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New Socialist Webzine

Assessing the Anti-Olympics Protests in Vancouver

By Harold Lavender

Opposition to the many negative impacts of the Vancouver Olympics was loud and clear as activists vigorously exercised their right to free speech in wide-ranging protest actions against the 2010 Winter Games.

According to the Vancouver Police Department (VPD), some 36 separate protests took place. The Olympic Resistance Network (ORN) organized many of the actions, including an anti-capitalist convergence. The 2010 Welcoming Committee (initiated by the ORN but an independent body with wide endorsements) initiated the main mass action, a march of 4000 on February 12. Community-based groups, strongly supported by anti-capitalist radicals, organized the very successful Tent City (or Village as many preferred to call it) to end homelessness, stop the gentrification of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (DTES) and end the criminalization of poverty. Other actions were organized by more moderate reformist forces.

The resistance to 2010 Olympics included a resurgence of radical activism, which in large measure (though with some exceptions such as No One is Illegal and Palestinian solidarity), had been in steady decline in recent years. Participation in sustained active movements can help radicalize people.

In Vancouver, this radical milieu appears to have returned to roughly pre-2002 levels, although we should be careful not to exaggerate and confuse this with substantial mass radicalization.

Many of the debates originating during the global justice movement have now resurfaced. Similar dynamics and issues could arise when the G-8/G-20 summit takes place in Toronto in late June. There are links between organizing against Vancouver 2010 and G-8/G-20.

The Vancouver protests raise questions about the possibilities and strengths of an emergent new anti-capitalist radical left, as well as about potential problems and limitations.

The large majority of movement actions against the Olympics were highly, moderately or partially successful. However, there was also intense controversy. This centred around the February 13 snake march in which some members of the Black Bloc broke windows of the Hudson's Bay Company building (a historic symbol of the colonial oppression of indigenous people).

The strong focus on February 13 is in many ways quite unfortunate. It deflects attention from real successes of the movement, which could be used to build for the future. However, the debate did happen on a widespread basis. And it does raise important questions about how best to build movements.

Successes

The movement's achievements can lay the ground work for future unity in action, convergence between different struggles, and strong ongoing fight backs around key issues. These include the ongoing fight against rising homelessness and the interrelated struggle against the gentrification of Vancouver's DTES neighbourhood (Canada's lowest-income postal code).

The slogan "No Olympics on Stolen Native Land" circulated prominently, highlighting indigenous struggles for sovereignty and the defence of aboriginal title to the land. Indigenous issues were strongly linked to homelessness and anti-poverty issues. Indigenous people make up at least 35 per cent of the homeless, although they comprise only two per cent of the population of greater Vancouver.

The separately organized 19th annual women's memorial march took place February 14. It was not an anti-Olympic event, but anti-Olympic organizers expressed solidarity. It highlighted the many still outstanding and ongoing issues related to missing and murdered indigenous women. The dignified, powerful and moving march drew around 2000 people, the largest turnout yet.

A mass march  on February 12 was built on a grassroots basis on  a shoestring budget over the opposition of the NDP leadership (which supported the Olympics) and the top echelons of the trade union officialdom. It was a success in both size and diversity.

The slogan that drew the most universal support was "Homes Not Games." However, I was struck by the widespread support for the organizing slogan, "No Olympics on Stolen Native Land." Some (mostly after the fact) have argued this should not have been a primary focus in organizing since not everyone opposed to the Olympics agreed with it. But I was quite heartened by the high visibility of indigenous issues in terms of the platform, banners and indigenous flags and the turn out from indigenous communities. When you take a clear stand and tell the truth about the colonial oppression of the Canadian, past and present, many will be open to listening and learning.

Some signs highlighted opposition to the massive and absurdly costly ($1 billion) security presence and the police state atmosphere. Other important slogans raised issues of climate justice ("Homes Not Freeways," "Gateway Sucks"), and the corporate control and green washing efforts of the corporate sponsors (the Council of Canadians was involved in building the February 12 action). The anti-war coalition Stop War had a visible presence, asking "You believe in war, occupation and torture? In the theft of indigenous lands? The Canadian government does."

The intersection between activists from different sectors and campaigns was striking. The strongest link was between indigenous, housing and anti-poverty issues, but many other people drew together, including anti-racist, anti-war, climate justice, youth, student, feminist, GLBT and anti-corporate activists.

Small socialist left groups and individual socialists were present and there was good turnout from the broad left. I saw a number of trade union activists but only one solitary union banner from a brave teachers' union local.

The events were very diverse in age and experience and included both veterans and many newcomers to the movement. The substantial presence of young people offers hope for future struggles.

