On the Radar from CLEO
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How community workers and protest organizers can help protesters stay safe

This month's On the Radar focuses on:

  • practical tips for anyone planning to attend a protest
  • legal rights information and resources for protesters

The number of public protests across Canada has seen a dramatic increase in recent weeks. In part spurred on by the global Black Lives Matter movement, Canadian protesters have targeted a range of issues, including:

And, in Ontario, there have been protests against landlords evicting their tenants and the treatment of migrant workers related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The risk of protesting

There's always an element of risk in attending a public protest.

Some protests unexpectedly evolve into chaos or violence. Sometimes protesters are targeted by individuals with opposing views. Some may even face backlash in their personal lives from unhappy employers or social groups, if they find out that the person attended a protest.

But one particularly big risk to many protesters is the risk of a direct conflict with the police.

Rights of protestors

While protesting peacefully, people can:

  • refuse to answer police questions
  • take photos or videos of the police, but they can't get in the way of the police while doing this

If people are protesting peacefully, the police cannot:

  • search them
  • detain them
  • make them show ID

But if the police think someone is connected to a crime, they can detain and search them.

Suggestions for anyone who thinks they're being detained or arrested, include:

  • Don't resist or struggle.
  • Ask "Am I free to go?"
  • Say "I want to speak to a lawyer." The police must help them call a lawyer who will help them for free.
  • Don't answer questions, but give their name and date of birth.

How protest organizers and community workers can help

Protest organizers and community workers can help reduce the risks to protesters by minimizing the opportunities for conflicts with the police. They can also provide protesters with the tools, resources, and information to protest legally and safely.

Here are 3 specific ways to help:

  1. provide practical tips and legal rights information before the protest
  2. distribute practical tips and legal rights information during the protest
  3. invite legal observers to attend the protest

Practical tips and legal rights information before the protest

CLEO has new information specifically targeted at protesters and protest organizers. The content, which is on CLEO's Steps to Justice website, offers practical tips and important legal rights information related to protests in Canada.

A number of other organizations also have useful guides, including the Black Legal Action Centre (BLAC), which created a legal toolkit for protesters.

Protest organizers can direct potential protesters to read this information before going to a protest. When protestors know their rights, they're less likely to find themselves in a risky conflict with the police.

And, if there's conflict, informed protesters will know how to deal with the situation safely and effectively.

Legal rights information during the protest

CLEO also has a new information card that can be given to protesters at an active protest. It's the size of a business card and has basic legal rights information for protesters, along with a link to the more detailed content on Steps to Justice.

Anyone can order these information cards for free. Look under Posters and Bookmarks in CLEO's online order form.

Legal observers

Legal observers are people who:

  • are trained in the law of protests, and
  • volunteer to go to protests when there might be conflict between protesters and the police.

Legal observers are not protesters. They observe the protest and document any interactions between protesters and the police.

Their presence, which they often highlight by wearing clearly identifiable clothing, hats, and other identification, can act as a deterrent to the police.

The police know they're being watched and their actions documented. So they're more likely to respect protesters' rights as a way to avoid bad publicity and reduce the chance of protesters taking legal action against them.

The effect is that the police are held accountable and protesters are safer.

In July, the Movement Defence Committee (MDC) hosted an online training workshop for people interested in becoming legal observers.

MDC plans to offer the legal observer training again in the future. For more information, visit their website.

This email alert gives general legal information. It is not a substitute for getting legal advice about a particular situation.

August 2020

Related resources

Know Your Rights Toolkit for Protesters
Black Legal Action Centre (BLAC)

Legal Observer Training
Movement Defence Committee

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Copyright © 2020 CLEO (Community Legal Education Ontario / Éducation juridique communautaire Ontario), All rights reserved.

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