Charges Withdrawn in Two Criminalization of Dissent Cases, June, 2003

Charges Against CANSEC Weapons Fair Protesters and Spring Nuremberg Action Group Withdrawn


In two separate but related victories, criminal charges have been withdrawn against two sets of nonviolent arrestees at Homes not Bombs initiated direct actions this past spring. In what is a hopeful sign that some folks at the court level are seeing that the police criminalization of dissent cannot stand the scrutiny of even cursory court oversight, 22 sets of criminal charges laid against those arrested at Canadian Forces Base Downsview in March and at the CANSEC weapons fair in April are now history.

In both cases, those charged would have had to wait the standard 18 months to two years, with criminal charges hanging over their heads, before a full trial would have revealed the bogus nature of the charges. In addition to the incredible waste of time and energy expended in that process, the rights of those who were arrested for demonstrating would have remained in an ongoing state of suspension given restrictive bail conditions.

Also in both cases, it is clear from police disclosure, as well as from first-hand experience, that police intended to criminalize the actions from the get-go.

In the case of CANSEC, an annual gathering of the merchants of war and repression held April 10-11 at the Ottawa Congress Centre, police intercepted a personal e-mail from Toronto's Matthew Behrens to a handful of Ottawa activists in early March and immediately opened a file on the case.

As part of a March 7 investigative action report, an Ottawa police inspector wrote "non-violent direct action is being planned by Matthew Behrens and his [sic] Homes not Bombs group out of Toronto" (even though the network is province-wide with hundreds of members who share in "ownership" of the group).

A follow-up report in early April indicated police were preparing for a massive show of force, despite the fact that their own disclosure goes to great lengths to quote our own description of Homes not Bombs actions, with which they are well familiar in the national capital region. The disclosure quotes our definition of "nonviolent" to mean we will be "confrontational, transformative, and do no verbal or physical harm to our opponents, whether they be arms dealers, police, or bystanders who disagree with us."

Indeed, the April 1 report from the police notes that "there are three fresh air plenums around the building...Staff would need approximately 15 minutes to close down the ventilation system in the event that gas was deployed by police." Police also advise of the need for "down rooms" in which members of the heavily armed Public Order Unit (riot squad) would await deployment.

In a letter to Ottawa police, David Hamilton, president of the provincially owned Congress Centre, appoints the police to act as its designate to "detain and or affect [sic] arrest" of protesters in relation to charges including "mischief, trespass to property, causing a disturbance or intimidation." It is unclear how, exactly, a member of the public can authorize the police to lay such charges.

In the end, approximately 100 people from across Ontario and Quebec attended the peaceful five hour demonstration at the weapons fair. Four people -- Angela Pinchero, Mary Hutcheon, James Robinson and Clayton Dignard, all of Ottawa -- were arrested separately for the "crime" of sitting in front of entry doors. Each was picked off as an individual, not even with their arms linked, and charged with criminal mischief, obstruction of a police officer, and unlawful assembly. Interestingly, others from out of town engaged in similar activity were not arrested and charged. It seemed Ottawa police wanted to send a message to Ottawa-area resisters.

Among the bizarre list of release conditions requested by police were non-association, not to be within 100 metres of the downtown congress centre facility, signing in at the central cop shop every Saturday, and "not to possess firearms, ammunition or explosive substances" (an ironic condition that might better be applied to the attendees and merchants at CANSEC, who are loaded down with such materiel!)

The four were held overnight and finally released more than 24 hours later, a punishment which the police front-end because they know that if charges DID go to trial, no conviction or jail time would result.

The charges were part of an ongoing pattern of criminalization of dissent in Canada in which heavy charges are laid against people involved in protests. Knowing that such charges will not stand up in court, the only way to punish people is via pre-release detention and severe bail restrictions. Members and friends of Homes not Bombs have faced such charges on seven such occasions over the past few years, and won acquittals at trial in every instance.

In the case of Ottawa, police are still smarting from a Homes not Bombs victory stemming from a three-hour occupation of the Mackenzie King Bridge in front of the War Dept. in November, 1999. Fifty-five were arrested and criminally charged at that event and, at trial a year later, a judge concluded that although there was some delay for early morning commuters, he could not criminalize the actions of a group which, while certainly confrontational, were nonviolent, polite, well-advertised in advance, and resulted in no damage.

