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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

A Legal Observer Explains: Why I’m a Legal Observer

February 18, 2010 1 comment

I have decided to participate in the Legal Observer Program during the 2010 Winter Olympics because I believe that all of us – protesters, Olympic dissenters, police officers, security forces, and even tourists (!) – are human beings.

Protesters, who believe passionately in a cause, are mere human beings.  They are sometimes tempted to let their passion turn to violence against other humans in order to uphold that cause.  This is human nature.

Police officers, who are given positions of authority, are mere human beings.  They are sometimes tempted to abuse their power, especially when situations are chaotic and split-second decisions are required.  This, too, is human nature.

I am merely human.  I cannot say what violent things I might do if I were more severely impacted by some of the issues protesters are protesting.  I also cannot say how I would react if given the authority and means to use “reasonable force” to “keep the peace” in some of these tense situations.

Yes, we are all merely human, but we are also all gloriously human – glorious just for being human.  So glorious, in fact, that every one of us has rights and freedoms, including the freedom to express our opinions, and the right to the security of our person.

So, in these tense and very human confrontations, I see Legal Observers as reminders of our humanity – our potential for ugliness and our potential for glory.  I hope the brightly-dressed Legal Observers remind everyone on scene that we have a choice: we can get ugly, abusing our power and our freedom, or we can use both our power and our freedom wisely and peace-lovingly, even when we disagree, recognizing and upholding the rights of every human involved.

Press release: BCCLA Calls on Canadian Border Services to Explain their “Inland” Patrols

February 16, 2010 4 comments

British Columbia Civil Liberties Association
February 16, 2010

For immediate release

BC Civil Liberties Calls on Canadian Border Services to Explain their “Inland” Patrols

ATTENTION EDITORS: The previously announced daily press briefings at 8:00 a.m. at 1188 West Georgia are cancelled. Press briefings will be announced by media advisory.

The BCCLA is calling on the Canadian Border Services Agency to explain the presence of “inland” patrols in downtown Vancouver which are increasingly being noted by the BCCLA Legal Observers.

CBSA officers patrol the DTES on Tuesday evening

Legal Observers attended at yesterday’s major demonstrations which proceeded peacefully: an anti-war demonstration that took place at the Vancouver Art Gallery Monday evening and an anti-houseless demonstration took place at noon. The housing demonstration culminated in a “tent village” that is situated in a vacant lot in the 100 block of West Hastings Street. While all went well at these events, the Legal Observers are noting policing changes.

Micheal Vonn, Policy Director, BCCLA: “We are sensing a shift in the policing culture of the public demonstrations, in particular we are noting the presence of Canadian Border Services Agents patrolling public space. We are unclear on their authority and mandate and ask the CBSA to clarify for the public what they are doing patrolling our downtown streets.”

The Legal Observers have also seen Corrections Officers present at demonstrations and will be seeking clarification on this as well.

Vonn: “We are seeing an edgier tone to the policing of the demonstrations with increased incidents of our Legal Observers being pointedly photographed and addressed by name by police officers who are apparently interested in letting our volunteer citizen observers know that the police have gone to some effort to identify them.”

MEDIA CONTACTS:
Micheal Vonn, Policy Director, BCCLA, 778-829-3471
David Eby, Executive Director, BCCLA, 778-865-7997

Open letter to Legal Observers

February 16, 2010 1 comment

February 15, 2010

Dear Observers:

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.

Best,
Dave

David Eby
B.C. Civil Liberties Association
Executive Director

Categories: Observing Tags: , ,

Press Release: BCCLA pleased with restrained policing at Opening Ceremonies

February 14, 2010 3 comments

British Columbia Civil Liberties Association
February 13, 2010

ATTENTION EDITORS: The previously announced Sunday, February 14 press conference at the BCCLA has been cancelled. The next briefing is scheduled for Monday, February 15, 2010 at 8:00 a.m. at 1188 West Georgia Street.

BCCLA pleased with policing at Opening Ceremonies demonstration, Observers record few issues

Vancouver, B.C. – A full contingent of Legal Observer teams monitored the policing of the demonstrations at the Olympics Opening Ceremonies. The large demonstrations that started at the Vancouver Art Gallery were notably peaceful. Restrained policing and protest marked the procession of the march to BC Place Stadium. Very few incidents involving police were observed, with the exception of a police barricade push-back that was unannounced and the fact that the majority of RCMP officers attending were not wearing legible badge numbers or names for accountability purposes.

“We were very pleased with the effective and restrained policing of the demonstrations that we observed prior to and during the Opening Ceremonies,” said BCCLA Policy Director Micheal Vonn. “We know that the Legal Observers contributed significantly to the success of these demonstrations. We were thanked by many people attending and were told by some that our presence gave them the confidence that the events would be safe and their rights respected.”

The Legal Observers were asked by event organizers not to attend the “Heart Attack” demonstration on Saturday, February 13. Several arrests were reported by media to have taken place at this event. Event organizers did call on the Legal Observers during the event. Although our Observers attended as quickly as possible, the crowd was largely dispersed by the time we arrived. Aside from witnessing and documenting police in full riot gear and with an array of armaments, we have no reports from this event and little footage to share.

Our Observers will be participating in the Murdered and Missing Women Memorial March tomorrow (Sunday) and preparing for the homeless tent city protest (Monday) as well as sharing video highlights from the Opening Ceremonies demonstration and several smaller events, on Monday, February 15, 2010. All 8 a.m. press conferences are held at 1188 West Georgia.

As always, BCCLA staff and board members are available for comment on civil liberties issues, including as they relate to the Olympics.

MEDIA CONTACTS:
Micheal Vonn, BCCLA Policy Director: 604-630-9753

FOR MORE DETAILS:  media@bccla.org or 604-630-9755

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.

Observer tip: Dealing with “No pictures, please!”

February 9, 2010 3 comments

One of the potential issues Legal Observers (or anyone else with a camera) will face when observing is a security guard, VANOC volunteer, police officer, or other Overzealous Olympic Official (OOO) insisting that a particular area or event is out of bounds to photographers. Here’s what to do:

  1. Follow directions, no matter how ridiculous, illegal or crazy they may seem.
  2. Ask for clarification and explanations—who the person is, what authority they have to give these orders, why no photos, and so on.
  3. Keep the camera rolling.
  4. Report incidents to your Observer Team Leader or the Legal Observer hotline.

Unfortunately, we already have a great example from Stephen Hui at the Georgia Straight that shows exactly how this sort of demand to “stop filming” should be handled.

Here’s the video:

Categories: Observing Tags: , , ,