Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2005

York Condemned for Use of Police Force at Rally

Faculty, staff and student organizations have united in condemning York University administrators for the police violence that ended a peaceful student demonstration Jan. 20 and resulted in the arrest of five of the demonstrators and hospitalization of one student.

"As unions and associations representing students and workers at York and concerned with the level of repression of student activity and political assembly on campus, we were appalled by the York administration's response to this rally," said a joint statement issued by the executives of the York University Faculty Association, the York Federation of Students, the York University Graduate Students Association and CUPE Local 3903, which represents teaching assistants and contract academic staff.

In reaction to a student demonstration against the inauguration that day of U.S. President George Bush, the university's administration invited Toronto police onto campus. Witnesses said approximately one hour later police advanced on the students, knocking several to the ground and arresting several. Rather than taking the students away in police vans, the officers took them in handcuffs to a room in an adjacent building. Concerned about the safety of their colleagues, several students banged on the locked door of the room. The door opened, and according to eyewitness accounts, a student was grabbed and beaten and had to be hospitalized.

According to the university's initial media release, student violence precipitated the clash with police. Specific allegations of student violence were that a police officer was hit in the head by a megaphone, a protestor attempted to remove a gun from an officer's holster, and an officer was assaulted by several protestors.

York University President Lorna Marsden has subsequently denied that the students were violent, claiming instead that the demonstration was merely "not peaceful."

Countering the university's claims of student violence have been several photos and amateur videos that show police suddenly advancing on selected demonstrators with batons, wrestling them to the floor, as well as groups of officers dragging and handcuffing individual students.

In one eyewitness account, Stanley Jeffers, a professor of physics at York, said he walked into Vari Hall and saw a rally of about 50 people, with a larger number watching. A while later, he recounted, the police ordered people to disperse, but were ignored.

"Shortly thereafter in what appeared to be a coordinated strategy, the police surrounded the central group and started to herd them by pushing into the crowd," Jeffers said. "They appeared to be trying to get their hands on the leaders of the group.

"One of these was pulled out and held down by two policemen while a third repeatedly punched the student. This took place within three feet of me."

York University Faculty Association president Arthur Hilliker said since the Jan. 20 incident, gatherings have become a daily event in Vari Hall, "including press conferences, appearances by social activists like Judy Rebick and a performance by the faculty-organized Megaphone Choir."

On Jan. 27, York's senate passed two resolutions - that senate express its disapproval of the administration's decision to invite police onto campus to deal with an otherwise peaceful demonstration, and that senate's disapproval be communicated to York's board of governors and the chief of the Toronto Police Services.

The administration's response has been to continue to justify the police intervention on the grounds that nearby classes and exams were being disrupted. However, written accounts by several faculty members who taught in the immediate area during the demonstration claim that no classes were cancelled and no examinations were interrupted.

"Background for this conflict between the administration and York's faculty and students has been the university's updated Temporary Use of University Space Policy, approved by the board of governors in August 2004," said Nick Lary, YUFA's vice-president external.

The policy includes general principles relating to safety and security, damages, compliance, and associated procedures and applications for sponsored events, which groups and individuals must complete to use university space and facilities. Application forms list "demonstration" as a type of event for which an applicant can seek approval, along with other events like barbecues and picnics, art exhibitions, film presentations, dinners, socials, dances, visits of dignitaries and meetings.

"But such large open areas as the Bear Pit Lounge (York's traditional venue for expressions of opinion and dissent), the atria and foyers of York's new Technology Enhanced Learning Building and the entrance and Rotunda of Vari Hall, are effectively excluded by the administration's claims concerning 'pedestrian traffic' and 'sound amplification' - in particular, 'the use of megaphones,'" said YUFA's communication officer Jay Rahn.

"Moreover, the administration's claims concerning the disruptive effect of sound amplification equipment allow booking such spaces only during weekends or during the May to August time frame, when few passersby would witness a demonstration."

There are further constraints, including a requirement that venues be requested at least 30 days in advance, and that only officially sanctioned organizations are authorized to make a request. Additionally, York's 53 pages of space use procedures forbids the use of candles in common areas within buildings - ruling out the possibility of a silent candlelight vigil.

According to Rahn, a second source of conflict has been the administration's implementation of this policy.

"Although the administration insists that students abide by the rules, its uneven application of the policy has some up in arms," Rahn said. "According to the regulations, if the Jan. 20 demonstration was an instance of 'serious misconduct,' the vice-president (students) would have immediately convened the university discipline tribunal. Instead, the administration invited the police onto campus. Moreover, the administration has not enforced its policy prohibiting sound amplification, as evidenced by the daily demonstrations since Jan. 20 and several non-academic events it has sponsored in the last few years."

At a Jan. 31 meeting, the YUFA executive voted to call on the York administration to respect public, common space at the university and to rescind the Temporary Use of University Space Policy, and asked for CAUT's assistance in supporting and promoting academic freedom and freedom of expression at York.