In the Network: Media Co-op Dominion   Locals: HalifaxMontrealTorontoVancouver
This post has not been reviewed by the Vancouver Media Co-op editorial committee.

A brief review of the legal and illegal status of common protest activity.

Blog posts are the work of individual contributors, reflecting their thoughts, opinions and research.
A brief review of the legal and illegal status of common protest activity.

Dominion Stories

I am writing this because, after writing an Open Letter To Peaceful Protesters, I began to wonder if there is a general confusion about the difference between a 'violent' action, what ever that means to any individual person, vs. an 'illegal' action. Identifying something as illegal is not a moral judgement. It is a technical matter of law and policing. It is important to note that many non-violent events are illegal. My intention in writing this is to remove the stigma against criminal activity in the face of oppression and exploitation. Is it unethical to break a law to stop an injustice? The following is an extremely brief review outlining the legal status of some common types of contemporary protest or action.

(**Note, none of this is actual legal information, it is a rough and general reference guide. For accurate legal information contact a practicing lawyer in your province.)
*Public Gatherings*
Permitted March (legal):
A march that has been granted legal permission by a municipal government. The Gay Pride Parade, many Union Marches or any large organized march will often be a legal permitted march. Permits cost money, involve submitting application forms in advance and putting a specific person on the application who is legally responsible for the event. Permitted marches often involve insurance, and coordination with local police which may or may not include a fee for police escort. Permitted marches are cost prohibitive for most smaller organizations and networks, thus many people simply do not get permits regardless of their intention towards legal or illegal activity. 
Non-Permitted March (non-legal):
In addition to being cost prohibitive, many people believe that permitted marches are an insult to basic civil liberties such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, thus on principle refuse to get a permit for their march. These marches themselves are technically illegal, regardless of any other activity that occurs during the march. Participants in non-permitted marches can be subject to arrest for many crimes, including j-walking, traffic violations, mischief, breach of the peace, creating a public disturbance, etc. Many people who have insecure legal status such as non-status migrants, migrant workers, and people with arrest warrants are particularly vulnerable to legal persecution during non-permitted marches. But because most grassroots organizations don’t have the money or resources to get permits, most municipalities unofficially allow marches without permits, as long as they do not cause too much disruption.
Contentious Non-Permitted March (illegal):
A contentious non-permitted march is a march that does not have a permit, and is frowned upon or disallowed by the municipality and the police department. For example, a ‘snake march’ that roams through downtown streets for hours congesting rush hour traffic, a march the crosses a major bridge or goes along a highway, or interferes with a specific state sponsored event, i.e. a G20 gathering, the Olympics, etc. A contentious non-permitted march is subject to mild to severe police repression including harassment by bicycle and motorcycle police, intimidation of organizers, forced re-routing, targeted arrests of specific people, crowd dispersal weapons such as pepper spray or tear gas, ‘less than lethal’ weapons such as rubber bullets, kettling and mass arrests.
Illegal March (illegal): 
An illegal march is any march that is declared an illegal gathering by police. Police can declare any gathering of people illegal when ever they see fit. They generally warn people over a loud speaker that the gathering has been declared illegal and participants must disperse or face arrest. Anyone remaining afterwards will face arrest. Police can declare a march an illegal gathering just for happening, there does not have to be any other disruptive activity occurring such as blockades or vandalism.
Permitted Rally (legal):
A permitted rally is a public gathering of protest that has been granted legal permission from a municipality. They are pretty much the same as permitted marches.
Non-Permitted Rally (mostly legal):
A non-permitted rally is a public gathering of protest that does not have a sanctioned legal permit. They are very similar to non-permitted marches. But have even more leeway with municipalities and police because they occur in pedestrian space and do not disrupt traffic or commerce. They occur in parks, town squares, lawns of government or corporate buildings, the sidewalk, etc. While they do sometimes spill out onto the street, non-permitted marches generally adhere to all other legal conditions and are generally not illegal under civil rights codes. They can be protected by freedom of assembly rights.
Contentious Non-Permitted Rally (legal until declared illegal by police):
A contentious non-permitted rally is a rally that does not have a permit and is disruptive by it’s mere presence, even though it does not take any other illegal action. For example, a group of people protesting with signs and handing out anti-mining leaflets in front of a corporate mining office building. People who attend these rallies are subject to criminal charges such as trespassing on private property, mischief, creating a public disturbance, breach of the peace, littering, etc.
Illegal Rally (illegal):
Similar to an illegal march, an illegal rally is any public gathering that has been declared illegal by police.
Basically, if you are on private property, you can be charged with trespassing, if you are in public space you can be charged with any number of disturbing the peace types of charges, along with any number of by-law infractions and ticked offences.
*Social Disruption and Economic Sabotage*
In addition to contentious non-permitted marches, there are other popular forms of protest that in and of themselves can be illegal without the presence of any other illegal activity. 

