The following is from the Vancouver Sun.
Anti-Olympic activists get their game on
How protesters plan to disrupt the Games and divert the world spotlight to social issues
By Doug Ward, Vancouver Sun
Anarchist punk ruled on the night of Friday, Jan. 22, at Victory Square, in the heart of the Olympic city. More than 200 anti-2010 protesters, some carrying black flags and burning torches, gathered for what had all the hallmarks of a dress rehearsal for the street protests that could erupt during the Winter Games just two weeks away.
The crowd, mostly young, some wearing bandanas over their faces, had come to march against the "police repression" of anti-Olympic activism. A portable audio system jacked up the energy level with the opening chords of the Rolling Stones' Street Fighting Man. "Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy," howled Mick Jagger.
A few protesters with megaphones screamed slogans, often laced with obscenity, at startled motorists: "No 2010!" and "Did you vote for Gordon Campbell?"
The small but angry far-left demo recalled the much larger anti-globalization demonstrations of a decade ago: the APEC protest and the Riot at the Hyatt in Vancouver, the epic Battle in Seattle against the World Trade Organization and the violent clash between demonstrators at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City.
Many alumni of those anti-globalization convergences were in the crowd, along with younger activists seeking to emulate their radical forebears.
Among the veterans of those earlier protests was Alissa Westergard-Thorpe, an indefatigable anti-Olympic activist and a student at the University of B.C.
Now 35, Wes tergard-Thorpe is a key figure in the militant Olympic Resistance Network (ORN), perhaps the most radical of the anti-Olympic groups behind the "Take Back Our City" march from the Vancouver Art Gallery to BC Place Stadium, set for the afternoon of Feb. 12, when tens of thousands of people will be arriving at the stadium for the Olympic Games opening ceremony.
"I hope it does go down like APEC," said Westergard-Thorpe, who was pepper-sprayed, strip-searched and arrested by police at that protest.
"I hope it does look like when Jean Chretien used to come to the Hyatt and we used to have thousands of people out in the street."
Westergard-Thorpe added that the Feb. 12 marchers should be able to proceed toward BC Place as far as any non-ticket member of the public can get.
Whether any protesters would try to breach the security fences, she said: "That really depends on what type of police repression we face during the day. You know if we have a day where we're being beaten back by the police when you're simply trying to march, people's tempers can get high."
A 'mega-industry event'
As to whether she's hoping a disruption of traffic heading to BC Place might affect the opening ceremony, set to be watched by millions of people around the world, Westergard-Thorpe said: "Absolutely, I would love to disrupt the opening ceremony."
Westergard-Thorpe said sports should not be immune to politics.
"I'm not anti-sport. But I am against the idea that sporting events like this, which are really mega-industry events, are somehow separate from political events and they're not."
The names, faces and views of ORN members are familiar to police, who've visited many of the activists in recent months.
Staff Sgt. Mike Cote of the Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit said security officials are concerned about the threat of disruption on the night of the opening ceremony, but that the protest will be allowed to proceed so long as it is lawful.
"The ISU has no issue with protest as long as the protesters don't interfere with our security perimeter or with the rights of other people," said Cote. "And we have no reason to believe that the planned protest will not respect the laws in place in Vancouver."
Cote said there may not be vehicles to disrupt because traffic will be limited in the zone around BC Place, with little parking available in the adjacent area -- "in fact, it will be non-existent."
The ISU media official said the final leg of the Olympic torch relay will be organized to ensure there is no disruption. "We have the capability of changing the relay route and upgrading or downgrading security at a moment's notice, so it's really a call made on the ground."
ORN members said the protest size should be more than double the 400 demonstrators who disrupted the torch relay in Victoria in October. The protesters created havoc in the capital city's downtown for three hours, forcing relay organizers to move the torch by van to avoid the protesters.
Vanoc declined to comment on the proposed protest marches during the Olympics, citing its blanket policy that it respects "every citizen's right to freedom of expression as protected by Canadian law" and noting its security partners will "ensure peaceful, lawful and safe public demonstrations can occur outside of the venues in plain sight of the media and the public."
The "Take Back the City" march is being organized by the ironically named 2010 Welcoming Committee, whose endorsers include the Workers Communist party of Iran, the East Van Abolitionists and the Vandu Womyn's Group.
2010 Welcoming Committee spokesman Bob Ages of the Council of Canadians predicted the demonstration will stay within the limits of the law. "It's going to be very large and from our perspective it will be peaceful -- there's no reason for it not to be," said Ages, who has had discussions with the Vancouver police department about the march.
But Ages' Council of Canadians is a middle-class, milquetoast group compared to ORN and its younger activists.
Despite its small size, the far-left ORN will be the most visible because the mainstream left, including the NDP and the labour movement, has mostly been supportive of the Olympics.
ORN is an umbrella organization for groups like the Anti-Poverty Committee, StopWar.ca,the Work Less Party and the Native Youth Movement. Ages acknowledged that ORN members may not follow the game plan.
