Open letter to Legal Observers
February 15, 2010
Thank you for your good work around all of the various public events that have taken place to date. Your work is helping keep people safe and their rights protected.
There has been much media attention paid to our program lately, mostly positive, but some recently questioning our partiality in light of Saturday’s Black Block demonstration and the fact that we were not present. I am writing to you to clarify the decisions that were made then, and policy changes as a result.
The BCCLA was contacted by a representative of Saturday morning’s demonstration who advised us that we were not welcome to send observers to the demonstration. As the Observer program was set up to protect free speech and free assembly against police excess, while the decision seemed unwise, it did not seem weird.
The stated intent of the protest on posters advertising the event was to block roads, an illegal action, but generally considered to be civil disobedience. In short, it was a relatively routine type of protest for Vancouver in terms of risk to police, protesters and the public. The contact advised the BCCLA they were concerned about video footage being used in prosecutions against them, and that they were concerned the LO program was infiltrated by police. While we recognize there is no way to know whether police have infiltrated us, it seems a remote possibility. The risk, however, of a subpoena demanding Observer footage is very real.
As a result, not wishing to be seen as an evidence collecting arm of the police or to put Observers in the position of being confronted by organizers telling them to leave, I made the decision not to send Observers to the event. I wish I had that decision back, let me tell you. When we got the call that mass arrests were happening, we sent observers, but they arrived after all of the action was over and were limited to shots of police standing around in riot gear.
The media, and even some demonstrators from Saturday, have asked the question, and quite fairly, “Why weren’t Observers at the event?” This is, obviously, our first run at a Legal Observer program. We were set up explicitly to watch police, but necessarily note the context of police action in evaluating the appropriateness of that action. We figured the program was for the benefit of demonstrators, so demonstrators should be able to call us off if they wished. But the optics of that given Saturday’s event is incredibly problematic. We should have been there monitoring the police, but we weren’t. It was a mistake not to go to the demonstration, even if we weren’t welcomed by some of the demonstrators, and we’re correcting it.
From now on, Observers will attend all events we feel might involve police action regardless of invitation. If there is hostility to Observers being present, Observers at the start of the shift will be advised of that and given the opportunity to reschedule on a different shift if they wish. Observers may also make safety decisions of staying a fair distance from events given the receptiveness of organizers to our presence. The good news is that we are not aware of any upcoming demonstrations where our observers are not welcome, and the issue has not yet come up.
I hope this helps clarify things for everyone, and that we can continue our good work in the streets of holding the police accountable. So far, Police have been remarkably restrained, and I am certain that it is our Observer program that helped them understand the benefits of holding back on the tear gas and pepper spray.
B.C. Civil Liberties Association