No armchair quarterbacks: Lethbridge police chief wants context of racist video

An unidentified woman engages in an argument with a group of patrons at a restaurant in Lethbridge, Alta., in this screengrab from an undated video posted on Facebook by Monir Omerzai. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Facebook, Monir Omerzai MANDATORY CREDIT

LETHBRIDGE, Alta. - A southern Alberta police chief is urging people not to leap to conclusions about how officers handled a racist confrontation at a local Denny's last month.

"It's very easy to armchair quarterback three weeks later when we have the videos out there and people wading in," Lethbridge police Chief Rob Davis said Thursday. "But based on what we have, I'm confident that our officers acted appropriately."

Monir Omerzai and three friends were at the restaurant in April waiting for their food when a woman in the next booth got into a heated exchange with them. Omerzai, who came to Canada from Afghanistan 13 years ago, filmed the woman yelling the group to go back to their country.

He posted the video on Facebook on Tuesday and it has since been viewed more than a million times.

Davis said police got a call around 12:50 a.m. about a fight at the restaurant, a common occurrence for a Saturday night. He said management wanted both groups to leave and officers were there to keep the peace.

Omerzai's group was out by 1 a.m. and the woman, identified as Kelly Pocha of Cranbrook, B.C., left five minutes later with her husband.

"The context is incredibly important when you look at the small time frame, the information we had and the ultimate goal being to take care of the disturbance so they could have a peaceful operation in the restaurant."

Davis said police need to fully investigate before knowing if charges will be laid or what they might be. Two of the four men in Omerzai's group have been interviewed, but police have not yet reached out to Pocha, he said.

"Social media in itself is not evidence. It's commentary, it's opinion, but it is not evidence," Davis said. "We are in the facts and evidence business and we can never ... bring in rumour and speculation and (give) it the weight of evidence."

The founder of a campaign which encourages people to confront bigotry head-on said videos like the one Omerzai posted make it harder to deny how big an issue racism remains in Canada.

"It puts it in people's face a little bit more, which is an important thing," Jesse Lipscombe, an actor and producer, said Thursday.

Lipscombe started the #makeitawkward campaign in 2016 after a man in a car hurled a racial slur at him while he was filming a public service announcement in downtown Edmonton. Lipscombe posted a video to social media of him confronting the people in the car and urged others not to be bystanders when they witness discrimination.

He said he was disappointed and frustrated — but not surprised —when he saw the video of the Denny's fight.

"I'm trying really hard to not be desensitized to seeing these things on a daily basis," Lipscombe said.

Video of such interactions helps counter those who deny that racism is alive and well in Canada, he said. But Lipscombe noted that even with video of what happened at Denny's, some have questioned whether Omerzai and his friends did something to trigger the verbal attack.

Alfred Hermida, director of the University of British Columbia's journalism school, said the social media landscape is driven by emotions rather than nuanced thought about complicated topics.

The most powerful emotions tend to be anger and disgust. Both are prevalent among the thousands of comments on the Denny's video.

"We've never had this ability to broadcast to the world in an instant and to rush to judgment in an instant," said Hermida, author of "Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why it Matters."

Pocha has been publicly shamed and lost her job at a car dealership, but Hermida questioned whether the broader context is being lost.

"What does this tell us about Canadian society? Are there larger issues at play here? And are there small, subtle acts of racism or sexism that happen every day that we don't tackle because we focus on this one incident and blame it on one person?"

— By Lauren Krugel in Calgary


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