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A Legal Observer Explains: Why I’m Watching the Watchers

February 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Legal Observing is a way of volunteering for the Olympics that fits with my values and feels useful. My son told me about the program when I expressed my ambivalence about the games. Our training stressed our neutral role, and reminded me of my first experience in contribution through witnessing.

In November 1969, I was part of a busload of Toronto university students at the Moratorium in Washington DC protesting the war in Vietnam. The organizers needed volunteers from the protesters to maintain the proportionate number of “marshals” required by their parade permit. So, along with many of the Canadians, I stopped marching and became a peacekeeper.  Wikipedia reports that “a quarter of a million demonstrators were led by Pete Seeger in singing John Lennon’s new song ‘Give Peace a Chance’.” I was there in the front row, though my back was turned to the celebrities. I stood in the human chain around the stage, facing the crowd. In my role as buffer, I felt like I was living the lyrics.

Washington Moratorium 15Nov1969

The civil liberties issues are different with the Olympics, but I am glad that, by becoming a Legal Observer, I have found a way of situating myself to the games. Through visibility and record-keeping, I hope I can help maintain a safe space for the articulation of differing points of view.

Legal Observers 12Feb2010

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What happened? The value of our neutrality

February 13, 2010 Leave a comment

NB: For the BCCLA’s response to the issue of Saturday’s protests, see the Open Letter to Legal Observers

I was just on the CBC website trying to get news about the protest downtown this morning (Saturday Feb 13). I am so eager for updated information that I even turned my kitchen radio on! On the website there were over twenty screens of comments and I could tell that more were added even as I  was reading. What struck me was that everyone was still only able to express an opinion based, at this point, on preliminary information.

There were many comments on the CBC site suggesting that those who broke the law should be subject to our legal process. I hope that there were Legal Observers there this morning. This is the sort of moment for which we volunteered, and for which we had been trained. As I understand it, our role as recorders is the provision of credible facts. I visualize that these will help both our justice system and “the court of public opinion” in determining what happened, and that subsequent judgements will be based on facts. But it seems to me that our witnessing will only useful if the legal system and the public have confidence that our words and images are an accurate record.

In our training they stressed that we are there to serve as witnesses for both protesters and security. At this moment it is even more clear to me why they stressed our role as neutral parties. In addition to having our documentation show our impartiality, our credibility is also based on being seen as being neutral. And for that to happen, I see how much we need to send that message through behaviour.