"We have in the movement what I call a diversity of tactics. Some people have different ideas about the most effective way of getting their message across."
Westergard-Thorpe and ORN want the protests to become as much a part of the 2010 story as the gold-medal quests of downhiller Manny Osborne-Paradis or the Canadian hockey teams.
ORN is holding a two-day summit in east Vancouver with various seminars on the evils of capitalism and the Olympics. They are planning "days of action," beginning on the first day of Olympic competitions, Feb. 13, against Olympic corporate sponsors. (ORN members have defended the use of vandalism, even arson, to target corporate Olympic sponsors.)
They are also participating in the annual Women's Memorial March, through the Downtown Eastside, to remember women murdered or missing in B.C.
Protesters believe the 2010 Games are a "capitalist circus" not unlike the WTO or the G8 Summits.
Many of them are anti-poverty activists who believe the Olympic Games have accelerated gentrification and homelessness in the Downtown Eastside. They fault Vanoc and the provincial government for failing to deliver on earlier promises to sharply increase social housing in the area.
Some have attacked the Olympics for damaging the environment, citing the destruction of the Eagleridge Bluffs in West Vancouver by the widening of the Sea to Sky Highway. Others say the Olympics are less about sports than promoting the interests of local developers and the marketing strategies of corporate sponsors like the Royal Bank of Canada, Coca-Cola, McDonald's and the Bay.
Finally, the ORN protesters say repeatedly that the Olympics are being held on unceded native land because the vast majority of first nations in B.C. do not have land claims treaties. The activists heap scorn on the chiefs and councils of the Lil'wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations for becoming official hosts of the games. They call Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, a "collaborator" for taking a new job with RBC and promoting its sponsorship of the Olympic torch relay.
Grand Chief Tewanee Joseph, executive director of the Four Host Nations, dismisses claims the councils are selling out to the Games, noting the $57 million and 2,000 jobs brought to the aboriginal community as a result of the Olympics wouldn't have materialized otherwise. The Olympics are also an opportunity to share Canada's first nation stories, successes and culture with the world, he said, as well as educate the world about native poverty, suicide rates and land claims through education.
"Everyone has a right to voice their opinions. These are our lands and the Games are on our traditional territories but we don't need them to speak for us," he said of the protesters.
"We're a full partner and we're a proud partner; indigenous people have never been part of the Games before. We never want to be on the outside looking in. If we didn't do it somebody else would have stepped in and told our stories for us."
Robert Diab, a lawyer who teaches at Capilano College, said it's unclear whether the police have learned lessons from APEC or the Riot at the Hyatt, two demonstrations where protesters were injured by the police.
Diab said the long-running uncertainty in recent years over protest zones during the Olympics could prompt some activists to see how far they can go. "It seems obvious that all of the anxiety around security and civil liberties at the Olympics may well become a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is so much tension over whether rights will be limited that we may see protesters trying to test the limits in a way they might ordinarily not be inclined to do."
To the protesters who turned out a week ago at Victory Square, the Olympics are too good an opportunity not to exploit.
A young woman in a hoodie took a megaphone and said: "They say the Olympics are coming in February. But we've been living in it for the last five years. And now we're in the thick of it: a shit sandwich with no bread."
She passed the megaphone to a male comrade who raged that "these pigs would like to see the last breath of sanity choked out of this world. To me capitalism is exploitation and the state a murderer." Someone offered up a pro forma "right on!"
Local activist groups have been talking about disrupting the 2010 Games for years now.
They've put the word out to other anti-capitalist activists around North America to converge on Vancouver during the Olympics. And over the past few years, members of the ORN have tried to muck up Olympic public events, forcing Vanoc to stop staging large Olympic rallies in downtown Vancouver.
"If people have political issues, the Olympics is a way to get your issues through the media to the forefront," said Westergard-Thorpe, adding that ORN wants to illuminate the real Vancouver for the international media. "I don't want them to see a sanitized, corporatized image given to them. I want them to see what Vancouver is really about, which is poverty, environmental destruction and a crackdown on civil liberties."
A protest veteran
Chris Shaw, perhaps the best-known of the city's anti-Olympic protesters, also marched on Friday night as a medic, ready to help any protester injured in any confrontation with the police. He too is a veteran of earlier anti-globalization protests -- "APEC sparked my interest and Seattle cemented it" -- but he's not out of central casting.
At 59, he's older than most anti-Olympic activists. He's also a top medical researcher at Vancouver General Hospital, managing research projects into Parkinson's disease and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.
Shaw was a key organizer of the No side in the 2003 plebiscite on the Olympics in Vancouver, which was won by the Yes side with 63 per cent of the vote.
As Shaw recounted in his book, Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games, he became interested in the 2010 Olympics while driving back to Vancouver from a protest at the 2002 G8 Summit in Kananaskis, Alta. He and his friends saw an article in a newspaper on the floor of their car about how Vancouver was hoping to get on the shortlist of cities bidding for the 2010 Games. Shaw and his friends discussed whether the Olympics was similar to the globalization phenomenon they had been opposing in Kananaskis.
