Bylaw officers dismantle tents at city hall after week-long protest to defund police

The midnight deadline for defund police demonstrators to take down their tents outside Hamilton city hall has come and gone, but the tents remain. Bylaw officers handed out trespassing notices and began to take down tents on Monday morning.

City said protesters were told they can stay, but their tents had to go

Hamilton bylaw officers began to hand out trespassing notices and dismantle tents set up in front of Hamilton City Hall on Monday after demonstrators have protested in the forecourt for a week. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Bylaw officers tore down the "defund the police" tents outside of Hamilton city hall Monday morning and handed out trespass notices after demonstrators ignored a city-imposed deadline to take down its tents by midnight.

Members of the week-long protest also received trespassing notices, which give bylaw and police the ability to remove tents and the owner or occupier of the tent if they don't comply.

Bylaw officers arrived just before 9 a.m. and started taking down the tents, dragging them — some still containing items —to a pile along Main Street West where they were loaded into city waste collection trucks.

As the tents were dismantled, demonstrators called for a meeting with Mayor Fred Eisenberger, chanted and live-streamed videos, yelling at the bylaw officers.

"They can take away the tents, but they can't take away community," an organizer shouted over a microphone.

The city said Thursday night that the demonstrators could stay as long as their numbers were below 25 — but the tents must go.

In a statement announcing the trespass order, the city said the mayor and city manager offered to meet with the demonstrators over the weekend to discuss their concerns, but their offer was not accepted.

"I think they were more interested in confrontation than conversation," Mayor Fred Eisenberger said during a media update on Monday afternoon.

"For folks who want to protest, you're welcome to do that at city hall. You just can't be erecting tents and having fires and campouts and bringing all kinds of apparatus. That's just not on."

The city also said the order is meant to encourage the demonstrators to follow the city's bylaws which bar tents on city property. Staff will also continue to enforce the province's COVID-19 orders which prohibit outdoor gatherings of more than 25 people, the city said.

"Over the past week, the demonstration in front of city hall has resulted in crowds of more than 75 people on several occasions, the presence of approximately 18 tents or other structures on the forecourt, an assault with a metal bar captured on city hall CCTV camera, and two overdoses which paramedics responded to," said spokesperson Jen Recine.

The city added it supports people's right to demonstrate, as long as they follow bylaws and COVID-19 restrictions.

A bylaw officer stands in front of a tent set up at Hamilton City Hall on Monday, handing out trespassing notices. The officer and others began to remove the tents after demonstrators didn't leave at 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, the deadline set by the city. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

In a statement posted to Twitter Monday afternoon, the demonstrators said they were doing just that — exercising their right to protest.

They argued the shelters and tents they had set up kept people warm and healthy, and drew comparisons between the dismantling of their camp and removal of a large encampment on Ferguson Avenue North in October.

"What we witnessed today was a complete failure on the city's part to keep people safe," the statement read.

"Our tents may be gone for now, but we are working on a safe solution to ensure the protest can continue."

Danniella Kazwah said she has been homeless for 74 days and was staying in one of the tents before it was removed Monday.

"We were able to come and go as we pleased. We were able to stay warm," she said of the demonstration. She felt "traumatized," she said, seeing the tent come down.

"We have nowhere to go, nowhere to sleep, especially during COVID," said Kazwah, adding she lost personal and sentimental items when the tent she had been staying in was taken away.

"We did not have time to take it out. Five minutes to pack up a whole tent? That's basically our house."

Week-long protest to cut the police budget

Bylaw officers taped notices to the tents on Thursday and told the protesters they needed to be removed right away, giving them a deadline of 11:59 p.m. Sunday as a "reasonable time" for removing their camp.

Ten minutes shy of the deadline, some 50 people were gathered in the forecourt as the demonstration projected the Disney movie Black Panther onto the side of city hall.

The clock struck 11:59 p.m., and there was no sign of bylaw officers. Seven minutes later, two bylaw officers quietly walked around the perimeter of the forecourt once, barely noticed by the crowd sitting around its roughly 20 tents.

"We're going to see what's going to happen ... we're just here holding the space and taking care of the houseless people in the space," organizer Sarah Jama said on Monday at roughly 1 a.m.

"I just want to know, from all levels of government ... what [Mayor Eisenberger's] plans are to deal with the housing crisis right now so people don't die this winter due to being houseless and the encampment numbers start growing."

The protesters have spent the past week camped out to demand the Hamilton police budget be cut by 50 per cent, with half of it instead being invested in free housing.

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

The tents were piled up along Main Street West, some with items still inside of them. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Eisenberger said the demand for a 50 per-cent budget cut is "not a rational notion."

"That's certainly not supported in the broader community and that's certainly not where we're going," the mayor said during a media update Thursday, adding affordable housing continues to be a focus for the city.

He said on Monday that locals rated police as a the highest rated service in the city.

In 2017, Eisenberger spearheaded a plan to spend $50 million over 10 years on housing initiatives. Some of that money came from dividends that resulted from merging Horizon Utilities with other companies to form Alectra Utilities.

Paul Johnson, director of the city's emergency operations centre, said during the Monday media briefing while space is low in the shelter system, there's enough to meet the current demand. If there isn't, the city will expand the network.

"The reasons why people may sleep outside are personal ones," he said. "There are some individuals for whom the shelter system may not be appropriate and so we work longer with those individuals on the street trying to find better locations, but that is not the majority of folks.

He said moving people to hotels has been useful for opening up space and there's no set amount of days someone can stay. Johnson said that more than 131 people from encampments and some 300 people with some degree of homelessness have been moved into permanent housing as a result of the city's efforts during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Coun. Nrinder Nann (Ward 3) has voiced support for the protesters and said police and the city should not escalate the situation.

"This demonstration absolutely should not end in a police raid," she said during last week's council meeting.

The tents were eventually loaded into waste collection trucks. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association issued a statement as the tents started coming down Monday.

"Charging people is not the solution because it ends up being quite arbitrary who gets charged," said Michael Bryant, the association's executive director.

"We must find a way in Canada to create opportunities for constitutionally protected protest within a pandemic context. Other countries have found a way to do this. Canadian cities and provinces can too."