Black community leaders call for recent charges against Hamilton youth to be dropped
A number of encampment protesters were arrested by Hamilton police last week
A group of Black community leaders is calling for all charges against the Hamilton youths arrested by police last week to be dropped.
"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, at a press conference held Wednesday.
A week ago, on Nov. 24, dozens of bylaw officers moved to evict people who had been staying at J.C. Beemer park. Protesters with the Hamilton Encampment Support Network (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.
Videos and photos captured on Nov. 26 show officers tackling several members of the group outside the station, and, from Nov. 24, an officer pinning a woman to the ground with their knee.
Rowa Mohamed identified herself this week as the person with the police officer kneeling on top of them.
She said she was yanked to the ground and her hijab pulled off "as the man put the full weight of his knee and his body onto my neck and my head."
Late Tuesday, Ontario's police watchdog — the Special Investigation Unit — said it is investigating after a 24-year-old woman was reported to be seriously injured during her arrest by Hamilton police on Nov. 26.
'Any other means of engagement'
One of the speakers Wednesday, Leo Johnson, had several questions for Hamilton Police Chief Frank Bergen: "Do we always have to use violence? Can't we see that it hasn't worked and it will not work? Do we always have to resort to the fact that somebody has to get hurt?"
Last week, police told CBC Hamilton the officer was using a "shoulder pin" to gain control for an arrest, adding the tactic is taught at the Ontario Police College. Bergen also released a statement Saturday saying at J.C. Beemer park demonstrators had broken through police tape and "compromised the area established for the safety of workers cleaning the area, encampment residents, city staff and outreach workers."
But on Wednesday, Johnson said the "charges must be unconditionally dropped," noting that Hamilton police will not find solutions if it puts the same people it's trying to find those solutions with on trial.
We are not a threat, Chief Bergen. We are your community.- Kim Martin, member of Hamilton's Black community
"We are just trying to find ways to dig ourselves out because every time we pop our heads out, it's like you press it back down. Every time we feel we are at a place where maybe we could sit down and talk, where maybe we can sit down and look you in the face and testify to the things that we are still feeling, it seems like one more thing you just do to put us back right back to remind us," Johnson said.
"We saw a knee on the neck. Can we not use any other means of engagement? Does it always have to be done? Is that the only way we can train our police force? Is that the only way we can respond in these times?"
Ruth Rodney of the Hamilton-based Afro Canadian Caribbean Association also spoke at the news conference, as Toronto-based activists and authors Desmond Cole and Robyn Maynard, as well as other members of the Hamilton community, looked on.
Rodney said the encampment crisis is a symptom of a larger social and economic policy failure at different levels of government, resulting in insufficient affordable housing for low-income people. She also condemned police actions during the arrests, saying the images have been traumatizing.
"Our members are deeply troubled by the horrendous video images we saw on the local news and social media showing police using excessive force against young activists, the majority of whom are Black youth who were at the J.C. Beemer park trying to support the unhoused individuals in our city," Rodney said.
"One video showed a police officer's knee on the neck of a young Black woman. Those videos were frightening, but more than that, these traumatizing images brought back for many of us ... that painful summer of 2020 when Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd while pressing his knee against George Floyd's neck."
A 'contradiction to building relationships and trust'
George Floyd was murdered by now-former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, sparking worldwide protests.
According to Rodney, pursuing criminal charges against the young people who have been arrested will serve no purpose but will cause long-standing harm and create deeper division in the community.
Speaker Kim Martin said those arrested are "young housing activists" who have been providing support to people living in encampments for more than a year; and have given their time, their passion and their compassion to help meet the needs of those "living rough" in local neighbourhoods.
"When I viewed the footage and photographs depicting a young protester being thrown to the ground after having calmly approached a police officer, and a woman with a disability that was pinned to the ground with an officer's knee on her neck, it was hauntingly too familiar," Martin said.
Martin pointed out that earlier last week Hamilton police hosted a meeting with members of the Black community, including herself, in an attempt to build trust. Events since have damaged that attempt, she said.
"What these individuals experienced at the hands of police was wrong and in contradiction to building relationships and trust.
"These actions are in fact endemic of a policing system that continues to criminalize Black existence and which ultimately sees blackness as a threat. We are not a threat, Chief Bergen. We are your community," Martin added.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
With files from Dan Taekema