The most successful militant action that took place during the Olympics was the Tent City. Several hundred people successfully occupied a vacant lot (the epicentre of planned gentrification of the DTES) owned by Concord Pacific, Canada's largest real estate developer, which had been temporarily leased as a parking space to the Olympics Organizing Committee (VANOC). This occupation was successfully maintained throughout the games. It was organized by the Power of Women Group (including indigenous women from the DTES Women's Centre) and other community groups such as Streams of Justice and Van Act. A group of indigenous elders played an important role in decision making. The camp witnessed some unprecedented interactions between indigenous people, other homeless and marginalized DTES residents, activists and supporters, including many young people. The high level of legitimacy and public support, as well as effective security and provision of food, kept things running. Tangible gains were made as some 40 camp residents received permanent housing.

Earlier, militants with community backing had sat down in the street and successfully forced the rerouting of the torch relay from entering the heart of the DTES.  Several hundred people took the street in an action organized by community groups and kept the torch relay completely off Commercial Drive (a long-time left-leaning neighbourhood). A few hundred people marched on the closing day of the Olympics, defying a rising tide of hockey fever, drunkenness, patriotism and national chauvinism.

Other approaches including the satirical Poverty Olympics drew 700 and highlighted Vancouver's poverty issues to the world. Close to 1000 people participated in a march and rally for a national housing strategy (which had the blessing of the NDP and labour leaders). The Pivot Legal Society's red tent campaign tried symbolically to highlight Homes for All. The BC Civil Liberties Association and Pivot trained 400 neutral legal observers. The ORN also organized its own legal observers; many protesters felt much more comfortable with a group that was clearly on their side.

The ORN organized an anti-capitalist convergence under the framework of "diversity of tactics." A conference included useful discussion on a number of topics from indigenous struggles for sovereignty and defence of the land to links with others in the anti-Olympic movement, including Sochi 2014, targeting Olympic sponsors, legal defence, a radical understanding of the role of the law and creative protests. All told, probably a few hundred people including people who had come to Vancouver from many centres in the Canadian state attended.

People attending had different priorities for action. But many were enthused by the planned
2010 Heart Attack action. It was billed as a full diversity of tactics action, with room  for autonomous actions (including by the Black Bloc).

Political Differences and the Debate around Feb. 13


Differences of perspective existed before the Olympic organizing, and were brought very much to the forefront around tactical issues.

Analytically, it is useful to distinguish between two broad currents: radical anti-capitalist supporters of direct action, predominately anarchist-influenced, and the more moderate current influenced by social democratic politics and emphasizing civil liberties and small reforms. However, this grossly oversimplifies and does not encompass all views (including those of many community activists, as well as Marxists in the anti-capitalist current).

The February 12 action was united and feisty and more militant than most symbolic protests. We snake marched to get around police barricades and get close to BC Place, led by indigenous elders from the Power of Women group and backed by a No One is Illegal contingent. The Black Bloc was also present, with the organizers' full blessing. At the end, the militant elements pressed forward, creating a tense standoff with the police (made worse by the presence of some agents provocateurs in the crowd). Meanwhile, the majority of the crowd, having made their point and feeling no desire to be party to a Black Bloc/police confrontation, melted away.

On February 13, the Black Bloc engaged in modest actions that were offensive rather than defensive in character, breaking show windows at The Bay featuring Olympics merchandise. As soon as this act occurred, the VPD attacked and arrests were made (including people who obviously had no involvement in the damage to property).

Almost as quickly, a propaganda counter-offensive was launched against the Black Bloc.

A vigorous defensive of civil liberties and free speech around anti-Olympics protest had created a new balance of forces. But now elements of the ruling class jumped on what they believed was the weakest link in the movement: the lack of broad public support for tactics employed by the Black Bloc. The "good protester" versus "bad protester" dichotomy was played to the hilt in a bid to divide and conquer.

During the Olympics, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson played a double game, a reflection of his party Vision Vancouver's dual base (backed by labour leaders and heavily funded by developers). Robertson spoke for justice, pledging to end homelessness by the end of his second term, but said nothing to stop gentrification, which contributes to homelessness and the displacement of poor people. Similarly, Robertson strongly praised the Olympics but sought to convey a benign image of Vancouver in which peaceful dissent is tolerated.

The VPD fell back upon the endlessly repeated mantra that peaceful protests would be tolerated, but violent and criminal acts would not (in their frame of reference this clearly included property destruction). They stuck to their game plan and were unfortunately able to portray themselves in the eyes of most people as reasonable. There were no police riots, clouds of teargas, rubber bullets, mass arrests or flagrant acts of police brutality captured by the cameras.

