Anti-Olympics protests in Vancouver 2010 – protests and police reaction

18 Feb

In my previous post, I had mentioned that a broad umbrella of groups including those fighting against homelessness and indigenous rights were actively campaigning against the Vancouver Games by 2008. Prior to the event, they also documented the kind of damages done to the city such as the rising rate of homelessness and the erosion of civil liberties.

With regards to the public protests, it appears that the descent of an international media on the city when the Games started, is unlikely to have much effect on the choice of policing tools. While the police and authorities may enact measures that appear ‘strong-handed’, perhaps as a form of deterrence, public opinion prevents them from using force unless provoked. This act of provocation is most often an act of property damage by any protestor which gives the police an excuse to move in  and disband the demonstrators. This form of targeting is however problematic as some protestors who are persistently non-violent may be swept up in this act . They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Otherwise, non-violent actions are generally not met with physical coercion.

For example, the building of the Olympic Tent Village which was owned by a private condominium developer intended for use as a parking lot during the Olympics has proceeded without any arrests. According to a news report, the police took a ‘low-keyed position, monitoring the crowd and directing traffic…’. This action was also endorsed by an MP who claimed it has generated greater awareness on the issue of homelessness.

On the other hand, a Saturday street protest which was marred by violence culminated in arrests and heavy police retaliation. According to the Vancouver Sun, protestors ‘allege police officers hit protesters and refused to tell them their rights’. The officials have however claimed that they were only targeting those who were engaged in criminal activities.

Another Canadian Press reporter painted a picture of unmitigated brutality,

‘… with apparently little warning, police advanced on the crowd, hitting their batons against their riot shields and shoving protesters and journalists to the ground.

A Canadian Press reporter was hit several times by the officers’ shields as he was knocked to the street and against a parked car, only to be shoved again once he found his way back onto his feet…’

While the police spokesperson claimed that half of the protestors were criminals, thereby inferring that most of them adopted a mob mentality, some activists have retaliated with claims of police abuse.

Alissa Westergard-Thorpe who was with the Olympic Resistance Network ‘accused the police of trying to intimidate Olympic critics and suggested the protesters hadn’t been violent at all’. She reasoned that the acts of sabotage were less of an evil in comparison to the treatment meted out by the police. These acts were ‘never..violent toward human beings’ which was a far cry from ‘the tools that police have, manhandling them [protestors], pushing them, hitting them with bicycles.’

This view that sabotage is permissible or considered to be encouragable has been a trademark ‘tactic’ of the Black Bloc, a loose international anarchist movement. While it has no formal membership or structure, its presence is generally detected and contrasted with other protestors by their dress code – in black and their face hidden by black masks.

Furthermore, according to this Black Bloc statement, acts of vandalism towards corporate and pubic properties are minimal compared to the ‘economic’ havoc wreaked by corporations and the state:

‘On February 12th, the Vancouver Police Department pacified us with a force of mounted police. The next day during 2010 Heart Attack, they deployed riot police armed with M4 carbine assault rifles. They claim this was necessary in order to stop the march from “jeopardizing public safety” – yet the only threats to public safety were in their own hands. Participants in the demonstration only undertook strategic attacks against corporations sponsoring the Olympics and did not harm or attack bystanders.

The media are now busy denouncing the political violence of property destruction, such as the smashing of a Hudson’s Bay Company window, as though it were the only act of violence happening in this city. They forget that economic violence goes on daily in Vancouver. People are suffering and dying from preventable causes because welfare doesn’t give enough to afford rent, food or medicine, and because authorities routinely ignore the medical emergencies of poor or houseless individuals. This economic violence has gotten worse as we lose housing and social services because of the Olympic Games. In response to this assault, thousands took to the streets, hundreds joining what is known as a black bloc.

The black bloc is not a formal organization; it has no leadership, membership, or headquarters. Instead, the black bloc is a tactic: it is something people *do* in order to accomplish a specific purpose. By wearing black clothing and masking our faces, the black bloc allows for greater protection to those who choose active self-defense. The majority of people involved in the black bloc do not participate in property destruction. However, in masking up they express their solidarity with those who choose to take autonomous direct action against the corporations, authorities and politicians who wage war on our communities…

… You won’t ever know who was in the black bloc this weekend, but you *do* know us. We are the people who organize community potlucks, who dance during street festivals, who make art, defend the land, build co-ops, bicycles and community gardens. When we put on our black clothing, we are not a threat to you, but to the elites…’

This threat to elites is considered of grave security concerns by the state. As such, the police are also excessively armed to the teeth during these protests. On the second day of the Vancouver Olympic protests , it has been  reported that the police possessed M-16 rifles, considered standard for warfare. They also carried batons, automatic pistols, tear gas guns and were armoured with body pads and helmets.

If there is anything to be inferred from the protests and police behaviour, it is the notion that different forms of protests generates different types of crowd control and (sometimes) police retaliation. While much of it is based on directives, a large part also depends on the actual situation. An act of sabotage would definitely be considered as unacceptable, criminal and ‘violent’ by the media and state. This gives them the justification for physical police retaliation and possibly more authoritarian measures.

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