What’s Canada’s most reactionary police force?

Bit of a trick question — it’s all of them — but if you had to pick one, Hamilton, Ont.’s squad would be a solid choice.

Throughout the pandemic, they’ve weaponized COVID-19 public health laws to crack down on activists calling for the defunding of their police force, and others protesting in solidarity with Palestinians.

Two activists, Wala Al-Soofi and Hashid Mansur Ali, who organized a pro-Palestine protest in May, were given tickets the day of the event under Ontario’s pandemic health measures. And last November, Sarah Jama, an organizer of a defund the police protest and sit-in at Hamilton city hall, was given a ticket under the same law. Twelve others were given lesser fines at the pro-Palestine rally, and at least 17 others — though likely more — over several days of the defund protest.

The police have defended these charges on the basis that the gatherings were too large for the lockdown rules at the time. There were dozens of people at the defund protests — first in an encampment on the steps of city hall, then inside at a sit-in when the encampment was torn down — and about 1,000 at the pro-Palestine rally.

But it’s beyond unreasonable that tickets of such weight, with minimum fines of $10,000, and maximum fines of $100,000 with the possibility of one year in jail, are being used in this way.

The laws authorizing the stay-at-home order and other public health measures were put in place to protect public health. Yet since both protests, there have been no signs, certainly none made public by police, that either led to any outbreaks.

But this doesn’t matter, because the tickets weren’t issued to protect public health. They were issued to harm protesters the Hamilton Police don’t like.

Earlier this week, Hamilton Centre NDP MP Matthew Green argued that the charges were aimed at shutting down opposition to the police force.

Green tweeted, “While we have witnessed multiple instances of civil disobedience throughout COVID, I cannot recall an instance in Hamilton where the City and our local police service came down as hard as they did in these two instances. In my opinion these charges appear politically motivated.”

Green added, “In the face of [Defund Hamilton Police Service] calls to #DefundThePolice we witnessed over policing and steep fines applied in what I believe and likely any casual observer is a clear attempt to cause a chilling effect on future protests directed at challenging the role of policing in our communities.”

When announcing the charges against the Palestinian protesters, likely to avoid claims of ideological bias, the Hamilton police made sure to also announce charges against an anti-mask protest that happened the same day.

In doing so, the police attempted to make the two events seem equivalent, which media have since done as well. But there are significant differences.

The Palestine protest was a one-off against a horrific conflict at its climax. The anti-mask protest was just the latest example of an ongoing intentional flouting of public health rules by a group of people.

Moreover, there’s a reasonable case to be made that the organizers of anti-mask protests might deserve these tickets. They are, after all, events explicitly against public health measures, and purposely violate things such as masking requirements and social distancing. Meanwhile, protesters at both the defund and the pro-Palestine protests took these measures seriously. We also know that outdoor events, even when large, aren’t major vectors for infection.

Even when the defund protest did eventually move into the lobby of City Hall, it was because police broke up the outdoor sit-in, dragging tents away and “trashing” them, as Jama said at the time, all the while handing out trespassing tickets. By breaking up the outdoor protests, police gave the activists little choice but to move inside.

So, it’s clear these massive tickets aren’t about protecting public health, but punishing public dissent.

It’s not a surprise that Hamilton Police are willing to abuse their power, as it’s just business as usual for them.

A 2016 report from the Hamilton Spectator lays out a pattern of abuse: Fraud; writing falsified tickets; planting evidence; running a protection racket; bribery; obstruction of justice; breach of trust; lying to obtain a warrant; allegedly pulling over a Black preacher and assaulting him; having sex with women connected to human trafficking cases; charges of drunk driving, domestic assault and leaking confidential information to the target of an investigation.

As the paper puts it: “Since 2010, at least 19 Hamilton police officers have been either charged with or convicted of criminal offences. At least seven officers are named as defendants in two separate civil lawsuits before the court. And another 12 Hamilton officers have either been found guilty of, are facing disciplinary proceedings or resigned before their cases were resolved under the Police Services Act.”

You can see why there’s urgency in the city’s defund the police movement, and why police would be more than happy to shut down protests.

Meanwhile, the police are always happy to crack down on racialized people pushing back against the state, which is why they were happy to give out massive fines to organizers of a one-off event for Palestine.

The same thing has also happened elsewhere in Canada. A June report in the Sprawl by Jeremy Appel explains how Calgary police gave out 100 tickets for a single-day pro-Palestine protest, while about 10 months of repeated anti-mask protests prompted just 700 tickets. Calgary police defended the fines, saying the protest was poorly organized. Of course, the chief had previously said anti-mask protestors were “reasonable to work with.”

On July 5, those charged by police held a protest in front of Hamilton City Hall with the purpose of starting a campaign to build public pressure on prosecutors to drop the charges against them, while at the same time looking to raise money to fight tickets should they reach a courtroom.

“We won’t let the city get away with this. The fight for the freedom of Palestinians and the fight to defund and abolish the police are connected, here and across the world,” Jama said to the gathered crowd.

She added, “Black people and Palestinian people are policed and killed by the state on stolen land for no other reason than to protect the existing systems of power and oppression. We are strongest together and we will fight the price of these tickets together to defend our right to speak out against injustice.”

Pushing back against police impunity is an important fight — Hamilton Police can’t be allowed to use the broad powers handed to them by COVID-19 laws to crush protests against their behaviour.

Justice, if such a thing exists in this country, demands the charges be dropped.