HAMILTON — Eighteen protesters from the Defund Hamilton Police group were arrested and charged for allegedly refusing to leave city hall on Wednesday, local police said.
The group is calling for police funding to be redirected to social services like affordable housing and said Thursday that it continues to seek a public meeting with the mayor.
Hamilton police said six members of the group began a sit-in at city hall on Wednesday afternoon, with more people joining them as the evening went on.
Police said officers eventually arrested and charged 18 people with failing to leave premises when directed, which carries a $65 fine, and the individuals were later released.
Sarah Jama, one of the group's organizers, said members of the Defund Hamilton Police group have been outside city hall since Nov. 23 and plan to remain there until their demands are met.
Jama, who was among the 18 charged Wednesday, said the mayor had offered an indoor, private meeting with two people on the condition that the conversation was not recorded but the group wanted a public discussion.
"We stayed and that amalgamated into eighteen of us being arrested. But we're still outside. We're still here," Jama said.
"We still want him to come talk to us. We still want the police to be defunded."
The mayor's office said the offer to meet inside city hall was extended "to ensure that appropriate physical distancing could take place."
"The demonstrators rejected the offer to meet indicating it was 'all of them or none of them,' a scenario that is not possible as it would violate public health orders," a statement from Mayor Fred Eisenberger's office said.
Earlier this week, police said they were investigating after members of the group left a coffin filled with flowers and naloxone kits outside Eisenberger's home.
Group members said the coffin was left to draw attention to homelessness and overdoses, and to respond to the earlier removal of their tents from outside city hall.
Police also previously charged Jama with violating COVID-19 public health rules after saying a protest outside city hall that she was a part of exceeded limits on gatherings.
Cara Zwibel with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said the nonprofit is monitoring the situation in Hamilton – in particular, officials citing public health rules when breaking up a demonstration that has a political demand.
She noted that large protests against anti-Black racism in Canadian cities this summer largely did not see enforcement of pandemic rules that limit gathering sizes.
The Hamilton Police Service's 2020 operating budget is approximately $171 million, an increase of 3.87 per cent from the previous year.
Jama said that money, or at least the surplus, should go towards ensuring secure housing for residents during the winter months.
"People need dignified housing, people need free housing, especially amidst this pandemic so nobody has to die," she said.
In a statement Wednesday, Eisenberger's office highlighted available shelter options in the city and has said Hamilton “will continue to explore and implement strategies to improve housing affordability.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 3, 2020.
- By Holly McKenzie-Sutter in Toronto
The Canadian Press