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University of Alberta president defends call for Edmonton police to clear pro-Palestinian protest camp

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Pro-Palestinian protesters mark one week since the start of their encampment at the University of Toronto’s King’s College Circle on May 9.Sammy Kogan/The Globe and Mail

University of Alberta president Bill Flanagan defended what he called a difficult decision to call Edmonton police to clear a pro-Palestinian protest camp over the weekend.

Flanagan said he had received many messages expressing deep concern about the university’s actions. On Saturday morning, police officers attacked protesters on the Alberta campus after notifying them that they were considered trespassing. Images circulated on social media of baton-wielding officers advancing toward protesters who moved out of their way.

The police action at the University of Alberta on Saturday was the second time police have been called to clear a campus protest in the province, as police deployed explosive devices and five arrests were made to clear an encampment at the University from Calgary two days. earlier.

In recent weeks, a movement calling on universities to disclose their investments and divest from those related to Israel has spread across North America. There are encampments on several campuses across the country, from the University of British Columbia to McGill University, and include new protests launched over the weekend at the University of Quebec in Montreal and the University of Winnipeg.

The protest camps have caused tensions on many campuses. Administrators have said that while protests and debate are encouraged, they believe tents and camping cannot be allowed on university grounds.

McGill University said it will appear in court on Monday to seek an injunction against the encampment that has taken over a large portion of the green area adjacent to McLennan Library. Meanwhile, protesters at the University of Toronto met with members of the school’s administration on Sunday to discuss their demands.

In Edmonton, Flanagan said the university believes in free expression and the right to protest, but said it also has a duty of care to its community.

He issued a written statement to the university community in which he said Protesters had been collecting wooden pallets, which the fire inspector deemed a risk. After the protest camp was dismantled, hammers, axes and screwdrivers were found, Flanagan said, which he described as “potential weapons.”

“Although the general public might assume that camping posed no risk, it is essential to underscore the serious and life-threatening risks associated with backyard camping,” Flanagan wrote. “There can be no doubt that the camp posed a serious and imminent risk of violence and potential injury.”

Flanagan was not available for an interview Sunday.

He said in his statement that while he believed most of the protesters posed no risk, he estimated that only 25 per cent of those present were University of Alberta students.

Flanagan said the university does not have the resources or experience to manage a large encampment while ensuring the safety of the public. He cited risks arising from illegal drug use or the potential for violence by counterprotesters, as occurred at the University of California, Los Angeles in recent weeks.

He said the vast majority of protesters left peacefully. When a small minority refused to leave, Edmonton police “took the necessary steps to expel them,” he said.

Three people face charges ranging from assault on a peace officer, obstruction and criminal trespass, but none of those charged are members of the university community, according to Flanagan. He said the university has not banned any members of its community from campus as a result of their participation in the protest, nor has it suspended any or been subject to academic sanctions.

A petition circulated on social media calling for official censure and an academic boycott of the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary.

The Canadian Association of University Professors, a national group representing the interests of university professors, issued a statement condemning the actions of universities that have used police to clear and arrest protesters.

“Forcible removal and heavy-handed arrests of peaceful student protesters who pose no demonstrable threat to campus security are contrary to the mission of postsecondary institutions,” the CAUT statement said.

“There is no justification for police crackdown on peaceful gatherings on campus.”