An abuse of power
Nov 2, 2011 – 6:45 AM ET | Last Updated: Nov 2, 2011 8:52 AM ET
Calgary street preacher smells bias in the city’s unwillingness to deal with occupiers
Artur Pawlowski, who preaches to Calgary’s homeless, says the city’s unwillingness to ticket or prosecute Occupy Calgary protesters openly violating bylaws he himself has been charged for many times is proof that the city has a bias against Christians.
Kevin Libin In Calgary
Three young men emerge from their tents at the “Occupy Calgary” encampment at Calgary’s Olympic Plaza on a weekday afternoon and make a beeline for a café a few dozen yards away. One of them plants his money on the counter and orders a shot of tequila.
“No. Don’t do it,” shouts a man sitting by the window. “It will ruin your life.”
“Yeah, but it warms the belly,” the customer smiles back.
The man at the table is Artur Pawlowski. He is the preacher who runs Calgary’s Street Church. He does this a lot: sermonizing to the city’s scruffier elements — the homeless, the drug addicts, the alcoholics and the drifters. They know him. Four times a week he sets up shop, just across the street, on the steps of City Hall and cooks meals and dispenses clothing, along with sermons, to the needy. Lately he’s been running into a lot of the Occupy Calgary types. They’ve been crossing Macleod Trail for the food. And he’s spent time in their camp, trying to talk to them about Jesus. He addressed one of their twice-daily “general assemblies” with his message. His message hasn’t been received terribly well.
Mr. Pawlowski shrugs. He’s used to his work not always being popular and he’s as tenacious and patient as anyone you’ll find. For the past six years the city has hit him with injunctions, fines and arrests. He posts copies of the tickets on his Street Church website; they go on for pages. Police have confiscated his signs and his Bibles. He’s moved to the steps of city hall in protest, after being driven out of the needle parks and underpasses where he used to minister to dealers and prostitutes.
He’s spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, mortgaging his home twice in the process, in legal battles over what he believes is his constitutional right to preach the gospel, and help the needful, on city streets. The city, too, has spent a fortune prosecuting him. He’s long believed the city had a bias against Christians. The fact that the anti-capitalist occupiers have been left to openly flout, for two weeks, many of the same bylaws that he’s been routinely ticketed and arrested for, he says, is proof of it.
“I have stood over 70 times in the courts. We have been charged over 100 times. Eight arrests,” he says. “Just because I believe in Jesus Christ, I’m treated differently.”
Mr. Pawlowski isn’t calling, as many Calgarians are, for the occupy tent city to be cleared out. “I respect them and I respect their rights to free speech,” he says. He just wants the same tolerance from City Hall for his church’s anti-materialist message as the city has shown for the anti-materialist message of the couple of dozen tent dwellers planted on a patch of grass along Calgary’s pedestrian mall since mid-October. The city has requested the self-styled occupiers leave; they’ve refused. They stayed put over the weekend when the city’s Muslim community was forced to hold a cultural festival around them, having booked and paid to legally rent Olympic Plaza. They crashed Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s food truck exhibition there on Monday afternoon, wading in with signs about food justice. The city says they’ve caused $40,000 worth of damage to the park.
Calgary officials, as in most other “occupied” cities, have laid off. They’ve ignored flagrant bylaw violations. Most obviously the protesters are camping overnight in a city park, which is against the rules. But they’re erecting signs on city property too—about crushing capitalism, jailing corporate pigs and the like — an offence that Mr. Pawlowski’s church has been charged with on several occasions. His church’s signs say things like “Jesus is Lord” and quotes from the Bible, such as “Let us not become weary in doing good.”
The protesters serve communal meals without permits; Mr. Pawlowski has been ordered to get licensed by the health department to feed soup and sandwiches to the homeless. Police have said they’ve handed “occupiers” tickets for smoking, dogs, and open liquor, but no one seriously thinks they’ve been strict about the letter of the law. Mr. Pawlowski was once fined for running an extension cord over a city sidewalk. One time, police handcuffed him and hauled him in after organizers of a street festival complained he was bothering them by reading a Bible aloud.
Mr. Nenshi has been trying to play all sides of the argument. It isn’t easy. He’s reminded us that we “live in a society where people have freedom of expression.” But since that right has obviously never been absolute on city property, he’s added also that “for better or worse” (as if it wasn’t quite clear which) the campers are “setting themselves up as people who have special access to [public] space others don’t have.” When reporters press him about ending that double standard, he warns about fascism. “Thankfully we live in a world where politicians don’t have personal strike forces,” he told the Calgary Sun a few days ago. But then, on Tuesday, he told the Herald, “the city certainly has the strong arm of enforcement and if we have to use it, we will.” Clearly he’s hoping the campers will soon politely pack up and leave voluntarily, saving him an inevitable confrontation.
They won’t. In fact, a confrontation is surely what they’re waiting for, says Calgary alderman Jim Stevenson. “Some of these people would love to get their picture on the news being pulled out screaming and kicking,” Mr. Stevenson says. He maintains, as the mayor has, that it’s the city’s legal department that’s holding back a high-handed response, agonizing, reportedly, over the group’s Charter rights.
They seemed not to agonize nearly as much over Mr. Pawloski’s rights — even though he’s beat the city again and again in court. One dismayed judge remarked in a 2009 decision favouring Mr. Pawlowski that the city’s deployment of bylaw officers and police officers to restrict his preaching “fall precariously close to being excessive and, to any reasonable observer, an abuse of power.”
It’s plain to Mr. Pawlowski that the city simply fears the fact that the tented pseudo-Marxists will holler and fight any move against them in a way that he never has. What he doesn’t mention is that the reason that prospect worries the city so is because some Calgarians, watching a spectacle like that on the news, might feel sympathy for these “occupiers” in a way they never have for an embattled Christian street minister. The evidence certainly seems to back up Mr. Pawlowski’s claim about the city administration’s bias against Christian missionaries. But the difference in public interest between his rights and the occupiers’ suggests the administration isn’t alone.
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