Monday, June 14, 2010

http://news.therecord.com/article/487893 [Close]

Philip Walker, Record staff
Mathew McCarthy, Record staff file photo
On the defence -- an activist becomes a lawyer


Davin Charney has traded his bullhorn for a briefcase, his prison-issue jumpsuit for a business suit.

Once in frequent need of a lawyer because of his antics as a social crusader, he went back to school and became one himself this summer.

But after years of protests and stunts on behalf of the young, the poor and the powerless, Charney insists he hasn't really changed.

Instead of screaming slogans in the streets, now he just advances arguments in courtrooms.

"I'm still an activist, I'm still a protester, but I won't put myself in a position where I can easily be picked up by the police," Charney said, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt at the shared Kitchener townhouse that doubles as his law office. "There's a lot to lose now."

That means he isn't likely to occupy a downtown hotel or threaten to steal the beer keg at the ceremonial kickoff to Oktoberfest -- two of many schemes that made Charney, 36, a thorn in the side of local authorities starting in the late 1990s.

But he will defend other activists who get in trouble tweaking the status quo, along with accused criminals he sees as victims of circumstances in an unjust society.

"He's someone who is actually part of the movement, who knows what it's like to be in jail," said Julian Ichim, 29, who chanted alongside Charney in Kitchener and now heads a protest group in Stratford.

"Me and Davin have both had our doses of tear gas."

Charney has also made it a mission to revisit a running battle with police that eventually took over his activism.

He was arrested at least 15 times and did two weeklong stints in jail, costing him a job as a health promotion officer for Waterloo Region earning $26 an hour.

The charges against him included obstructing police, assaulting police and criminal defamation for putting up posters alleging police brutality.

Charney paid a few trespassing tickets, but he was never convicted of a crime -- helping fuel his beef that police overreacted in a heavy-handed effort to shut him and his supporters up.

Insp. Steve Beckett, spokesperson for Waterloo Regional Police, said officers treated Charney the same as they would have anyone else, carefully balancing the right to free speech with the need for public safety.

Charney has been successful, however, in three of four lawsuits against police in small claims court -- winning about $15,000 in damages for wrongdoing, including improper arrests.

Now he's preparing several more claims, with a goal to launch at least 10 in his first year as a lawyer.

Beckett said police don't mind the scrutiny because it keeps them on their toes.

He noted police were awarded legal costs in the failed lawsuit, but they didn't go after the money lest it discourage public criticism.

"In cases where he has been successful, we have certainly learned from those instances," Beckett said. "It helps make us better."

Charney doesn't buy that explanation.

He relishes the chance to turn the tables on an organization that labelled him a "left-wing extremist" and used undercover officers to infiltrate his groups, going so far as joining protests to collect intelligence.

"It's them that's under fire now, it's them that accusations are being made against," Charney said. "Win or lose, you still win just going through that process.

"The goal is to hold them accountable and that drives them nuts. They don't like to be accountable, they don't like to be watched. They just want to do their work and have nobody say anything."

Butting heads with the police would never have occurred to Charney growing up in suburban North York, the youngest of three siblings in a comfortable, middle-class Jewish family.

He got into a gifted school program, stayed out of trouble and enrolled at the University of Guelph with plans to become a scientist.

But there was a hint of things to come in his family history.

His great uncle, Joe Slovo, was a prominent communist and anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, where Charney lived until he was eight.

He remembers being thrilled when his mother, a social worker, took him to a huge anti-apartheid rally in Toronto as a teenager.

After he hooked up with student activists in his third year at Guelph, it wasn't long before Charney was barricaded in the president's office in a protest over tuition fees.

"Politics and social justice just became more and more important to me," he said.

"We live in a world that can be changed by people and I want to be one of those people, I guess."

With one degree under his belt, Charney came to the University of Waterloo in 1997 to do a master's degree in urban planning.

He wrote his thesis on how young people fit -- or didn't fit -- into revitalization efforts in downtown Kitchener, then branched out to start the K-W Youth Collective and a downtown drop-in centre called The Spot with Ichim.

Over the next several years, they brought together street kids and others to protest marijuana laws, racism, poverty, homelessness and police harassment.

Best known himself for splashing Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day with chocolate milk at a 2000 event in Kitchener, Ichim said they made a good team.

"He was the one with his feet on the ground and I was the one who'd get people all riled up," he said. "I'd come up with some crazy idea and he'd find a way to actually make it happen."

They also took on a local group of neo-Nazi skinheads, resulting in several violent skirmishes.

Charney takes credit for running the skinheads out of town and quietly helping numerous young people facing crises such as eviction or the loss of social assistance.

"We gave hope to people who, for the most part, have no hope," he said.

Whether their showy stunts actually accomplished anything is open to debate, but Charney said he has no regrets about using non-violent confrontation to get attention.

"We tried to make trouble for people who deserved to have trouble made for them," he said. "They were ignoring a whole segment of the community."

His run-ins with police, however, did get out of hand.

Charney was spending his second miserable week at the Maplehurst Detention Centre in 2003 when he started thinking it was time to take a different tack.

It didn't help that he lost his job because of the unscheduled time off and couldn't get another one with a growing reputation as a rabble-rouser.

"Being a lawyer -- that seemed like a good idea," he said.

Charney applied to law school at York University, buckled down for three years of studies and articled for a year with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

He now works for himself "so I can't get fired," still finds it a bit absurd being a lawyer, travels by bus or bicycle and has put principle ahead of profit -- aiming to make just $25,000 in his first year in practice.

"Other people get meaning out of having a nice car and a big salary, but that doesn't make me happy," Charney said.

Much of the money from successful police lawsuits, for instance, will be donated to fund more front-line activism. "There's a real sense of ironic justice in that, I think," Charney said.



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the mikiverse loves free speech and wholeheartedley accepts, that someone who is diametrically opposed to my views is free to promulgate those thoughts...However, misogyny, racism, intolerance etc will see that comment deleted.
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