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Edmonton police answer questions about response to U of A encampment protest

The Edmonton Police Service held a news conference Friday to answer questions about the EPS response to the May 11 dismantling of an encampment on the University of Alberta campus.

Police also shared more videos to provide what they described as a more “fulsome” picture of the encampment, and what happened when police arrived and clashed with protesters.

EPS Deputy Chief Devin Laforce said the protest at the U of A started at 6:45 a.m. on Thursday, May 9. Campus peace officers told participants they were not allowed to camp there overnight. They were told repeatedly that they were trespassing, Laforce said, and signs were posted.

Over the next few days, there were “calls to action,” Laforce said, and indications the protesters intended to stay there. “This indicated a commitment to defy lawful direction as well as the intent to accumulate food and equipment for a longer-term occupation,” Laforce said.

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It was one of several recent protests on academic campuses in Canada and the United States in response to Israel’s actions in Gaza.

At its peak on Friday, the U of A encampment had about 150 people and 40 tents, as protesters called on the university to cut ties with businesses and investments that support Israel.

Edmonton police said campus peace officers repeatedly gave demonstrators notice that they were breaching university policy and trespassing laws.

At around 4 p.m. Friday, the university requested police support to remove the encampment, Laforce said.

Click to play video: 'Edmonton police remove pro-Palestinian encampment at U of A'

Edmonton police remove pro-Palestinian encampment at U of A

Early Saturday morning, campus peace officers read the eviction notice and again once police arrived at 4:45 a.m., he said. About half the demonstrators left at that time, police said.

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Demonstrators were not sleeping in tents when police arrived, Laforce said. He said they were standing in line facing police. The EPS shared video of this on Friday.

“Occupiers were not asleep,” Laforce said. “All the occupiers were standing and refusing lawful direction. They weren’t sitting down peacefully, they weren’t laying down, they weren’t resting.”

At 5:08 a.m., the remaining protesters were given 10 minutes to clear out on their own, Laforce said. Then, police started to advance.

“During the initial clash between police and the encampment subjects, two subjects physically resisted police,” Insp. Lance Parker said. They tried to grab police batons and were arrested, he said.

“To prevent the crowd from interfering with these arrests, pepper balls — 10 to 15 — were shot into the ground, and there was one muzzle blast of what was also an OC powder.

“There was no liquid spray on the crowd, certainly no tear gas, no OC grenades and no flash bangs. If you look at our officers in the video, you’ll see no shields, no helmets being worn and no masks,” Parker said.

“This clash with protesters, all things considered, was incredibly minimal,” he said.

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Parker addressed footage of one officer who is seen swinging a baton, saying that “use of force is never pleasant to watch” but that doesn’t mean it was excessive.

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The entire conflict took about 20 minutes, police said, and the protesters became cooperative quite quickly. In response, police reduced their use of force.

Laforce said police have paramedics embedded in their public safety unit and everyone at that scene was offered medical care from EMS.

“None was received,” Laforce said, adding there were no reports of significant injuries to anyone there.

Click to play video: 'ASIRT may probe Edmonton, Calgary police response to pro-Palestinian encampment removals'

ASIRT may probe Edmonton, Calgary police response to pro-Palestinian encampment removals

A third arrest was made a short time later on Saskatchewan Drive, Laforce said.

“None of people arrested were university students,” Laforce said. “At least one of those arrested was known to police, having been part of other protests for several years. The charges that were laid were assault of a police officer and assault at an obstruction.”

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While clearing the campus encampment, police found drug paraphernalia, several wooden pallets, fire extinguishers, tools like hammers, wrenches and wooden stakes, and a guide on unlawful encampments called Defending the Camp, Laforce said.

In the wake of this police response, several videos have been shared online that have led to the “doxing” of 11 EPS members, Laforce said. He said police are now investigating behaviour he described as “bullying, harassment and intimidation” against officers and their family members.

Edmonton Police Chief Dale McFee said EPS will be making a policy change in the next few weeks where officers will display an ID tag with their regimental number on it rather than their name.

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The police chief acknowledged it’s been a big week in Edmonton with a lot of very important discussions. He said, in the last 16 months, police have responded to more than 800 protests. Mostly, they’ve been peaceful.

“I think our communities have, for the most part, shown great respect for each other, for the diversity of beliefs that exist in our city,” McFee said.

He said police have had many conversations with community members and that “people across communities have also expressed their fears about the changing nature of the protests they’re seeing.”

McFee said there are “bad actors,” “agitators” who are “exploiting” vulnerable groups and who want to see demonstrations become more aggressive. They are not representative of the whole community, the police chief said.

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McFee said there is a difference between a protest and an entrenched encampment.

“These are complex and often dynamic situations for police agencies,” Laforce said, “as officers have the difficult task of balancing the public’s right of free speech and enforcing the law.

“To be clear, camping on university lands is trespassing and it will not be tolerated. Charter rights do not come without responsibility for actions and do not outweigh unlawful actions.”

Click to play video: 'Anger growing over how University of Alberta, Edmonton police dismantled pro-Palestine protest'

Anger growing over how University of Alberta, Edmonton police dismantled pro-Palestine protest

Nour Salhi, spokesperson for the Peoples University for Palestine, said the encampment was peaceful until university administration decided to call police in.

“Every violent action that us students, faculty and community members at the encampment faced was due to their decision to bring in EPS in the first place,” she said. “At no point were we a threat to any members of the U of A community.

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“EPS’ constant stumbling on justifications for what they did to us does not erase the fact they violently beat students, faculty and community members,” Salhi said.

She said the majority of the people at the encampment were U of A students and disputes the claim there were many non-students there.

“There’s no way for EPS or for the administration of U of A to have gotten that information at all,” she said. “Neither visited our encampment or tried to get a head count or tried to talk with us.

“Our institutions need to listen to our community instead of trying to allenoate us. And EPS should be doing the same.”

Salhi said protesters remain committed to their message.

“Our community stands firm with us and with our demands, which is disclose, divest, defend and declare your support for an immediate and permanent ceasefire, two-way arms embargo and complete liberation of Palestine.”

Click to play video: 'Tensions rising over Canadian campus protest encampments'

Tensions rising over Canadian campus protest encampments

In a statement Friday, the University of Alberta said safety is always its priority.

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“It was at the forefront in the difficult decision to disperse an encampment of 50 people with the assistance of Edmonton Police Service on May 11.

“The EPS timeline of events for clearing the encampment on May 11 aligns with what we experienced that day and in the days leading up to it.

“During this difficult time, our primary focus continues to be balancing freedom of expression while ensuring the safety and security of the University of Alberta community,” the statement continues.

“After talking with representatives from NASA, AASUA, the Students’ Union, and the Graduate Students’ Association, it is clear that members of our community are hurt and in turmoil. We are working to move forward collaboratively and meaningfully.

“Over the coming days and weeks, we will continue our discussions with students, faculty, staff, alumni, and members of the broader community, facilitating the discussion and exchange that is crucial to the university’s mission of teaching and learning.

“Many members of our community have been, and continue to be, deeply affected by the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. We are increasing our dialogue around our commitment to, and value of, academic freedom and freedom of expression and what that means to us in a university setting.”

Click to play video: 'University protests: Pro-Palestinian demonstrators disrupt commencement ceremonies'

University protests: Pro-Palestinian demonstrators disrupt commencement ceremonies

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