Calgary’s police chief Mark Neufeld: “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t”

Officials hold a press conference to talk about what happened at Saturday’s protests, say both groups are escalating the situation

By Krista Sylvester | March 14, 2022 |4:26 pm

A screengrab from one of the tense moments during the protests on Saturday. Inset, police chief Mark Neufeld addresses the media regarding the controversial way police handled the sitation.

Photo: Calgary Citizen

“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t — no win for police.” 

Those were the words from Police Chief Mark Neufeld, speaking in an afternoon press conference regarding Saturday’s tense scene between Calgary Freedom protesters, counter-protesters, and the police in the city’s Beltline for the second weekend in a row. 

Neufeld said police had the “very difficult task of managing two separate but related protests” in which both groups were being “uncooperative” leading up to the event. 

He said police tried to work with both groups ahead of time to find a suitable solution but with no success. Instead, police had hoped to divert the larger group — known as the Calgary Freedom Rally, which holds anti-COVID measure protests in the Beltline every Saturday — but they “refused.”

Neufeld said both sides showed an “appetite for conflict.” 

An “unacceptable” escalation 

“When I say refused to follow the orders or direction of the officers on the ground, what I’m saying is the group literally pushed past the officers that were in that particular location,” Neufeld said, adding that action was the first marked escalation in that group’s behaviour. 

“Up until that point, they have been reasonably cooperative with police during the facilitation of their right to protest over the last many months. I understand that this is the first time they have refused police direction while on the ground engaged in a marcher protest in the community.”

That resulted in the two groups coming together from opposing directions: the Freedom group, made up of upwards of 2,000 people, and the counter-protesters, made up of about 100 people mostly consisting of area residents and businesses who are frustrated with the weekly protests in their communities. 

The controversial police response 

Police were swiftly ridiculed for their response to the protests as videos circulating on social media showed the police using their bikes to move the smaller group out of the way of the larger group. 

Mayor Jyoti Gondek sent out a series of tweets Saturday night in frustration, calling the ongoing protests a disruption to area residents and businesses while accusing the police of not enforcing the laws. 

“The weekly disruption this community faces is not a ‘protest.’ It’s a parade,” she tweeted. 

Neufeld defended the police response, saying police did what they had to do to diffuse the situation when neither group would back down. 

“It was not a tenable situation,” Neufeld said, adding officers reported seeing several altercations between the two groups. 

“They had to take quick actions to prevent escalation, which without their intervention was in their view, inevitable.” 

Fanning the flames 

In response, police chief Neufeld is accusing some on city council of fanning the flames. In particular, Ward 8 Councillor Courtney Walcott and Ward 11 Councillor Kourtney Penner have been outspoken against the rallies. 

“I just think that it’s been sort of oversimplified by individuals, some of them elected, some of them appointed,” Neufeld said Monday. 

“And does that fuel the fire? Sure. Do we have councillors that are encouraging people to go out and participate in the protests? Yes, we do. Do I think that’s a good idea? No, I don’t.” 

Neufeld believes police are being wrongfully blamed for these ongoing protests. 

“I don’t think this is a time to be looking to blame somebody. And it sort of feels like the police are being blamed for the fact that these things are going on,” he said, adding it’s an issue that is happening beyond just Calgary. 

“We should all be supporting one another instead of looking to lay blame as to whose fault these are.” 

Counter-protester allegedly hit by police bike doesn’t agree with the police version of events

Jane, who didn’t wish to share her full name to protect her privacy, said she was one of the smaller group of counter-protesters — in fact, she was one of the women who was hit with a police bike. 

She watched the police chief speak but doesn’t agree with his characterization that counter-protesters were given warnings before being aggressively pushed back. 

“Without any reason or warning, the cops used their bikes to just blindly push us backwards,” she said, adding she suffered minor injuries to her legs and arms. 

So did some of her peers, she said. 

“He was shoving us so hard with this bike, he was yelling at us. It was really aggressive… it was all very chaotic.”

Area residents and businesses have had enough 

Jane lives in the area and is frustrated with how long these weekly protests have been happening. She said it feels like residents and businesses have been left to fend for themselves.

“This is our neighbourhood. These are our streets — who protects us?”

She said it felt very much like the police were picking sides and finds it insulting that the police chief is asking area residents and businesses to back down from counter-protesting. 

In a plea on Tuesday, the police chief asked area residents and businesses not to “ramp up” their counter-protest efforts. 

“I think it’s disappointing that he’s telling us not to stand up for our neighbours and the businesses, and our community,” said Jane. 

She’s not sure yet if she will attend a counter-protest on Saturday, saying she will watch what develops at Tuesday’s special council meeting talking about the issue with police. 

Police commission responds 

The Calgary Police Commission said they understand the frustrations of downtown and Beltline residents and businesses who have had protests related to COVID in their neighbourhoods for two years now.

“We also understand the concerns about the police tactics used on Saturday,” a statement released Tuesday read. 

They referred to their website for anyone directly involved to report police conduct concerns so the full context of what occurred can be investigated.

“These protests are disruptive, divisive and are undermining many residents’ ability to enjoy their homes, businesses and community,” said the commission.  

They say they have been in discussions with police and city council to try to find a solution that respects people’s charter rights to protest and peacefully assemble, while also stopping the disproportionate impact these protests are having on communities in our city’s core.  

Protests are a right, but so is wanting a peaceful place to live and work freely, says Chamber 

Deborah Yedlin, president and CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce said these protests in business districts including 17th Avenue are driving consumers away. 

“While the right to voice concerns is a democratic right, the ability to live and work freely and safely within our communities is also a right to which we are all entitled,” she said in a statement. 

“We urge those eager to share their message to move protests to a location that doesn’t impede commerce in our city, where the main impact is to have concerns heard, rather than harming bystander businesses.”

On Saturday at 1 p.m. at Central Memorial Park, there will be a Worldwide Freedom Rally held in conjunction with 180 other cities. It’s not known yet if the counter-protests plan to show up for the third week in a row, but police are monitoring the situation. 

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Krista Sylvester

Managing Editor at Calgary Citizen

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