A year later, when Homes not Bombs went to tackle the wizards of space warfare at the DREO electronic warfare centre in Nepean, the 50 or so demonstrators and Wizard of Oz characters were outnumbered more than four to one by some 225 police, equipped with the riot team, a surveillance airplane and helicopter, police dogs, and a slew of cameras. Those arrested at that event, again a wholly peaceful demo which closed the facility for the whole day, had their charges "disappear" in the system.

In January, 2003, demonstrators occupied the entrance to the war dept. for hours following a demonstration of 5,000 people, yet no arrests were made. On February 14, a mass silent sit-in in minus 35 degree temperatures closed the Mackenzie Bridge for five hours, with numerous entrances blocked an additional two hours, but again, no arrests were made.

In Toronto, meanwhile, members of the Spring Nuremberg Action Group (SNAG), a coalition of Catholic Workers, Homes not Bombs, and assorted friends and allies, have also had criminal charges against them withdrawn. The group of about 30 had gone to CFB Downsview in an attempt to have Canadian soldiers commit to upholding the Nuremberg Principles during the daily bombing of Iraq. The demo itself through a SNAG into military operations as the base was forced to go on lockdown.

Threatened on half a dozen occasions with trespass charges if arrested the afternoon of March 24, ten people were eventually taken into custody and detained at 32 division in North York. After having been booked for trespassing (a non-criminal provincial offence), seven hours later the detainees were informed the charge was now the criminal obstruct police, and that unless bail restrictions including not to be within 250 metres of any war dept. facility in Canada were agreed to, detention at least overnight and possibly another 2-3 days was likely., Refusing to cooperate with this punishment before trial, the group did sign and vowed to seek a bail review at a later date.

The group -- Janis Dahl, Maggie Panter, Ron Panter, Andrew Loucks, Matthew Behrens, Don Bowyer, Father Bob Holmes, Steve Morris, Rob Shearer and Matt Trowell -- spent a total of close to 300 cumulative person hours in numerous court appearances at the badly organized Finch Court.

As with CANSEC, from the beginning, there was an attempt to criminalize the SNAG action as well. The pattern was obvious at the pre-action planning meeting at the Quaker House, outside of which stood some 15 officers with their bicycles. It continued with the painfully obvious undercover officers who disappeared (perhaps to make a few phone calls) after attending the pre-action meeting and learning of our plans. They filled out their jail support sheets without including phone numbers or e-mails, and interestingly had generic last names of Jones and Smith. After we left the Quaker House, we were met by black-shirted subway security who were awaiting our arrival and who quickly herded us into the station, not even charging us a fare, and accompanying us until we were on out train up north. At the entrance to the base, Matthew Behrens was singled out by Superintendent John Mellor, who explained "he knew much about" Behrens, though the two had never met.

Despite being threatened with, on at least six occasions, charges of trespassing, and despite having been arrested and booked on trespass, there was never any indication why the charge was upped to obstruct. The only notes on this matter reference a phone call to downtown's 52 division, where many of the arrestees are well-known for such criminal acts as public prayer, planting vegetable gardens, dressing up as Robin Hood and the Easter Bunny and protesting corporate greed, and welcoming Venusians to inspect Toronto's poor air quality.

The trial would have been a banner opportunity to introduce the concept of international law obligations for citizens preceding and during acts of war, as police notes are filled with our own references to Nuremberg, depleted uranium, and citizen responsibility. But the crown attorney at our pre-trial informed us "no judge is going to listen to your high-falutin' Nuremberg Principles," which seems to be the crux of the problem. When governments violate these principles and citizens uphold them, we are the ones still being charged, and hence war crimes are facilitated by the unknowing to eager complicity of the police, the courts, the politicians, and the skeptical press, which spent most of the demo complaining about following us around in the mucky field near the entrance to the base.

We aren't holding our breath, though, for while it may be clear that the courts may see a tremendous waste of time and resources are being used against us, they do not necessarily see that the laying of such charges and the use of restrictive bail conditions is an act of illegal criminalization to begin with.

Either way, Homes not Bombs continues with its ongoing campaigns, with upcoming actions including a mass trick or treat civil disobedience at Canada's spy agency CSIS, where we will seek disclosure on the secret trials cases currently targetting Canada's Arabic, Middle Eastern and Muslim communities. It takes place October 31, with the goal of obtaining the secret evidence which has been used, but not disclosed to the defence lawyers, in these secret trial cases.

Ten members of Homes not Bombs also go to trial August 1 in Toronto for trying to conduct a citizens' weapons inspection of weapons of mass destruction manufacturer Northrup Grumman.

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