By Azim Ahmed, Salam Toronto
Protest Rally for 14 Students arrested, including Iranian-Canadian
War of Words Follow between University Administration and Students
On Tuesday, June 3rd, close to 150 students and community members marched in downtown Toronto to protest what it calls the University of Toronto's (U of T) "campaign of intimidation" towards those mobilizing against tuition fee hikes.
The march began at the University of Toronto's Simcoe Hall, site of a March 20th sit-in protest that made headlines for a clash between U of T Police and students, and led to the arrests of 14 students and allies. The march concluded at Toronto's Old City Hall on Queen Street, where it turned into a boisterous but peaceful rally. At the same time, the 14 individuals were inside City Hall for their disposition, the first step in getting a court verdict as to who really was in the wrong during the March 20th sit-in protest.
Among the 14 charged is Farshad Azadian, an Iranian-Canadian who is also a first-year student at U of T. Salam Toronto spoke to Farshan the day before the June 3rd rally, as he discussed with conviction his thought on all of the proceedings as well as the great support the Iranian community has thrown behind the movement, which is discussed later in this report.
"The core reason for the rally is decriminalization of dissent," the young man relates. "There is this atmosphere of oppression. What kind of Administration wants to speak with students when they send police to follow students around?" Azadian says in reference to the bail conditions and police scrutiny the accused have experienced in the aftermath of the arrests.
The University Administration, meanwhile, says that in actuality, protesting and the discourse of opinions is encouraged by U of T.
"Not only do we encourage protests and debate, but if you look at on our website we have a 'Statement of Institutional Purpose'," the University's Assistant Vice President and spokesperson, Robert Steiner, tells Salam Toronto. "Included in it is that it is our purpose 'to maximize opportunities for dissent'."
"As long as the protest does not create an intolerant environment or an unsafe environment, which this protest (March 20th sit-in) crossed the line on that account," Steiner explains.
So the question remains, what exactly happened on March 20th?
The protest was organized by a student-run group called AlwaysQuestion, which Farshad Azadian has been a part of since last year. The original purpose was to rail against rising tuition fees on campus, as well as a proposed 20% jump in residence fees at New College, a college within the U of T system.
Always Questions, which is not exclusively a University of Toronto organization, attained the support of other groups on campus, including the Undergraduate Students Union, the largest of its kind at the University.
Together, the groups went to Simcoe Hall, the location of U of T President David Naylor's office. They requested to speak to him, unbeknownst to them that he was away that day.
Reports by these groups as well as a homemade video posted on the video-sharing website youtube.com showed some level of physical confrontation between the students and U of T Police.
The protesters argue that they were forcibly removed by the Police.
"Based on what I know, about five people reported injuries by the police dragging, tackling, and forcibly removing students. They had bruises on their necks. There was a lady I knew who was throwing up afterwards. Even though it wasn't very severe, there was still injuries and application of force at a peaceful sit-in." Azadian recounts.
The University Administration, on the other hand, has a different account of the story.
"When the U of T Police asked the protesters to move away, protesters started to grab the cops, bite one of our cops, and scratched another cop. One of them told another cop that he would find his family and kill them," Steiner says.
According to Steiner, the protesters went on to block and impede the path of the staff, not allowing some of them to leave and pick up their young children from school. Eventually, he says, the Police were able to escort the staff out, but only after considerable harm, both verbal and physical, was inflicted on some of the staff.
"When they did manage to escort some of the staff out, the first person to come out was a woman in her 50s who was grabbed and tripped. She fell flat on her face and crawled through the protesters."
While the protesters say they were physically and forcibly escorted out by the police, the Administration says they left on their own accord once they realized the building was empty.
But the student organizations are not buying this story.
"Statements made by the university about student misconduct are coming from an administration that seems like it will stop at nothing to silence its students," says Gabriela Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the June 3rd Rally and a member of the Committee for a Just Education, the group that organized it. "It seems strange that the charges laid do not match the administration public statements that students were violent."
Two weeks after the sit-in, the Toronto Police, based on the report sent in by the University Administration, sent letters to the 14 individuals involved, charging them with student misconduct. Farshad and the others have been put on bail conditions that he terms as "ridiculous", which included some reportedly being followed by police to their homes as well as the presence of undercover police photographers.
The Toronto Police could not be reached for this story.