"If so, maybe exposing it could be our 'wedge' issue, one that we could use to broach the flaws of globalization to an apathetic or uninformed audience," wrote Shaw in his book.
Shaw said he doesn't want to see any violence at the Feb. 12 march at BC Place. Shaw is the medical response coordinator for the protest.
"I would like to see a lot of people on the street, demonstrating and talking to people. I would like to see the embarrassment that a demonstration during the Olympics might bring to different levels of government. It might force them to deal with issues they've neglected. And if it was the start of a re-establishment of an anti-globalization movement, that would be icing on the cake."
Shaw is among several anti-Olympic critics who have attracted the attention of the ISU.
The police have visited the homes -- and sometimes the workplaces and friends -- of activists. So far, there have been no pre-emptive arrests and the police have long dropped their earlier attempt to limit protest to safe assembly areas. They agree now that the whole city -- at least the area outside security perimeters around Olympic venues -- is a free-speech zone.
Nevertheless, the police visits are viewed by the protesters as a tactic of intimidation and further proof that the Olympics have undermined civil liberties. To that end, the rally on Jan. 22 was called Struggle Against Police Repression and organized by the 12th and Clark Collective, which sounds like your basic off-Commercial Drive activist communal house. The march headed down Hastings Street, disrupting eastbound traffic.
As it passed the new Woodward's redevelopment, there was a sense of life imitating art. The scene was strikingly similar to the massive photograph mural hanging inside the atrium of Woodward's -- Stan Douglas's Abbott & Cordova, which depicts a scene from the 1971 Gastown Riot.
Only in Douglas's hyper-real tableau, the police are chasing protesters on horses. On Friday night, policemen on mountain bikes accompanied the march along Hastings and did nothing to stop its progress.
The new Woodward's was also a reminder that the anti-Olympic protesters tactic of direct action -- or "vulgar activism" as APC member David Cunningham once described it -- can be effective.
Many credit the 2002 Woodsquat occupation of the old vacant Woodward's building for raising the issue of homeless-ness and setting in motion the eventual redevelopment of the landmark department store building.
This is one of the arguments for confronting the Olympics put forward by Gord Hill, a 41-year-old aboriginal activist, originally from near Alert Bay. Hill, a veteran of earlier anti-globalization protests, marched on Jan. 22, and plans to join the Feb. 12 march during the Olympic opening ceremony. He was arrested for disrupting the unveiling of the Olympic countdown clock three years ago and has been visited several times recently by police officers from the Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit.
He said the intersection of the Feb. 12 march and the Olympic opening ceremony is a "vulnerable point" for Olympic security officials. "We're going to disrupt the traffic flow for sure. I mean you can't have hundreds of people walking through the street and not disrupt the traffic."
He came up with the anti-Olympic movement's slogan of "No 2010 Olympics on stolen native land."
Hill acknowledged that the public sees the Olympics as a "benign sporting event . . . But when you scratch the surface you see what a putrid, disgusting thing it is."
Hill has discussed on his No2010.comwebsite why anti-Olympic groups are willing to vandalize businesses. "Groups that carry out militant direct action are just one part of the anti-Olympics movement. Most do not carry out vandalism or arson. Those that do have targeted corporate sponsors of the Olympics as a form of sabotage (along with police and military targets). This can increase the costs for corporations seeking to profit from the Games, and could potentially deter some corporate investment. All militant direct actions that have occurred have consisted of property damage and no person has been injured as a result."
Also at the Friday march was Harsha Walia, project manager at the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre and a regular participant in anti-Olympic events. Walia, who marched in Seattle against the WTO, said it's unclear how many Americans will attend the anti-Olympic events. She expects the Canada Border Services Agency will do its best to prevent activists from crossing the border. She noted how the CBSA stopped American journalist Amy Goodman at the border and questioned her for 90 minutes about whether she was coming to Canada to speak against the Olympics. American border officials have similarly tried to stop recruitment of American activists, added Walia, noting that B.C. Olympic critic Marla Renn was denied entry at the border, preventing her from speaking about the Olympics to college students in Oregon.
Both the Canadian and American border services say it will be business as usual during the Olympics and there are no plans to increase security measures to red-flag suspected protesters heading across the border.
Faith St. John, spokeswoman for the Canada Border Services Agency, was tight-lipped about how CBSA would deal with suspected protesters, saying only that Canadian admissions requirements will not change and individual travellers may be subject to more "in-depth examinations" on a case-by-case basis.
The Jan. 22 march concluded peacefully at Thornton Park in front of the Pacific Central Station. No laws were broken, traffic disruption was minimal and a smiling policeman was satisfied enough to quip that he thought the demonstrators' torches "were a nice touch."
Don't bet on the police being as complimentary during the direct action protests promised by ORN members during the Olympic period.
"The general goal is to disrupt the Olympics," said ORN's Hill, "and to send a clear message to the International Olympic Committee, Vanoc and other Olympic host cities that holding the Olympics can bring you this type of resistance."
With files from Kelly Sinoski
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