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U of A defends decision to involve police in teardown of campus protest encampment

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators descend on the University of Alberta campus, where a camp of protesters had been removed earlier on the morning of May 11, 2024. (Galen McDougall/CTV News Edmonton) Pro-Palestinian demonstrators descend on the University of Alberta campus, where a camp of protesters had been removed earlier on the morning of May 11, 2024. (Galen McDougall/CTV News Edmonton)

The University of Alberta defended its decision to enlist police to clear out a pro-Palestinian camp Satuday, despite multiple campers calling the response "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 university 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 teardown.

"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 Saturday that campers were expecting police action at some point, but didn't think it would be so soon and so aggressive. 

"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.

Students began forming a camp at the University of Alberta's north campus on May 9, 2024, protesting the war in Gaza. The encampment was cleared by Edmonton police early Saturday morning on May 11. (Brandon Lynch / CTV News Edmonton)

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'

Saturday afternoon, several hundred pro-Palestinian demonstrators travelled to the university campus in protest. The teardown also sparked anger online from local politicians, organizations and academics.

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.

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."Hundreds of pro-Palestinian protesters marched across the High Level Bridge toward the University of Alberta, where a student encampment had been removed by police on May 11, 2024. (Galen McDougall/CTV News Edmonton)

On Sunday, Flanagan defended the decision, saying wood pallets were found near the camp and calling hammers, axes and screwdrivers found in tents "potential weapons."

Without the resources to ensure the camp was safe from illegal activity or violence arising from clashes with counter-protesters, Flanagan said the university had no choice but to shut it down.

"No court of law and no court of public opinion would accept an excuse from the university that because the encampment was unauthorized, the university bears no responsibility for any injuries or violence associated with the encampment," the second statement said.

Salhi released a letter Sunday in response, refuting Flanagan's claims and accusing the university of trying to "discredit" the movement.

The tools on site were for camping, Salhi said, and needles belonged to a first aid and harm reduction expert. The pallets in question had been removed from the camp Friday night at campus security's request, she added.

"The only time lives were threatened was when president Flanagan called the riot cops on student protesters while they were sleeping peacefully in their tents," the letter read.

While several people reported being told they were banned from campus by university security, Flanagan said no "members of the U of A community from campus" had been banned and no students had been suspended or had academic sanctions imposed.  

As of 4 p.m. Sunday, 1,279 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.

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