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‘It was violent’: Police tear down U of A pro-Palestinian encampment Saturday morning

Multiple people at the protest camp torn down at the University of Alberta campus Saturday say police’s actions against protesters were “violent” and “disproportionate.”

The camp began forming on the north campus of the university on Thursday, with students and demonstrators condemning the war in Gaza and demanding the school divest from companies “complicit in occupation, and apartheid and genocide” in Gaza.

Police said the camp was dismantled Saturday morning after “repeated notice to encampment participants by the university that their activities violate university policy,” with a final notice issued to campers at 4:35 a.m.

At the time, the universtiy estimated there were around 50 people at the camp.

Police said no one was injured, however pictures and video posted to social media show officers striking several demonstrators with batons.

“Campers were injured,” said David Kahane, a professor at the University of Alberta who witnessed the tear down.

“I saw a bleeding baton injury, I saw bruises … one camper at least had to go to a clinic for emergency assessment x-ray for injuries, so it was aggressive. It was violent.”

Civilians on scene also reported some kind of chemical irritant being used, as well as non-lethal rounds. Police said tear gas was not deployed, but “special munitions” were used in the arrest of three people.

Those arrested, EPS said, were not students at the university and are facing charges including assaulting a peace officer, trespassing and obstruction.

Nour Salhi, spokesperson for the camp, said campers were expecting police action as some point, but didn’t think it would be so quick and agressive. 

“The reaction of the university, the escalation to include EPS and then EPS to escalate to a point of violence and brutality against students who are advocating against genocide, is not acceptable,” Salhi said. 

In a Friday statement, EPS said “police must balance individual rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms with the responsibility to enforce the law and investigate criminal actions.”

The Edmonton Police Service declined to comment Saturday on claims of brutality against protesters, saying instead that “EPS polices participant behaviour at protests, not political values.”

‘Community safety at risk’

The encampments followed a pattern of protests that have been unfolding at university campuses across North America in recent weeks, including Columbia University in New York and UCLA in Los Angeles.

Guidelines posted at the camp and on Instagram asked anyone joining the protest to keep its purpose front of mind and to not engage in any discriminatory behaviour.

Kahane, also a member of Independent Jewish Voices Edmonton, said the camp was welcoming and safe.

Campus security, he added, had assured protesters they could remain as long as there was no violence in the camp.

In a Saturday statement from University of Alberta, president and vice-chancellor Bill Flanagan said the university had been clear that “violation of the law or policies of the university goes beyond the parameters of freedom of expression.”

Procedures for demonstrations and protests on university campuses don’t allow temporary structures nor the camping of demonstrators overnight.

While the university’s statement cited the presence of wooden pallets as a risk for fire or “barricades,” Salhi and Kahane both said the few pallets were removed soon after campers were told they were a problem.

According to Flanagan, police were called to assist after “communications with the group were not successful and escalating actions put the university community’s safety at risk.”

Salhi claims the statement misrepresents the situation, with the only communication coming from campus security through trespassing orders.

“Otherwise, there have been no channels open towards us to discuss our demands and actually communicate why these demands are so important,” she added.

“The university called in the police on its own students, pretended there was a safety risk when there was none, and refused to be accountable to its own community,” Kahane said.

‘Completely disproportionate’

Late Saturday afternoon, hundreds of pro-Palestinian demonstrators to the university campus in protest.

The teardown also sparked anger online from many local politicians, organizations and academics.

“I am appalled by the actions of the University of Alberta and the Edmonton Police Service,” said Edmonton MP Heather McPherson. “Using militarized police to violently attack and break up a peaceful protest goes against everything the University is supposed to stand for.”

Alberta NDP justice critic Irfan Sabir issued a statement with NDP advanced education critic Rhiannon Hoyle, saying “the police response to peaceful student demonstrations at the University of Alberta appears completely disproportionate to student actions.”

“It is unacceptable that student protest is treated as a public safety issue, especially in the wake of a similarly excessive response at the University of Calgary,” it continued.

As of 6:30 p.m., 992 people from across Canada – mostly academics – had signed a petition calling for a boycott of the University of Alberta and Calgary over actions taken against protesters.

In Flanagan’s statement, he said peaceful protests are welcome at the university, as long as they “proceed in accordance with the university’s policies.”

“It’s a public university, all of the people there were peaceful, all of the people there were advancing reasonable demands,” Kahane said.

“What happened was outrageous, violent, disproportionate and dishonest.”

The university said no students associated with the camp had been suspended or banned from the campus.

On Friday, Premier Danielle Smith said the decision to have police remove pro-Palestinian protesters from the University of Calgary was justified, and the province was ready to assist the University of Alberta if needed.

“Because of the Coutts blockade, we have laws in the province, and you cannot block critical infrastructure, and in this case, it’s private property,” Smith said. 

With files from CTV News Calgary’s Stephen Hunt, CTV News Edmonton’s Alex Antoneshyn

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