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On Saturday afternoon Dalhousie University professor OmiSoore Dryden took to Twitter to call out police and the bystanders who called them:
Those actions led not only to the arrest of a young black man, but also led to what Dryden believes was an unnecessary absence of physical distancing by a Halifax Regional Police officer.
“Just watched a Black man get arrested by cops. #Halifax. Watched as white folks called cops on this Black guy. White cop walked up into my face. I said step back maintain physical distancing He said this does not apply to cops,” Dryden tweeted.
The arrest has heightened black community fears about racial profiling during the COVID-19 epidemic.
Dryden, an associate professor of community health and epidemiology and the James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie’s Faculty of Medicine, reached out to the Halifax Examiner to share her first person account of the incident. She also provided a video of her interaction with a police officer she believes got unnecessarily close to her.
The following is her account in her own words:
As we were walking through Victoria Park, we heard a voice call out – “Anthony, I know what you did.” His voice carried above the unusually quiet din of Saturday afternoon. We turned towards the voice – wondering, what is going on? We see a brown man with one of those shopping carts with wheels, a canvas cart. We also see a young Black man walking in his direction. It was the Black man calling out to Anthony. And he repeats his claims. “Anthony, you know what you did. Anthony, come back here. Anthony, you know what you did.”
Anthony begins to run, along South Park towards Spring Garden Road. Not a sprint. He wasn’t running full out. He was running. The young Black man now begins to run. Making up the distance that Anthony has attempted to expand between them. While running, the young Black man calls out again, “you know what you did Anthony.”
I wasn’t overly concerned with these two. I figured they knew each other (the young Black man was calling the brown man by his name – Anthony). And I figured they’d work it out.
What did cause me concern were the reactions of the white people on the street. One white woman clutched her bag, looking alarmed and backing away from the sidewalk. Mind you, both Anthony and the young Black man were on the opposite side of the street. Another white woman, with her phone held up to her ear, began to run after both Anthony and the young Black man.
I turned to my partner and said, “did she call the police?” My partner responded with “Most likely.” So we turned around, and started back toward Spring Garden. My partner, moving quicker, made it to Spring Garden before me.
As I was walking toward Spring Garden we heard the police sirens.
By the time I got to Spring Garden, there was a crowd of four to five white people, including the white woman with the ponytail who had called the police. I later learned that each white person in that group was giving witness statements.
To be clear, the only thing we witnessed was the young Black man attempting to get his stuff back.
What we did
As I got to Spring Garden Road I walked immediately over to the young Black man. Once I figured out where he was. Between the five police cars, over five officers (it was too hard to count in that crowd), the crowd of predominately white people, including the gaggle of white people who were giving their ‘statements,’ and Anthony, sitting off to the side.
There were two officers with the young Black man. Both my partner and I started to speak up, loudly, to say we saw what happened and there was no reason for the police to be called. That the real issues here was Anthony having taken something from the young Black man and the white woman for calling the police.
The young Black man was trying to explain what was happening. I told him I saw him and what happened and that he didn’t do anything, it was Anthony in the wrong. This was when one of the officers told me to calm down. Not sure what I was saying exactly, but I did inform the officer that I was more than calm and that the situation at hand was unnecessary.
Another officer approached me and asked if we had witnessed what had happened. I informed the officer that he was standing too close to me and needed to maintain physical distancing. In that moment the officer said that this requirement did not apply to officers. I asked the officer if he could assure me that he did not have COVID-19 or assure me that he could not transmit COVID-19. I also took a step away from him to re-establish the distance between us. The officer asked if we were willing to make a statement. At that time I did not. I was more concerned with the young Black man.
I called the white people out for their racism and told them that everything they did here today was shameful.
I did my best to advocate for the young Black man telling cops they had the story wrong.
The young Black man was arrested. The arrest was hard. Two cops pushing him against the wall while they place his wrists in handcuffs. He pleads with them, “just look at my phone, it’s cracked right? Just look at my phone.”
