Unpolicing pandemic protests: ReallocateWR

They’re calling out the COVID-19 Integrated Response Team for targeting BIPOC activists, but failing to curtail anti-lockdown rallies

The following is a statement by ReallocateWR republished with their permission. Our co-founder Teneile Warren is also a member of the group.

On April 25, 2021, the Waterloo Regional Police Service (WRPS) created the COVID-19 Integrated Response Team (CIRT) in order to enforce pandemic restrictions.

The CIRT has failed to prevent any unsafe gatherings. Instead, it has spent its energy on surveillance, tracking and ticketing people after the fact. Police have not enacted any pre-emptive measures to protect public safety and discourage the large gatherings scheduled every Sunday in Waterloo Town Square.

The CIRT has disproportionately targeted events organized by BIPOC communities that ensured protocols were being followed around distancing, PPE, and staying within one’s own household. Events that flouted the rules — anti-mask and anti-lockdown rallies — have resulted in far fewer tickets per capita.

Police claim that they did not intervene while events were underway because they did not want to escalate tensions with the crowd. This is an admission that the mere presence of police is a threat, and that the involvement of armed police is incompatible with de-escalation.

Two Indigenous people were the first to be ticketed for attending the Wilmot anti-racism rally on May 8, 2021. This is racialized targeting, and a reminder of the risks associated with hypervisibility for people of colour in Waterloo Region. A member of ReallocateWR, who is white, was issued a ticket 9 days after Indigenous activists received their tickets.

The organizers of the Wilmot anti-racism rally ensured that participants observed social distancing, wore masks, and stayed within their own household. They also provided virtual options and a lawn sign campaign for people to express their support from home. They have been threatened with a $10,000 fine.

CIRT has also threatened to lay charges unrelated to pandemic restrictions. Officers targeted members of the Palestine solidarity car rally for stunt driving offences. Why is the CIRT broadening their scope to include traffic charges unrelated to their stated purpose?

Issuing these tickets and fines is an attempt to silence Black, Indigenous, and racialized people and allies, to prevent them from fighting against white supremacy and racism in Waterloo Region.

We are very concerned about the conflation of anti-racism protests with anti-lockdown protests by Regional Chair Karen Redman and WRPS Chief Bryan Larkin, as well as the declaration by WRPS that they will treat all protests equally. This is deeply problematic as anti-racism movements are actively fighting against white supremacy and adhering to public health guidelines, while the anti-lockdown movement is rooted in white supremacy and explicitly rejects public health guidelines.

No one asked the police to form this new task force. Upholding public health and community safety in a pandemic does not call for an increase in police presence in our communities. Not only does it escalate tensions, it does nothing to mitigate the risks associated with the virus.

ReallocateWR imagines a different scenario: one where COVID-19 restrictions are supported and guided by public health in coordination with leaders in Waterloo Region’s diverse communities.

While public health agencies typically cannot condone gathering while it is prohibited, it would play a role in ensuring that people organize in a safer manner. The negative impacts of racism on the social determinants of health are widely documented, and those who are protesting white supremacy should not be penalized for doing so in a safe manner.

Public health messaging would be communicated through neighbourhood associations, faith leaders, and local community advocates and organizers who have already earned the trust of their networks.

Anti-racism organizers do not need to be policed in order to follow the rules. Rather, the presence of public health workers at protests would support adherence to COVID-19 restrictions. Their purpose would be to facilitate the provision of PPE, assist organizers with managing crowd capacity, distancing, and ensuring virtual options for participants, as well as contact tracing to track public health risks arising from the event.

In cases where organizers repeatedly refuse cooperation and hold regular unsafe gatherings (Trinity Bible Chapel, Waterloo Town Square), access to the site could be blocked by traffic and operations staff, or municipal licenses could be revoked. None of this requires leadership or enforcement from the police.

Therefore, we call on the following actions be taken:

  1. We call on the Waterloo Regional Police Services (WRPS) to end the Covid Integrated Response Team.
  2. We call on the WRPS and all municipal By-Law authorities to rescind all tickets and fines from anti-racism protests;
  3. We call on the Waterloo Region Police Services Board to release a public accounting of the total cost of CIRT to date and projected budget for the remainder of 2021;
  4. We call on Waterloo Regional Council to reallocate the CIRT budget toward public health efforts to vaccinate unhoused, low-income and marginalized populations.

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