Due to rumours of possible arrests, the turnout for the global student climate strike on Mar. 15 was compromised, organizers say. Some Victoria City Councillors are speculating on intentional intimidation.
The coordinated student strike reached one million participants worldwide, calling for action to avert runaway climate change. The movement was felt as far as Australia, Russia, Japan, Egypt, and Brazil — and made its way to Vancouver Island, too. But some Victoria youth stayed home for fear of law enforcement.
The rumours of arrests started with emails sent two days before, on Mar. 13, by the Victoria Police Department (Vic P.D.) to Victoria City Councillors Sarah Potts and Laurel Collins.
Asking Potts and Collins to contact Vic P.D. Liaison Officer Dan O’Connor by phone, the emails left Potts and Collins perplexed. Potts says she felt targeted, given that neither of them had any involvement in organizing the strike.
Potts called O’Connor after receiving the email.
“I asked if it was regular procedure [to contact councillors in these cases]. I’m not too sure if it is,” Potts says.
“In my head I was just thinking, these are high school students, you know, organizing for something peaceful and just. It was very confusing and it felt like it was intentional intimidation.”
“[O’Connor] said that, like it or not, as elected officials or public figures … [Collins and] I had a responsibility, and that they don’t like to make arrests [if] they don’t have to,” she continues. “This was kind of alarming. It seemed out of the ordinary and out of place.”
Potts wonders if this was intentional intimidation.
“In my head I was just thinking, these are high school students, you know, organizing for something peaceful and just. It was very confusing and it felt like it was intentional intimidation,” says Potts.
Vic P.D. Media Spokesperson Matt Rutherford says contacting public figures who intend to attend protests has become regular procedure.
“On numerous occasions in the past year, officers have reached out to City of Victoria Councillors who have indicated publicly that they will be attending protest events where there has been an indication of unlawful activity,” says Rutherford.
Over the phone, Officer O’Connor asked Potts if she had any information about the event.
“I didn’t have any because I was just attending. I wasn’t an organizer,” says Potts.
Vic P.D. says the councillors were two people on a larger list of those contacted.
“Officers reached out to several organizers and participants, including some City of Victoria Councillors, to learn more about the planned marching route and [to] advise of safety concerns as well as inform them that a planned march on to Douglas Street without a permit could constitute an offence under the Criminal Code,” says Rutherford.
But Potts confirms that she and Collins were the first to be contacted — not the organizers.
“[O’Connor] said they couldn’t get a hold of the organizers, although all the contact information was listed on the Facebook event,” she says. “So then I reached out to different organizers to try and let them know — I didn’t want to alarm anybody.”
Both Potts and Collins did not want to make any unwarranted assumptions, but did wonder if they were being targeted given the political backdrop of deciding the municipal budget.
In mid February, Victoria City Council voted to roll back the proposed police budget increase, limiting it to a 3.4 per cent increase instead of the six per cent increase that the Police Board requested. The final budget will be adopted in May.
“[Vic P.D.] really pushed back against that [decision],” says Potts. “It was getting pretty hostile.”
“I want to be careful around … making too many broad assumptions,” she adds. “I don’t know how much of [this] is coincidental.”
Vic P.D. says that their main reason for contacting the City Councillors was due to changes the department noticed on the event Facebook page.
“Prior to the protest, members of the group indicated on social media that they [would] be marching up Douglas Street, occupying the intersection of Fort and Douglas streets and then continuing on to Centennial Square,” says Rutherford. “That march was not permitted by the City of Victoria through the permit process.”
“The corollary is that you don’t need a permit to exercise the democratic right to protest. This is a central position of grassroots movements and especially for many Indigenous people and their allies who refuse to be controlled by colonial laws.”
But strike organizer Bobby Arbess says he doesn’t believe the permit altercation.
“The corollary is that you don’t need a permit to exercise the democratic right to protest. This is a central position of grassroots movements and especially for many Indigenous people and their allies who refuse to be controlled by colonial laws,” Arbess says.
“Many of [us] have been marching without permits for decades without ever a mention of the a-word,” he adds, referring to “arrests.”
Arbess also wonders if these emails were a method of intimidation by the police.
“For [O’Connor] to choose to emphasize that marching in the streets without permission is unlawful and could result in arrests as 2000 youth prepared for their climate mobilization, seemed a bit intimidating.”
After the phone call, Potts and Collins started to hear that some students were backing out of the plan to strike for the climate.
“The next day someone contacted me and let me know that some of the students at school had heard that there could be arrests and that there were students who weren’t going to go because of it,” says Collins.
“For me [this] was really upsetting … This might be [these students’] first time getting involved with action for the climate, or taking their concerns to other levels of government and doing that kind of advocacy work.”
“I really want those initial experiences fighting for the environment and for social justice to be positive.”
Picking up on the tension, Potts’ own daughter was deterred from participating, too.
“She heard me talking about it,” says Potts. “She was like, ‘Should we go?’ She was worried and I felt bad for her. Making her think that a protest is a scary, dangerous thing, instead of something totally within your rights.”
Following the scare, youth organizers decided against marching to the intersection at Douglas and Fort Street, and instead walked around the B.C. Legislature.
“No matter how much you understand the laws or the rules or your position, the police [body] is still very intimidating.”
Organizers met with O’Connor in person to tell him about the change of marching plans. At the meeting they expressed their concerns around Vic P.D.’s talk of arrests.
“When we met with O’Connor I chided him for issuing loose threats,” says Arbess, adding that O’Connor then retracted what he had previously said.
While readily retracted, police intimidation may not be as easily shrugged off by those on the receiving end.
“No matter how much you understand the laws or the rules or your position, the police [body] is still very intimidating,” says Potts.
“They can make you feel two centimetres small in the face of it. And especially for people who’ve had interactions with the police previously, it’s very intimidating. And it’s something that I was naive to prior to this budgeting process and this interaction.”