My partner overhears the white woman with the ponytail, who is crying now, exclaim with surprise, “Are you arresting him?” Both my partner and I yell, “What did you think would happen?!”
The young Black man is in the back seat of the police cruiser. He is speaking to me, but I cannot hear him. I say, “I can’t hear you.” He starts yelling his name to me, I start to be able to make out what he is saying, when the car pulls off. And just like that he is gone. I still don’t know his name, and I’m not sure where he is being taken.
A young Black woman working near by said she believed the young Black man was a student.
Why this is important
The white people who were giving witness statements were bemused. Smiling and laughing with one another. And surprised that their account of what was happening was being contradicted.
What was clear — this young Black man began to run in order to catch up with Anthony, and this act, his act of running, was overly racialized into him running after Anthony (and the unspoken — to do him harm). And this is why Anthony was running to safety.
On one hand, yes, Anthony was running to safety, to safely get away with what he had taken from the young Black man. Anthony was running to safely get away with what he had done. The young Black man was running after Anthony to get his property back.
But in that moment, on South Park, I saw the look on white people’s faces and how they recoiled from the young Black man who was running. Of course, the white woman with the ponytail called the police. It never once occurred to her to ask the young Black man what was wrong and how she could help.
The premier has stated often that people should call the police (in relation to COVID-19). And this statement works exactly like many of us thought it would, to increase the surveillance of Black people. The white woman with the ponytail, and perhaps others, called the police. And the police did not de-escalate the situation. They arrested a young Black man who was trying to get his stuff back. The white woman physically distanced herself from the young Black man, only to break that distance a short time later as she stood closely with the other white people giving statements against the young Black man.
We asked the officers where the young Black man was being taken. We walked home, changed our clothes (into something more professional). Grabbed our identification and I took my business cards. We observed physical distancing at the police station when inquiring on the status of a young Black man whose name we do not know.
We gave our statements and were informed the young Black man was no longer at the police station but police were not permitted to tell us where he had gone.
The Halifax Examiner reached out to Halifax Regional Police on Saturday afternoon to inquire about the incident. In an email, HRP’s Watch Commander wrote that at 1:07pm., officers responded to an assault in progress call at South Park Street and Spring Garden Road after “multiple 911 calls” were received reporting the incident.
Police said upon arrival, they located the two men involved in the incident, along with multiple witnesses.
“Following the information provided by the witnesses and review of nearby video surveillance, a 20-year-old man was arrested on a single count of assault and later released to appear in court at a later date,,” the police statement said. “The victim was not injured.”
Addressing Dryden’s concern about the lack of social distancing, police said while on the scene a supervisor was approached by a bystander who stated that they had more information about the incident.
The supervisor was Sgt. Pierre Bourdages.
Dryden says Bourdages approached her, not the other way around. The video appears to support that interpretation.
During that interaction, police said the bystander asked Bourdages to stay away from her.
“The bystander was informed that the social distancing guidelines do not apply to Police while conducting their duties. (See Order by the Medical Officer of Health under Section 32 of the Health Protection Act , section 11, signed by Dr. Strang on March 24),” the police statement noted.
It went on to add the bystander didn’t wish to provide information at the scene, but later showed up at police headquarters and provided a statement.
“HRP Officers are making every attempt to respect social distancing guidelines to the best of their abilities but the nature of police work and ongoing incidents do not always make this feasible,” the email said.
Dryden rejects that characterization of events. “There was no need for the officer to be that close to me in order to ask questions or take a statement,” she says. “And when I requested for him to step back, he could have respected that request. I ended up having to step into the street to maintain distance.”
Dryden says police gave her partner, who is white, the proper social distance during the encounter.
“Later, at the police station the same officer gave options to maintain distance including not touching my partner’s licence,” says Dryden. “So what was different about that moment that changed the powers the police have? There was nothing about his closeness that facilitated doing his job gathering information, and his disregard for social distancing protocol endangers members of the public unnecessarily.”
With files from El Jones.
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