A senseless and unnecessary use of power

Here are the events that led to today’s arrests in Halifax.

  • A group of protesters exercised their right to assemble peacefully and petition their government for redress of grievances by camping out in the Halifax Parade ground.
  • City burghers found the demonstration unruly, distasteful, and inconvenient. Seizing on the central role the Parade Grounds traditionally plays in Halifax’s Remembrance Day observances, Mayor Peter Kelly demanded the protesters vacate the area before November 11.
  • Showing more strategic accumen than one might have been inclined to expect, the OccupyNS protesters negotiated respectfully with veterans’ groups and HRM officials, and voluntarily withdrew to Victoria Park, a few blocks away.

(A parenthetic note seems warranted here: For those unfamiliar with Halifax, Victoria Park scarcely merits the designation. It’s more of a grassy verge than a full-fledged park, a walkway whose round-the-clock use by protesters, however scruffy, should not have made any city official’s list of top-10 concerns. Peace, order, and good government-wise, it was a non-event.)

  • On Tuesday, Mayor Kelly and HRM Council met behind closed doors and voted on… something. Maybe they voted to evict the protesters, as Kelly claimed. Maybe they voted to serve them with an eviction notice, as Dawn Sloane claimed Friday evening. Mere citizens cannot know who’s telling the truth and who’s confabulating because there was no mention of the protests on the council agenda, and the city’s elected officials acted, as is their wont on important and controversial matters, in secret and unaccountably. As the Coast’s Tim Bousquet reported, the vote, if it happened, was not confirmed in public session, as required by law.
  • On Friday, having made so much of his reverence for the solemnity of Remembrance Day last week, Kelly ordered – or at the very least, allowed – the eviction to proceed, with only cursory warning. Police forced protesters out of Victoria “park,” arresting those who failed to co-operate, and confiscating their tents and paraphernalia.

What harm were the OccupyNS protesters doing that could conceivably justify their violent eviction? City officials made a few, feckless attempts to conjure up a rationale. Kelly claimed the protests had cost the city $25,000 extra police and trash removal services, then abruptly upped the estimate to $40,000. The roundness of the numbers suggests they were plucked from the mayoral navel with as much accounting acumen as Kelly applied in the past the the use of city parks for big name concerts.

City officials claimed an ordinance required city parks to be vacated overnight, but pedestrians routinely use the grassy walkway at all hours of the day and night. Critics were quick to point out that Kelly’s administration tolerated an encampment at Seaview Park for months on end, before eventually conceding that the protesters had a point and negotiating a settlement of their grievances.

Carrying out the forcible eviction on Remembrance Day was tactless, and added insult to injury, but it’s a side issue. The core principle here is the right to petition for redress by peaceful assembly. That’s what our vets fought for. The city has sacrificed these Constitutional pillars in the name of an obscure and petty municipal ordinance, and a stuffy concern for orderliness. Is it any wonder Halifax, which could be such a great city, wallows instead in mediocrity?