The student organizations have in fact sent libel letters informing the university administrators that their comments on alleged student misconduct could be held liable.
But while these war of words were being exchanged between the established institution and the fiery students, the rally was taking centre stage Tuesday.
Despite the rain falling down steadily, a sizable group formed on campus, with student leaders getting the crowd revved up over the microphone and speakers.
"We're very happy with the turnout and support we've seen today. It shows that the community - not just students - and people from all walks of like are here to support this cause," beams Aminah Hanif, also a spokesperson for the event and a student at U of T.
Chants of "Down with Naylor" and "Students must Unite" as well as more elaborate phrases were blaring through the streets of downtown Toronto, as the rally made its way towards City Hall. Several Police cars accompanied the march in case things were to get out of hand, as onlookers during the lunchtime traffic looked on with curious interest.
Once the march reached the courthouse where the 14 individuals were being questioned, several impassioned speeches and cries for more action took place. One of the speakers was Member of Provincial Parliament (M.P.P) Rosario Marchese (Trinity-Spadina), of the New Democratic Party.
"We (Ontario) are still 10th in per capita funding across Canada. That is nothing to be proud of. And its getting worse every year," the NDP representative informed.
In response to the University's statement that it allows protests so long as they are peaceful and mellow, Marchese added, "How can you say freedom of speech is good, as long as it is done on our terms? As long as it is polite? And it doesn't inconvenience me. Then only will we allow you to speak freely. But as long as you do something that is inconvenient to the University administration, then we want to throw you in jail."
By this time, the rain had long subsided and the sun was out, adding to the festive and energetic atmosphere. Underlying all of the energy being used to attack the Adminstration though, was the real reason why everyone had come together.
"Those 14 individuals inside there (pointing to City Hall) are a symbol for what is going out here today. The injustice and the wrongness of it all," pointed out third-year U of T student Arabhi Nirmalanathan attending the event.
There has been some criticism that the various protests that have been put on (this was the fourth since the March 20th sit-in) have been too broad and not focused enough. At the June 3rd rally itself, a myriad of other themes were discussed; lowering tuition fees; blasting the capitalist system; admonishing the tactics of the administration, criticizing the Government, and even calling for the abolishment of post-secondary tuition altogether.
Said Steiner, "I was listening to the protests from outside the building, I only heard them talk a little bit about tuition fees. I heard a lot of talk about Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and Palestine. There was a Mohawk warrior flag. Someone grabbed the bullhorn and said Second Cup coffee tasted like crap. It was a mish-mash."
In a released statement, U of T President David Naylor commented on the proceedings. "We do not expect that, in their short years with us, students will understand or agree with all that is done by the various levels of the University's Administration," he says.
"However, the reality is that almost 12,000 faculty and staff are here on a continuing basis; and the Administration must look to the long-term interests of the institution as one of the great public universities of the world."
When Salam Toronto asked the student representatives if the Administration had made any attempt in talking face to face with them, they all said that they had not seen any sign of that.
"I don't think, frankly, that the President wants to talk to anyone that has assaulted a member of his staff," Steiner states. "But I can tell you that we have a lot of student representatives that our President speaks to regularly (through Governing Council).
However, the Governing council has 40 representatives, with only eight students is seen by the students as unsatisfactory and a meaningless "tokenistic" representation. Clearly, a wide gap in thinking exists between the two sides in this issue. While the court proceedings inside on Tuesday were brief and essentially only formalized the date for the actual court hearing (July 3rd), Farshad Azadian remains determined and confident.
"We support the right for freedom of speech. Regardless of your political stripe, it is about dropping these charges, it is about stopping the criminalization of dissent," the young Iranian-Canadian remarks.
He is also very proud of how the Iranian community has responded.
"Hundreds and hundreds of signatures on our petition were from the Iranian community, as well as letters. So that was very positive, personally for me too. Even though I was born in Canada, being part of the Diaspora; it meant a lot to me."
"Many Iranians in Canada came here for political reasons, and a lot of them are political refugees."
Azadian adds his dismay that these same parallels are found in Canada.
"You hear about students in Iran protesting, you hear about them getting beaten up and arrested. It is interesting and shocking to see that here. We think we live in a liberal democracy in Canada and that Iran is very oppressive regime, but we see a very similar trend of repression here. I think this was a shocking thing for the Iranian community, which is why I think they identified with what was happening at the U of T campus."
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