the hurdles people have to jump through to make sure their voices are heard.

"Our governments aren't listening when we go and lobby, which we've done, when we've scheduled meetings, which we've done, and now when we're on their front yard," she said.

"We wouldn't have resorted to this if it didn't feel like it was the only way."

Some elected officials have shared resident concerns about the demonstration taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic, while others support the effort.

"This demonstration absolutely should not end in a police raid. There should not be an escalation of tactics here," said Coun. Nridner Nann (Ward 3) during Wednesday's council meeting.

"This is a very peaceful demonstration and what it needs to end with is the ongoing rigour of myself, my colleagues and all of our elected representatives to do what is absolutely necessary to rectify the crisis of homelessness in this city."

Eisenberger said the city considers the demonstration a protest, not an encampment, but that people are not permitted to pitch tents in the forecourt.

The Hamilton sign in front of city hall is covered in signs and messages calling for Hamilton police to see 50 per cent of its budget go toward housing. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

In response to questions from councillors about the ongoing bylaw and police presence around the demonstration, city manager Janette Smith said staff is working to address the situation without escalating it.

"What we've seen is that at times, their numbers have been closer to 75 or 80," she said of the demonstration.

"Bylaw staff with police have been there. That's why they're there, to get those numbers down. There have been some charges and tickets given."

Hamilton police Deputy Chief Frank Bergen said on Wednesday that officers have been following city bylaw's lead on its approach.

Bylaw has handed out four tickets in total — two for not physically distancing and another two for violating COVID-19 limits around the size of outdoor demonstrations.

Participants of the demonstration in front of Hamilton's city hall set up tents as the temperature dropped on Tuesday. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

One of those tickets went to Jama on Monday.

She tore it into pieces.

"This is definitely an example of systemic racism because they act as if we are being so egregious in our behaviour when we are peacefully protesting, yet every other white person in this city who peacefully protests for their right to knock other people's beliefs is without tickets," she said in an interview on Tuesday.

Four days of defiance

Jama and others have spent days occupying the space in front of city hall ever since.

With the help of community donations, the group have made it their own, covering the Hamilton sign in front of the building with their posters and signs with their demands. Chalk colours the concrete they sleep on, with more messages about transforming the police. Food and cartons of coffee from Tim Hortons sit on two rows of tables. Generators power the speaker system that keeps their voices amplified, and sends electricity to the lights that help them stay a full 24 hours.

But despite the display, the demonstrators have said they aren't comfortable.

The forecourt of Hamilton's city hall on Tuesday evening was full of tents and messages in chalk calling for the police to be defunded, disarmed, dismantled and abolished. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

"We are scared out of our minds … we are terrified," Jama said in an interview on Tuesday as the sun fell.

"I don't want to be here. We don't want to be here … We're doing this because we feel like we don't have any other option."

Over the past few days, the group has complained about the lack of communication from the mayor and city council. 

"I'm ashamed by how city councillors and the mayor are acting. Rather than having a conversion with us, they're hiding upstairs [in city hall]," said Sahra Soudi, a 23-year-old who has been one of the more vocal participants at the site.

Rowa Mohamed and Sahra Soudi delivered a morning speech on Wednesday in an effort to keep spirits high and send a message to the city that activists will not stop protesting. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

They have also alleged that bylaw and police have tried to intimidate them by watching over the demonstration.

"They're doing the exact thing we're fighting against — policing people in public space simply for being out in public," Jama said.

As a result, religious leaders visited to offer protection through prayer. Participants stood, some shivering, singing songs in solidarity.

People experiencing homelessness have also stayed in the area during the past few days.

"I wish people in Hamilton knew how hard it is to be out here on the street, how quickly the concrete sucks the cold out of your body and how unfair it is people here are still unhoused," said Rowa Mohamed, a 26-year-old demonstrator who has also been at the forefront of the resistance.

Deputy chief 'sad' to hear about fear

Bergen said police only arrived on Monday because the city's COVID-19 statistics put it in the red zone, and based on information they received, the protest would have too large a crowd under the pandemic-era rules.

He added that hearing about how Jama and others are feeling made him sad.

"I know at one point we had six, but those officers are not even on the forecourt … they're in the perimeter," he said Wednesday.

"We've backed off considerably, and I want to thank protestors, thank the organizers, because once we got those numbers to below 25, they, in fact were amazing. We watched and observed them actually make headcounts, so that's encouraging."

Hamilton Police Service officers stood near city hall on Wednesday morning observing protestors asking to take 50 per cent of the service's budget and use it to establish free, public housing. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Bergen wouldn't comment on the demands to cut the police budget by 50 per cent, but stressed that police liaison officers have been actively communicating with the organizers.

He also said the service's recent handling of other encampments around the city shows police can work in tandem with the community.

"Hamilton police are thirsty for the opportunity to work with our community partners … I'd be remiss if I did not say the collective that worked together on the dismantling of the encampment on Ferguson Avenue North, FirstOntario Centre ... that truly shows collectively we can do good in this city."

Still, even if the protest in front of city hall ends, Saudi said the mission will not end.

"They are scared by how much community support  there is for unhoused people … even if they get us to leave, this issue is not going to go away," she said as tears filled her eyes.

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