Blockade (illegal):
A blockade is generally a gathering that occurs outside of some place that is being protested. The objective is to prevent people from accessing the area. Examples are blockading the doors of office buildings, train routes and roads, areas set for development, etc. 
Occupation (illegal):
An occupation is generally a gathering that occurs inside of some place that is being protested. As is with blockades, the objective is to prevent other people from accessing the area, and to stop an activity that occurs there. But in addition, the objective could be to access the resources within that space such as housing, medical treatment, food, or for indigenous people: traditional land bases.
Although blockades and occupations are kind of technically legal until they are declared illegal by police, in general, it’s best to consider them illegal, because in order to sustain them, arrest must be risked. Many blockades and occupations do disperse as soon as they are declared illegal. For example, the IdleNoMore train blockade at Aamjiwnaang. They held their blockade for many days before it was declared illegal, then dispersed.
In the case of blockades or occupations, there are some legal grey areas where actions can continue for limited periods without illegality --but this is unpredictable and unreliable. On private or government owned property two things can happen that can cause a delay of arrests: the owner of the property can declare occupiers trespassers, or an injunction can be granted to declare the participants in ‘contempt of court.’ In British Columbia, in the case of trespass, the owner or an appointed representative, must tell the participants they are trespassing, then the trespassers are considered to be committing ‘assault by trespass,’ after which they are subject to arrest. This process can take some time if the owner is unaware of the situation or absent. In the case of an injunction being issued, the owner of the property or business must apply to the government court for an injunction. This can be contested by the protesters’ own lawyers if they know it is occurring. An injunction can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days, to weeks, to be granted. Before police can act on the injunction, an enforcement order must be granted. At that point, participants are subject to arrest. 
In the case of blockades and occupations, participants are generally willing to risk arrest and stay until their goal has been achieved or they have been forcibly removed by police or private security.
Some types of actions are non-legal public gatherings that specifically involve other types of illegal activity. Instead of incorporating arrest into their mode of action, participants actively attempt to evade or avoid arrest.
Public Art and Theatrical Events (can be legal or illegal):
There are many forms of protest activity that focus on economic sabotage or social disruption but are not necessarily illegal, but could easily be deemed illegal if police decided to repress them. Banner hangings, street theatre, graffiti, flash mobs, etc. are all example of actions whose goal is to cause a public disturbance that generates awareness of issues and influence people’s opinions. These activities can range from totally illegal or offensive to completely socially acceptable or amusing. 
Sabotage and Vandalism (illegal):
Sabotage and vandalism are methods of direct action some people use as forms of social disruption and economic sabotage. The intention is to cause monetary damage to oppressive or exploitative businesses or institutions. 
Riots (illegal):
Riots are large public gatherings where generalized acts of vandalism and sabotage occur. Riots can have many origins and purposes. Political riots are all different in character depending on the politics of the participants. Anti-capitalist and anti-globalization riots generally occur with an informal coordination and specifically target oppressive or exploitative businesses or institutions. 

Catch the news as it breaks: follow the VMC on Twitter.
Join the Vancouver Media Co-op today. Click here to learn about the benefits of membership.


Since it is a "technical

Since it is a "technical matter of law and policing," it would be good to include the actual 'criminal offenses' and their sanctions associated with each type of rally or protest.  Also, are these terms used, such as "contentious non-permitted march (illegal)," themselves legal definitions?

Creative Commons license icon Creative Commons license icon

The site for the Vancouver local of The Media Co-op has been archived and will no longer be updated. Please visit the main Media Co-op website to learn more about the organization.