Encampment network volunteer tells councillors recent 'police violence' was unwarranted
Police say they want 'serious, honest and transparent conversation' about what happened
A volunteer with the Hamilton Encampment Support Network (HESN) told city councillors on Wednesday that the level of force used by Hamilton police at J.C. Beemer Park two weeks ago was unnecessarily high.
Merima Menzildzic said members of the HESN arrived to help people whose tents were still standing, and to protest them being removed from the encampment.
"I don't think anything that transpired that day warranted the police violence that ensued afterwards," Menzildzic told city council's general issues committee.
"People were dragged. Somebody had a knee on their neck … I was deeply concerned that somebody was going to die, in the same way that I was deeply concerned that somebody could have died in the fire that morning."
On Nov. 24, dozens of bylaw officers moved to evict people who had been staying at the park after a fire at the scene. Protesters with HESN, who tried to stop the evictions, were confronted by police, leading to the arrest of two people — a 33-year-old man charged with obstructing police and a 27-year-old woman charged with assaulting a police officer.
Two days later, during an encampment eviction at Beasley Park, police arrested HESN member Sarah Jama. Her arrest sparked a protest outside Hamilton Police Service's central station, leading to three more arrests.
"We need to interrogate why the reaction was met with such a degree of violence, where people were getting dragged, where knees were put on people's necks," Menzildzic said about what transpired at J.C. Beemer Park.
"There were Tasers. There were guns. I was concerned people would actually die on that day because of the police. I don't think police were there in that moment de-escalating the situation. Respectfully, I didn't see any level of de-escalation. I only saw further separation."
Menzildzic said there "needs to be a level of accountability and some response from the police about why that degree of violence and why everything that transpired that day needed to be so violent."
Police, meanwhile, have said the demonstrators broke through police tape and "compromised the area established for the safety of workers cleaning the area, encampment residents, city staff and outreach workers."
Coun. Nrinder Nann (Ward 3, central lower city) said Menzildzic's questions gave her "a lot of pause" and served to inspire councillors "to examine the impacts of our approaches as a municipality, as it relates to our encampment response, and to do so in a manner that I think fundamentally speaks to our corporate priorities, which need continuous improvement."
Wednesday's meeting came against a backdrop of growing calls for a judicial inquiry into how police arrested the Black youth two weeks ago.
Questions about dismantling encampments, use of force
In a Dec. 5 letter to Ward 1 residents, Coun. Maureen Wilson (west end) said the incidents left her with "questions about the dismantling of encampments, the role of police, the appropriate use of force and the practice of de-escalation at protests."
Wilson said it was "unclear what public safety risk was posed by protesters and volunteers, and what would warrant the level of force exercised by the police service and the subsequent criminal charges."
"I am writing to the Hamilton Police Services board with my questions and a call for an independent public inquiry," Wilson said in the letter.
A few earlier, on Dec. 1, a group of Black community leaders called for all charges against the Hamilton youths to be dropped, in addition to an inquiry.
"There should be a [judicial] inquiry into all the actions that took place at J.C. Beemer [Park] and the Hamilton police station, and we're calling for an end to encampment evictions," said Kojo Damptey, executive director of the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion, said at the press conference.
Meanwhile, McMaster University's Office of Community Engagement has issued a letter of solidarity, saying it supports the call to drop the criminal charges.
"We also support the call to open a judicial inquiry into the violent events at J.C. Beemer Park on Nov. 24, 2021, and at the Hamilton Police central station on Nov. 26th, 2021," the office said in a statement.
Ontario's police watchdog — the Special Investigation Unit — has said it is investigating after a 24-year-old woman was reported to be seriously injured during her arrest on Nov. 26.
On Wednesday, a spokesperson for Hamilton Police Service said the SIU was contacted as soon as police learned of the allegations related to serious injury.
'Difficult, challenging and perplexing issues'
"We heard the perspectives, stories and impact shared at this last week's media conference with the Black community, and we welcome the opportunity to come to the table with community in seeking resolution to the events that transpired over this past two weeks," Jackie Penman said in an email to CBC News.
"We commit to working with the community to engage in a serious, honest and transparent conversation."
Penman said police have not yet received correspondence from Wilson on this issue.
Speaking at Wednesday's general issues committee meeting, Mayor Fred Eisenberger said "these are difficult, challenging and perplexing issues that we're all struggling with."
He said the city's objective is to get people into "safe and secure housing," but added, "I don't think we're going to solve this issue in a matter of weeks."