Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Man who recorded Dziekanski tasering chronicles G20 confrontations

Paul Pritchard shows his trusty Sony Cyber-shot. Globe and Mail photograph by Jennifer Roberts.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
July 7, 2010


It was his job to open the restaurant, so Paul Pritchard arrived early on a Saturday morning on uncommonly quiet streets.

The doors were unlocked at 11 a.m. at the Beer Bistro, a restaurant in a converted bank at the corner of King and Yonge streets in downtown Toronto. An hour passed without a table being seated. A second hour passed in similar fashion.

The 28-year-old waiter was watching a World Cup soccer match on television when interrupted by the sound of a police siren.

He went outside. The air was filled with black smoke. A car was afire. Police, in disarray, seemed to be scrambling to clear the street of pedestrians.

It was the weekend of the G20 meeting, a day when thousands were to march in a peaceful protest.

As had been expected, a militant group broke away from the march, their rampage eventually getting near a bistro in the financial district.

“I was planning on going down to the protests later,” Mr. Pritchard said. “I didn’t think they’d come to us.”

No protesters were in sight, only police. Local residents trying to get to their apartments were being turned away.

The waiter decided to get a better look. He skirted along a side street, found himself alone between two walls of police, who ordered him away. He then trailed alongside the demonstrators.

“I saw two different people get surrounded by police and beat down pretty bad,” he said.

“They didn’t get released until the crowd chanted for their release.”

He realized his cellphone camera was not adequate for what he expected was about to happen. He raced home on his bicycle to retrieve a trusty Sony Cyber-shot camera.

It was with that camera that Mr. Pritchard once captured the shocking images of a man’s death.

At 1:21 a.m. on Oct. 14, 2007, Mr. Pritchard, who had been teaching English in China, was at Vancouver International Airport on his way home to Victoria to see his father, who was dying of cancer. A ruckus in the arrivals area led him to train his camera on a distraught passenger. Four minutes later, police arrived and, in a stunning sequence later aired for millions of viewers, the traveler was zapped by a taser, his anguished cries the last sound he would make before dying. Mr. Pritchard continued shooting over the objections of a security guard.

The rest of the story is familiar. Mr. Pritchard volunteered his camera to police on the promise they would make copies and return it. Instead, they suggested he might get it back in 18 to 30 months. He got an order from the B.C. Supreme Court for its release. He then sold the images to the media, using the proceeds to buy medical equipment for his father.

The images he shot led to the formation of a commission of inquiry headed by Thomas Braidwood, a retired B.C. Appeal Court justice. His report, released last month, found four RCMP officers made “deliberate misrepresentations” in their reports on the incident.

“But for the Pritchard video,” Mr. Braidwood wrote, “we would likely never have learned what really happened, and these officers’ revisionist accounts would have lived on.”

Mr. Pritchard’s name will forever be associated with that of Robert Dziekanski, a Polish emigre whose unhappy fate it was to be met by those four officers. A special prosecutor is reviewing whether charges should be laid in the death.

Looking back, Mr. Pritchard wishes he had intervened before the police arrived, using the skills he had developed in dealing with people with whom he did not share a language.

Fifteen weeks after the airport incident, Mr. Pritchard’s father died. In the two years since, Mr. Pritchard has traveled to Nicaragua and Colombia, where he became involved in a campaign to help a village in a war zone become free of weapons.

Last fall, Mr. Pritchard flew north to Toronto to receive an inaugural citizen journalism award from the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. What was expected to be a four-day visit has yet to end.

Mr Pritchard has decided to study journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax. He is waiting tables at a bistro this summer to cover tuition and other expenses not covered by a partial scholarship.

Armed with his camera, he arrived by bike at Queen’s Park in time to see a man bowled over by a police horse.

In his view, a young, peaceful crowd of protestors was under assault as riot police snatched random people before dragging them behind their line for a beating.

“I got up right on the frontline. The guy beside me got shot with a rubber bullet. I was half expecting to get stomped, or beaten. I thought my camera was going to get broken for sure.”

He slipped the memory card from his camera, hiding it in the side band of his boxers.

People were crying. Some jeered, others taunted. He only ever saw one item thrown, possibly a stick, the culprit immediately called down by other demonstrators.

On the other side, he saw, “Anger. Hostility. Using force. Using intimidation. You could see it in their eyes. They were frothing. Ready to go.”

In one of his videos, a television crew, the reporter in suit and tie, flees, fearing assault not by protesters, but by the police.

He has posted four videos and 27 still photographs on his Facebook page. Another is on YouTube. In one, he can be heard yelling at the police, “Your children are going to see this. Your families.”

He would say later he had become enraged by witnessing another injustice.

Few of his coworkers and associates in Toronto know his role in the Dziekanski. He has wrestled with it himself.

“No matter how many countries I put between myself and Canada and that night,” he said, “it keeps popping back into my life. I can’t ignore it anymore.”

He has come to believe he was in that room in that airport at that time for a reason.

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