The Calgary man accused by police of using an antisemitic phrase during a downtown rally earlier this month says he should never have been charged and was assured by police before his arrest that he wouldn’t be.
Wesam Cooley, 32, who also goes by the name Wesam Khaled, was arrested after a rally on Nov. 5. He was charged with causing a disturbance, with “hate motivation” applied to the charge. Police announced that the charge was stayed on Friday.
The hate motivation aspect of the charge — if it had been proven — would have applied as an aggravating factor at sentencing if Cooley was found guilty.
Police haven’t said specifically what led to the charges against Cooley, but the group that organized the protest rally where he was arrested — Justice for Palestinians — claimed he was charged for uttering the phrase, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
Cooley spoke to the media before leading a protest Sunday afternoon outside Calgary city hall. He said that’s what police told him about the reason for the arrest as well.
“In custody I asked, ‘What was the offensive comment?’ I was told, ‘From the river to the sea was the comment.’ I asked, ‘Anything else?’ and I was told ‘no.'”
According to Cooley, the phrase is “a call for freedom for the people of Palestine.”
Jewish groups, however, have described the phrase as antisemitic, and say it advocates driving Jews out of Israel.
Cooley told members of the media that he was assured by Calgary police before the speech that resulted in him being charged that no arrests would be made.
“We asked the police explicitly whether arrests would be made on that day and we were given assurances that no arrests would be made on that day. And obviously those assurances were not kept,” Cooley said.
“These charges had no merit and my only surprise is that it hasn’t been dropped completely,” he added, referring to the fact that the charge against him has been stayed, not dropped.
Doug King, a professor of justice studies at Mount Royal University, shares Cooley’s opinion about the merits of the charge that was laid, and said he wasn’t surprised to hear on Friday that it had been stayed.
King said the initial charge was surprising for a couple of reasons.
One is the fact that, according to King, the charge of causing a disturbance is rarely laid in Canada because very high standards need to be met for it to be proven in court. He says the offensive comments must be shown to have interfered with the audience’s use of public property and raised the risk of harm, in terms of public safety.
“That’s an awfully hard thing to prove,” King told CBC News.
Also, there’s the fact that “hate-motivation” was applied to the charge.
“I’ve never seen that within the context of anything in Canadian law. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, it’s just a rare occurrence,” said King.
All of that has King questioning the actions of the officer or officers involved in the arrest.
“I’m at a loss for the decision-making process by that officer that decided he was going to lay this charge … I’m really at a loss for that kind of thought process,” he said.
The speed with which the stay was issued, coming in a matter of days, rather than the months King says it usually takes, suggests to him that the Crown was not impressed by the arrest either.
“The Crown was ready, I think, when they were reading it in the media, to say, ‘No. We’re going to have to intervene on this one,'” King said.
“I think, if I was the Crown, I’d want to reach out to the Calgary Police Service and have a chat about what’s their understanding of hate-motivation, versus what the Crown’s understanding of it is.”
Different standards, or covering tracks?
In a statement on Friday, Calgary police said the charge against Cooley was stayed because police and the Crown operate under different standards.
“We recognize that as police, we operate considering reasonable and probable grounds, whereas the Crown’s threshold is higher at reasonable likelihood of conviction,” the statement said.
King doesn’t buy it.
“Those are, in essence, the same standard. So I can understand why the police are trying to maybe cover their tracks a bit,” he said.
“In all honesty, and in all … transparency, I think there should be a little bit more accountability by the police as to why they laid this charge.”
When Cooley was asked what he would say to members of the Jewish community who find the phrase he used offensive or antisemitic, he said members of the Jewish community have taken part in all the protest marches he has helped organize and have been leading demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinian people all around the world.
“Jewish people in this country should not feel threatened by this chant. We are opposed to all forms of racism, including antisemitism,” Cooley said.
Cooley told reporters that he would be leading the crowd in the chant that led to his arrest at Sunday’s protest.
“And we expect there will be no arrests,” he said.