As a result, some civil liberties advocates went so far as to praise "police restraint." But they completely missed the mark in failing to emphasize the Machiavellian and very sleazy behaviour of VPD and national security forces away from the cameras. This included intimidation and active disruption, dirty tricks by security forces, use of agents provocateurs and highly selective repression aimed at the ORN and local anarchists.

David Eby, the Executive Director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, publicly described the window breaking on February 13 as disgusting and illegitimate. Eby could have ducked the issue but chose not to. He was acting in his own self-interest (he had run unsuccessfully for a Vision Vancouver nomination for City Council and perhaps harbours further political ambitions) and on behalf of "respectable" organizations that want nothing to do with property- destroying law-defying tactics. Eby's comments drew an angry reaction from radicals. He was aggressively pied and criticized in hostile way at public events by supporters of the Black Bloc.

The counter-reaction to February 13 included its share of right-wing patriotic ranters, but the main offensive took place along liberal democratic lines. The ORN tried to construct a very different narrative premised on the "diversity of tactics" approach (which means different things to different people). Many radicals believed the February 13 action was a success, while others chose not to judge others' actions and/or were committed to defending activists subjected to state repression.

The ORN, despite taking much public flack, remains committed to maintaining solidarity. There will be a campaign to raise funds and support for the legal defence of the people facing criminal charges. The ORN arguments resonated in the radical left and among some indigenous and poor people subject to police violence and repression. But they appear to have little resonance beyond these circles.

In assessing what happened on February 13, we need to remember that capitalism has unleashed massive violence through imperialist wars and fascism, killing millions of people. Property destruction doesn't rate as violence.

Many different tactics and forms of struggle have been employed in the long history of popular class and revolutionary struggle. It is not useful to make abstract decisions about what is legitimate. Rather, we need to examine specific situations and contexts to assess what advances our struggles and what doesn't.

The most illuminating attempt at discussing the issues was a debate on February 20 between Harsha Walia (from No One is Illegal and ORN) and Derrick O'Keefe (from Stop War and formerly the editor of rabble.ca), "A Diversity of Tactics: A Diversity of Opinions." Opinion in the crowd ran strongly in favour of the  position argued by Harsha Walia -- an indication of the mood among many anti-capitalist radicals.

Left critics of the particular attacks on property on February 13 have emphasized the need to raise as much support as possible for radical actions and ideas.  Militant actions can sometimes play a key role in building a movement. However, to create another world we need not just the militant actions of hundreds but the collective actions and support of huge numbers  of people.

Actions can clearly have many different objectives. However, from the perspective of increasing public support, the tactics of February 13 didn't communicate well to people outside the radical milieu and were ineffective. (Some have argued they even set back the movement, although this is very hard to gauge.)

Among many radical social movement activists, the notion of diversity of tactics has become axiomatic. In general, this is a sound perspective that reflects reality. But can it also lead to political problems?

Supporters of diversity of tactics emphasise unity and solidarity. They feel criticism and debate should be internal to the movement and not take the form of public attacks in the press. There are obvious examples where public attacks do damage movements.

Debriefs for those involved in movement actions can provide some room for feedback. The difficulty is that discussions have their own dynamics. Much movement discussion is not strictly internal; rather it occurs in a wide variety of semi-public and public arenas. This creates a very large grey area.

However, full freedom of debate is essential to building a healthy movement. People can learn and make up their own minds through the vigorous exchange of ideas. We should thus avoid trying to silence movement discussions no matter what particular forms they take.

There are also many nuances around tactics. Sometimes tactics can be overly image-conscious and this can have a conservatizing impact. By contrast, other tactics aim to up the ante and raise the level of confrontation. Some radicalizing people will be drawn to participate in or sympathize with actions that represent the front lines of struggle. However these gains can be offset if the actions remains isolated and without wider support.

Aftermath

Debates highlighted the large gulf between the approaches of the direct action Black Bloc-influenced currents and other sections of the Left. These frictions could pose problems for future unity in action, let alone ongoing alliances.

However, in other ways the movement is potentially in good shape. The unity and public awareness achieved lays a very strong foundation for taking future actions against homelessness and gentrification. These struggles are likely to continue and deepen.

Conflicts over capitalist resource development are ongoing. Indigenous defenders of the land are asserting their right of control over resource use. These struggles are heating up in BC and foundations have been laid for greater solidarity.

Meanwhile, the cutback-oriented BC and federal budgets and Vancouver's post-Olympic  shortfalls  will hit necessary  services for people hard - and much worse is yet to come. There will be ample opportunities for resistance, especially if people from different movements (who had positive experiences working together in the anti-Olympic fight back) can come together and unite in common struggle.


Harold Lavender is an editor of New Socialist. He was involved in the 2010 Welcoming Committee and participated as an activist in many (though far from all) of the events described.

 

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