Thursday, October 19, 2006

Brawl at Carnegie Centre raises questions about fairness of barring policy

The corner of the Seniors Lounge in the basement of the Carnegie Community Centre, where three Vancouver Public Library computers with internet are tucked, is a tight squeeze for a brawl. The computers are wedged between two plate glass windows, and a couch where people sit to watch tv.

This is a busy corner. The VPL computurs are much in demand. Seniors -- anyone 40 years of age or older qualifies for a Seniors membership card -- wait an average of an hour to get their turn on one. [A little geo-positioning: Carnegie is on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, just up the street from North America's first state-funded supervised injection site where, incidentally, you can inject drugs 22 hours a day without being inconvenienced by a long wait.]

The two men who got into a fight at one of the computers on Wednesday night at around 9 p.m. are both regulars at the Lounge. They're both around 40 years old. One of them is Andy, a tall, red-haired guy who has been coming to Carnegie for a few years. The other has only recently begun coming to Carnegie so his name is not known. He never has a membership card -- a constant source of friction -- which would indicate either that he is not quite 40 years old or he doesn't have the $1 to purchase one. These two men will be referred to here as the white guy and the black guy.

The incident began when the coffee seller told the black guy to leave for not having a membership card. This coffee seller can be counted on to yell when kicking people out for not having, what he calls in his broken English and Croatiion accent, "memberships card". The black guy was taking his time following orders and the situation was becoming disruptive to people watching tv and using the computers. It is believed that the white guy made a comment encouraging the black guy to get a move on – but nobody seems to know exactly what he said.

As the black guy was leaving, he walked over to the white guy at the computer and punched him in the head. The white guy turned around and held the black guy’s arm in the air, presumably to avoid being hit again. The black guy, according to a witness, "starts whining about how the white guy wouldn't let go of his arm."

Another witness arrived to late to see the first punch thrown. But he recalls seeing the black guy gripping the white guy by the collar.

The coffee seller came over to the men, gesturing a ‘time out’ signal with his hands. "Like a referee," said one witness. The coffee seller was yelling over the blaring television, "Time out, time out!"

One of the other computer users in this corner, Dean, a musician, told the two guys to take it outside.

A security guard -- Ted Chaing who has worked at Carnegie for years -- showed up. The other security guard was on his break, but a private security guard from neighbouring Chinatown who had dropped in to chat with Ted tagged along.

The white guy insisted that he wanted the police called. The black guy tried to exit the Lounge but Chaing told him he couldn't leave the building until police arrived. Chaing stood in the doorway blocking his exit, but the black guy kept walking and backed him out into the hall.

As the black guy stood in the hall with the security guards, beside a row of booths where people sit to drink coffee or play Chinese checkers, the white guy came up behind him. "He yoked him," a witness said, describing how he had grabbed the black guy's throat. Then he grabbed the black guy by the collar and threw him into the wall. Then he threw him into a booth; the black guy landed backwards on the seat. He kept hitting him. As the fight progressed, Chaing and his buddy stood watching.

Two police officers arrived. They separated the two, talking to the black guy outside the building and the white guy inside. The white guy attempted to interject statements into the black guy's conversation with the police officer. He insisted he wanted the guy charged with assault. But one of the officer's explained, according to a witness, that he could not do that as it was a mutual assault – actually, the eyewitness admitted that he had picked up that term from American tv but it summed up what the police officer had said.

The black guy did not re-enter the building. Speculation is that he was barred.

What happened next amazed members of the Carnegie Centre. The white guy sauntered into the library of the Carnegie -- a branch of the Vancouver Public Library is housed in the Carnegie -- in full view of the Security desk. Why was a guy who had just engaged in vigilante violence while waiting for police still inside the building, privileges intact?

Why wasn't the white guy barred? People are regularly barred for much less at Carnegie. Mere freedom of expression can get a member barred. Take Larry. He is a longtime Carnegie member who was barred for almost a week in August after a Carnegie field trip to the Mission Folk Festival. When a group of evangelistic Christian singers came on stage, Larry, who was raised by strict Christians, flipped them the bird. He was in the dark, at the back of the crowd, so it is unlikely that they saw him. But the Carnegie head of security, John Ferguson, heard about it from another member and called Larry into his office. Larry told him he had the right to express himself in that manner and would do it again -- by now he was flipping the bird to John. He was barred for about a week.

Bill, who goes to Carnegie daily to use the internet, also found himself barred for freedom of expression. In June, a man punched the Seniors Lounge coffee seller -- tonight's referee -- in the nose. Now most members of the Carnegie do not condone violence but, as word spread about that coffee seller getting a punch in the nose, there were hints of smiles on faces. Bill put his feelings into writing: the City of Vancouver -- Carnegie is staffed by the City -- had allowed this volunteer coffee seller to bully people for years until finally he got what was coming to him. Bill showed the staff his written commentary, even took the liberty of posting it on the bulletin board -- and found himself barred indefinitely.

Bill responded by standing on the front steps of the Carnegie, handing out leaflets about this community center being part of the lucrative poverty industry on the Downtown Eastside which has generated an epidemic of civil liberties abuses against residents. The fact that a Carnegie Board election was just hours away may have influenced the decision by Assistant Director Dan Tetrault to get Bill off the front steps by re-instating his privileges. But Bill's privileges were re-instated with a condition: he had to refrain from distributing his literature in the building.

The man on the steps was a minor embarrassment compared to the surfacing of Carnegie’s controversial barring policy in the mainstream press. This occurred a few years ago, during a period when the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users got a lawyer to threaten Carnegie with legal action if they continued to prevent their members’ from entering the building for meetings. Their members were being barred for what they might do inside the building, for offences they had not yet committed -- this is unconstitutional in Canada. Carnegie apparently resolved this issue.

Another case has never been resolved though. It was the case of a woman who was barred several years ago after she spoke up about sexual harassment she was experiencing when she went to the Seniors Lounge to use the computers. She alleged that she was being asked by a coffee seller to go home with him and watch pornography – a female Board member confirmed that she too had been asked – and instructed to die her hair and lose 20 pounds to be more attractive to men. After she lodged a formal complaint, she found herself barred from all computer use for 4 days. No reason was given, and she has a letter from the former Director, Michael Clague, to prove it.

The fact that the brawling white guy was allowed last night to retire to the library to enjoy reading the newspaper caused a spike in the level of chatter about Carnegie's barring policy. Resentment surrounding this issue never dies, with concerns being that it is too often politically applied, too often applied in a manner reflective of a double standard. The barring policy was designed ostensibly to keep violent people out of Carnegie, to at least give them a detention for a few days so that such behaviour was not reinforced.

Carnegie Security is not without their supporters, though, in their handling of the latest incident. Bill, the former pamphleteer on the steps, was in the Lounge when the fight broke out and believes that Security made the right call in not barring the white guy. Bill stands firm: the white guy was provoked to an extreme degree.

posted by reliable sources at 3:17 PM