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Upon arrival at Vancouver International Airport everything was smooth, suave, and sparkly. I immediately encountered colorful billboards splashed with 2010 Winter Olympic Games ad copy blending gold medals, commercial merchandise, and sports clichés. I was barraged with offers of assistance by friendly folks donning shiny nametags and chartreuse vests emblazoned with the official Olympic logo.
But as I took mass transit into downtown Vancouver—where the Olympic Games opening ceremonies will take place on Friday—I began to sense what activist Harsha Walia of No One Is Illegal and the Olympic Resistance Movement described as “the overall militarization of Vancouver, an encroaching police and surveillance state.”
Within sniffing distance of official venues like the Olympic Village this militarization is palpable, with a multiple-cop-a-corner mentality the norm. Chain link fences sheathed in teal-colored Olympic banners block off massive swathes of the urban center from public access. Police perpetually patrol the perimeter, handguns jutting from holsters. Helicopter buzz above, punctuated by the occasional whoosh of a CF-18 Hornet fighter jet.
Just behind the slick, smiley-faced façade of Olympic spirit, the Canadian state is flexing its militarized muscles, employing an array of tactics designed to suppress political dissent in the lead-up to the Olympics.
Meanwhile a parallel universe of anti-Olympic resistance thrums full-throttle. This movement marked by creative resistance and cross-class solidarity has achieved significant rollback of repressive measures, setting the stage for a showdown with state forces in the days to come.
The International Olympic Committee’s official charter forbids the expression of anti-Olympic dissent, stating in Rule 51,“No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
The City of Vancouver followed suit, issuing synergistic “2010 Winter Games By-laws” that demonstrated to the IOC its willingness to squelch free-speech rights. For instance, the “Sign By-Law” outlawed placards that were not “celebratory,” though one could still tote “a sign that celebrates the 2010 Winter Games, and creates or enhances a festive environment and atmosphere.” That meant anti-Olympic signs were a no-go and Canadian authorities had the right to remove such signs, even from private property.
After a legal challenge from the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) and plaintiffs Chris Shaw and Alissa Westergard-Thorpe, the city backed down, amending the by-laws to allow for anti-Olympic signage (though signs that don’t chime with the logos of Olympic corporate sponsors are still not permissible).
In 2003 Olympic boosters low-balled their estimate for the Olympic security budget at $175 million. Since then, security costs have ballooned to almost $1 billion, with taxpayers on the hook for a huge chunk of it. Much of this money has been spent on the Vancouver Integrated Security Unit (ISU), created specifically for the Olympics in 2003 by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Comprised of groups like the Vancouver Police Department, the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS—Canada’s top spy organization), and the Department of National Defense, the ISU patently shatters the thin glass wall between policing and military activity.
As the Olympics approach, the ISU has made numerous moves to intimidate activists and gather intelligence on them. For starters, there is a concern among activists and civil libertarians that ISU officials are infiltrating activist groups and that these undercover agents lack proper safeguards guiding their actions. In February 2009 B.C. Civil Liberties Association President Rob Holmes wrote letters to CSIS and the ISU asking for assurance that agents would not inflame tensions and tactics as agents provocateur or attempt “to influence the political direction, policy positions, or internal discussions of any organizations infiltrated by security forces.” In clipped, written responses, both CSIS and ISU officials refused to rule out the possibility that their infiltrating agents would break the law or try to assume leadership positions within anti-Olympic groups.
Law enforcement officials have also frequented the homes and workplaces of anti-Olympics activists as part of their “threat assessment” program. On January 20, 2010, ISU personnel visited the workspace of Vancouver-based dissident Franklin Lopez. An hour earlier, Lopez had filmed a public talk that political sportswriter Dave Zirin delivered at the Maritime Labour Centre in Vancouver. “To be honest,” Lopez told me, “I was not surprised, being that most people that I have been involved with either through friendship or through organizing have been visited, some multiple times.”
First Nations activist Gord Hill was also visited by the ISU’s Joint Intelligence Group after he offered strongly worded criticism of the Olympics in the media. It should be noted that the Olympics are taking place on unceded indigenous territory—hence, the slogan “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land” is plastered on kiosks across Vancouver, which sits on unceded Coast Salish territory. ISU officials visited Hill’s residence in October 2009, leaving their business cards when they did not find him home. Hill, from the Kwakwaka’wakw nation, promptly plunked images of these cards online along with an account he penned, “Statement by Gord Hill Regarding Visits by Olympic Police Agents.”
As David Eby, the Executive Director of the BCCLA, points out, treating activists as a “threat assessment” sends the message that anti-Olympic activists are neither to be trusted nor taken seriously: “The net effect is that the public has the perception as a result of the visits that the police are properly investigating these people because of their dissent. It becomes equivalent in the public mind to a threat to security.”
In addition to such face-to-face surveillance, nearly 1,000 surveillance cameras have been installed in Vancouver. According to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, around 900 CCTV cameras will be used at Olympic venues and another 50 to 70 will be deployed in other urban areas. A majority of the cameras have been leased rather than purchased outright, but normally surveillance camera companies offer the right of purchase at a deep discount, so while Canadian officials have asserted most of the cameras will come down after the Olympics, they may well argue later that it would be less expensive to just keep them installed.
Eby commented, “Our concern is that under the guise of a special state of exception, these cameras will be brought in and then they’ll become permanent.” Am Johal, the Board Chair of a Vancouver-based group called Impact on Community Coalition (IOCC), added, “There’s going to be a net expansion of cameras that will remain after the Games with pretty much little to no discussion of whether we wanted that in the city.” Johal views Olympics as a pretext for the intensification of the Canadian security apparatus.
