When UBC professor Michael Byers heard about the arrest of 19 students at an April 4 outdoor concert on campus, he said his mind skipped right to the “world” coming to Vancouver in 2010.
“When I heard what had happened, my first thought was for the Olympics and whether or not this reflected on the preparedness of the RCMP and other police forces to approach the likelihood of protest in a way that would reflect well on Canadians and would respect our civil liberties,” Byers, Canada research chair in global politics and international law, told the Georgia Straight by phone.
Byers said he missed the concert—called Knollaid 2.0 after the grassy mound outside the Student Union Building at UBC—by an hour and did not see events firsthand. Students had gathered to protest against an underground bus loop that could mean the end of the communal green space when completed. Though Byers does not agree with their position regarding the planned campus transportation infrastructure, he said he supports the students’ demands for a public inquiry after the arrests.
“I certainly have the impression that a more diplomatic and conciliatory approach could have been taken by the authorities that evening,” he said. “There is the allegation that the fire was causing a safety hazard, and one has to take that seriously. At the same time, the police interface with protesters is one that requires a substantial amount of training and restraint and respect on the part of the police.”
RCMP Const. Annie Linteau did not respond to a Straight interview request. However, in an April 5 RCMP media release, she claimed that 100 individuals were gathered around a bonfire at the event, causing UBC campus security to call for help from the RCMP and Vancouver Fire Department.
“Despite several police verbal commands to move, the individuals banded together against police and prevented fire crews from putting out the blaze,” Linteau said in the release.
Fourth-year student Steven Klein, from Students for a Democratic Society, told the Straight he is “still incredibly frustrated and outraged at the unnecessary arrests I saw and the level of aggression” from police. Klein said he has had to seek extensions for papers that are past due because he is still “pretty emotional”. Klein also refutes the police contention that those arrested were all blocking police and fire crews.
“There were a few people who were arrested from the crowd who were not blocking the police cruiser,” Klein said by phone. “They were also being charged with obstruction, when there is video footage of them being arrested that clearly shows them following police instructions. And there was just a very hostile environment when police were making those arrests. I am starting to look into filing complaints about the unjustified arrests and the level of violence that was used.”
Stefanie Ratjen, a fourth-year political-science student, told the Straight she has been charged with obstructing a police officer. She also claims there was Taser use as the police swooped in to make the arrests at the all-day music event next to the grass mound.
“At one point I turned around to see a wall of police officers,” she said. “They were being very aggressive.”
For Byers, the UBC setting is appropriate, as the APEC summit descended into pepper spray and chaos on the campus in November 1997. And Byers said he sees a connection between events at UBC and the global pro-Tibetan protests accompanying the Olympic torch along its relay route.
“I am struck by London and Paris, where the number of arrests were relatively small,” Byers said. “And those protests were on a scale that dwarfed what happened at UBC. We have something to learn from the authorities elsewhere. You don’t solve problems by needlessly escalating disputes. What we need, and what I think we have in many instances in Canada, are police forces that understand that dialogue and restraint and standing back is the preferred approach.”
Byers said police need to understand their role “within the context of a democratic society” like Canada, where Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects freedom of speech and assembly.