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Edmonton police commission faces anger from public over police response at U of A encampment

The Edmonton Police Commission heard on Thursday from almost a dozen angry speakers demanding police accountability after the teardown of a protest encampment from the University of Alberta.

The three-day camp was organized by students protesting the war in Gaza and demanding the university divest from companies “complicit in occupation, and apartheid and genocide” there.

Police were called in to clear the camp at around 5 a.m. on May 11.

“We suddenly awoke to the screams and terror and that stench of tear gas,” said one speaker, who was sleeping when police moved in. “The brutality had already begun and not one officer checked to make sure people were making it safely out of their tents.

“Was this not about public and community safety? Because we felt like we’d woken up in a war zone.”

In video and images posted to social media, police officers can be seen using batons and “special munitions” against campers. Video shows some kind of gas being used, but police said it was not tear gas.

The Edmonton Police Service did not respond when asked to clarify what gas was used.

At the time of the clearing, police said no one was injured – a claim that has been disputed repeatedly by the camp’s organizers and participants.

“One protester was hospitalized due to injuries and a handful have sustained minor injuries,” another speaker said. “I implore the commission to reflect on the pictures and videos from the sweeping of the encampment, in contrast to the media released by EPS.”

Monday, the province said it would ask the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) to investigate the actions of officers in relation to any injuries to campers.

Edmonton police use batons while clearing a protest at the University of Alberta in Edmonton the early morning of May 11, 2024. The camp-in protest was organized by students to condemn the war in Gaza and demand the university divest from companies “complicit in occupation, and apartheid and genocide” there. (Source: Instagram / university4palestine.yeg)John McDougall, chair of the commission, said the commission had seen the images from the teardown but “cannot rush to conclusions.”

In addition to claims of violence by police, McDougall said images of officers without name tags or identification are concerning.

“The community has a right to be able to identify any police officer they interact with,” he said, adding the issue would be brought up with EPS Chief Dale McFee.

The commission is not involved with day-to-day policing, McDougall stressed, and it’s the responsibility of EPS to “conduct police operations in accordance with legislation and policy.”

McFee spoke at the meeting, saying in part that protesters have a responsibility to “obey all laws and respect private property.”

“Failure to do so, a deliberate attempt to bully, harass, dox – in other words, intimidate the community – impacts the safety of our community and means the police response will come to adapt to the conditions on the ground,” McFee said.

The university has defended bringing in police over what it said were trespassing violations and a risk of violence caused by agitators.

Since the camp was cleared, numerous participants have described the conditions at the camp as safe, welcoming and peaceful.

“In my time there we shared meals, shared books at its library, we shared smudge, created art, prayed and shared a Shabbat service with members of the Jewish community,” one speaker said. “We all deserve answers as to why those activities were met with such unprecedented hostility.”

Both the decision to involve police and the police response itself have been the subject of public backlash. On Monday, the associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion at the university’s faculty of art resigned over the decision.

McFee said a press conference on the police response would be held Friday, but no details have yet been released.

Anyone with a complaint about police actions can report their concerns at the Edmonton Police Commission’s website

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