The ISU has also ramped up its stock of high-tech weaponry, purchasing a Medium Range Acoustic Device (MRAD) for possible use against anti-Olympic activists. The MRAD emits painful, piercing sound that can damage human hearing. After pressure from activists, Canadian authorities have promised to erase the weapon function from the hard drive and only use the MRAD as a public address system—essentially a massive bullhorn, and a pricey one at that. The MRAD’s bigger, louder brother—the Long Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD—was used in Pittsburgh during the G20 meetings last September, much to the chagrin of protesters and their eardrums. The sonic weapon has also been deployed in Mosul, Iraq. The timing of the MRAD’s purchase—just before the Olympics—is suspicious, to say the least.
To assist in crowd control, the ISU has also planned “safe assembly areas” where protests can occur under the watchful eye of the authorities. In the US these are know as “free speech zones” but dissidents on both sides of the border more commonly refer to them as “protest pens.” The “safe assembly areas” have generated great confusion, as the Vancouver Police Department and RCMP have offered conflicting information about their locations, functions, and the rules that will inform their use.
Canada has also played border games with potential Olympics critics. In a highly publicized incident last November, Amy Goodman and two of her colleagues at Democracy Now! were detained and questioned on their way to Vancouver where Goodman was scheduled to speak at the public library. Suspicious she intended to speak out against the Olympics, border guards rifled through her personal effects and questioned her about the topics she intended to cover in her talk and whether one of them was the Winter Olympics. Just this week, Martin Macias Jr., a freelance radio journalist from Chicago, was held up and grilled by Canadian border officials regarding his knowledge of anti-Olympics activism.
Jittery Citizens and the Downtown Eastside
The police-induced intimidation anti-Olympic activists are experiencing has long been ingrained into the everyday existence of downtown eastside residents—an area often cited as the poorest postal code in Canada. But according to Harsha Walia, in the lead-up to the Olympic Games, the heightened police presence in the neighborhood has clicked into “full-on warfare” mode, “with four to six beat cops on every block in the neighborhood.”
While the mainstream media swarm the downtown eastside to collect poverty porn for middle-class public consumption, the Vancouver Police Department has been working furiously to sanitize the neighborhood so it doesn’t undermine the smooth-surfaced spectacle Olympic organizers so desperately wish to produce.
The number of homeless in Vancouver has more than doubled since the Olympic bid process began, thereby widening the scope of people susceptible to police intimidation and harassment. One element of the state’s legal arsenal is the “Assistance to Shelter Act” which allows police to round up homeless people and use force to remove them from the streets and place them in shelters. Walia dubs it the “Olympic Kidnapping Act” and notes that even if the police don’t use it to move people into shelters, it affords the cops an enhanced opportunity to interact with downtown eastside residents and to snatch them up on other charges, should any conflict arise.
There are also laws already on the books in Vancouver that usually remain either unenforced. Not so as the Olympics approaches. Selective enforcement is now the order of the day.
Take the case of longtime Vancouver activist Ivan Drury. On February 4, he was putting up anti-Olympics posters when he was stopped and handed a $100 ticket for “Defacing Poles (Posting Signs).” Drury reported, “I was confused because I have put up tens of thousands of posters in my life, all in Vancouver, and I have never gotten a ticket before. There were even a couple years where I was trying to get a ticket in order to launch a constitutional challenge against Vancouver’s anti-postering by-laws and I couldn’t get a ticket no matter how hard I tried.” This is clearly a new era: broken-window theory gone wild.
Police recently embarked on a ticketing blitz for minor municipal bylaw infractions like jaywalking and unlicensed street vending, zeroing their attention on the downtown eastside. Given the extreme material poverty of those receiving the tickets, many people are unable to pay the fines. This, in turn, shunts the vulnerable more firmly onto the treadmill of what Walia calls “the criminal injustice system.” In effect many of these laws criminalize who people are as much as what they do, as they’re disproportionately wielded against people of color, indigenous peoples, and the poor. This, notes Am Johal of the IOCC, is part of an intimidation process designed to silence those who might like to speak out against the Olympics.
Five-Ring Catalytic Converter
Despite intensified state suppression, activists have ramped up their resistance, with the anti-Olympics Convergence kicking off today, preempting the Olympic opening ceremony by two full days. The Convergence, which runs through the 15th is designed is to deepen already existing social movements, pressing the Global Justice Movement forward with energy and vision.
Media activists from the Vancouver Media Coop, W2 Community Media Arts, VIVO Media Arts, and other groups have the alternative-media machine firing on all cylinders, providing the public with up-to-date information, politically driven art, and all the news that’s unfit to print in the corporate media. There will be direct actions, mass rallies, festivals, art shows, a tent city going up in the downtown eastside. The Olympics has been catalyst for solidarity—a coalition of coalitions, a movement of movements—with numerous groups expressing their resistance to the Olympic Games. As Johal notes, “It’s about asserting human rights in the urban domain.”
All this hard work is already working. A recent poll found 50% of respondents in British Columbia do not expect the Olympics to have a positive impact on their province. Anti-Olympic activists have created this space of dissent for the population to saunter into.
Pierre de Coubertin, a key figure in the founding of the modern Olympic Games, once said, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”
Activists and organizers are taking this advice seriously. The Olympics promises to be a remarkable seventeen days, and it may just be the activists who take home the gold.
JULES BOYKOFF is the author of Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States (AK Press 2007) and The Suppression of Dissent: How the State and Mass Media Squelch USAmerican Social Movements (Routledge 2006). He is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Pacific University in Oregon.