Black Bloc Taints Anti-Olympic Movement
Destructive tactics fail to attract public sympathy for the cause and alienate moderate activists
The performance of the anti-Olympic protest movement over the past two weeks bears resemblance to certain Canadian skiers who over-reached, lost their form and crashed.
The shambolic and small group of black-clad anarchists who threw a newspaper box at the downtown Hudson's Bay Co. store on the first day of the Olympics -- shocking Olympic revellers queuing for fuzzy red mittens -- did more than crack a store window.
They splintered the unity of the far-left anti-Olympic protest against the "Olympic industry" and athletes such as Alexandre Bilodeau and Maelle Ricker going for gold on "stolen native land."
They also further marginalized the Olympic Resistance Network, the main protest group, which had already failed to connect with middle-class left-liberal people in Vancouver who shared some of its concerns over spending billions of dollars on the Olympics rather than ending poverty.
The violent tactics of the black-bloc anarchists, a fringe subculture within a fringe political sub-culture, sparked a fierce debate in the anti-Olympic movement.
Many left-wing posters on various websites have even wondered whether the anarchists (whether they are true anarchists is a subject too complex to discuss here) were agents provocateurs assigned by the police to deep-six the anti-Olympic cause.
The division caused by the street-fighting on the morning of Saturday, Feb. 13, produced a farcical moment last week when B.C. Civil Liberties Association executive director David Eby was struck by a pie in the face for having told reporters that he was "sickened" by the riot.
The pie-attack came just before Eby spoke at a public debate about the street riots.
The BCCLA official went on to denounce the black-bloc types, who had comically argued that their vandalism was an attack on 'the elites."
"If there was any damage to the status quo by Saturday's tactics, it was fleeting," Eby said.
"What was not fleeting was the damage caused by those tactics to public support for the wider Olympic accountability effort and criticism of overspending on police by 2010."
Eby said at the debate that many people are uneasy about staging an "Olympic spectacle" while the city's homeless numbers increase.
"But will Saturday's tactics encourage them to try to understand us?" Eby said. "Or will it give them the excuse they need to ignore us and go on partying?"
The black bloc, a tactic used by some self-styled anarchists, typically involves wearing black clothing and often balaclavas to avoid identification. The tactic was developed in Europe in the '80s by anti-nuclear activists and gained notoriety during the Battle of Seattle when a small group of young, hardcore anarchists broke away from the much larger anti-World Trade Organization protest and vandalized Starbucks, the Gap and other chain retailers.
The black-bloc action in Seattle sparked debate in the anti-globalization movement over such tactics -- and has done so again in Vancouver.
Chris Shaw, the Vancouver General Hospital medical researcher who has become one of the city's most prominent anti-Olympic activists, said during the debate last week that the black-bloc tactics had sabotaged the protest movement.
Shaw said the rioting pulled the media's focus away from the "Olympic industry" and Vancouver's social problems and onto protest violence.
The street-fighting, he added, was a "wet dream" for the Integrated Security Unit, which handles all policing matters related to the Olympics.
The black-bloc brawlers created an image of protesters, Shaw said, as a "bunch of black-clad people who hate kittens and rainbows and everything else -- and just want to riot in the street."
Both Eby and Shaw were heckled at the debate for not adhering to an informal agreement to respect "diversity of tactics," which is code for not criticizing fellow protesters who damage property or assault the police or bystanders.
Other anti-Olympic leaders have defended the black-bloc anarchists and their decision to mask their identities with balaclavas.
Harsha Walia, a key Olympic Resistance Network (ORN) activist, has argued that the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, Mexico wore similar masks (as if B.C. is a place of widespread poverty where labour activists and left-wing politicians are murdered). She also said -- contrary to Eby and Shaw -- that these tactics can help spur mass movements (as if Vancouver is on the verge of class warfare rather than in the middle of the biggest and giddiest party it's ever seen.)
Sean Condon, editor of Megaphone, a newspaper sold by low-income people, wrote on a local website that most Canadians are turned off by the direct-action tactics of the anarchists.
"Most Canadians live comfortable and peaceful lives and while they might sympathize with those that do not, they lack the necessary connection ... needed to prompt them to start smashing corporate symbols or challenging the police."
The debate has extended also to whether it was smart politics to focus demands for social change around the demonization of the Olympics, which has clearly brought delight to the masses.
Derrick O'Keefe, a peace activist and member of the ORN, wrote on a local website that the anti-Olympic movement failed to take into account that the Olympics also appeal to British Columbians who had misgivings about staging the Games in Vancouver.
"The fact is that many, if not the majority of those critical of the Games ... still enjoy watching the world's greatest hockey players or going out to see a free show, or just walking around and seeing and meeting folks from around the world," Keefe said.
The challenge of appealing to a broad demographic by attacking the Olympics was evident during the opening ceremony at BC Place Stadium.
The protest only attracted about 1,500 people, a small number considering the more than five years organizers had to rally supporters -- and considering the tens of thousands of people who have turned out for peace and political demonstrations in Vancouver and Victoria in recent decades.
If the protesters had a poor Olympics, the Vancouver police department must be feeling like it won a gold medal. Even the BCCLA's Eby, often a strong critic of the VPD, has praised its restraint in handling dissent during the Olympic period, especially during the protest outside BC Place Stadium.
He also said that "there was a tone set up in the lead-up to the Olympics about not wanting to have a repeat of APEC and I think the police heard that message and responded to it."
RCMP officers at the 1997 APEC Summit in Vancouver were criticized in the media and by a public inquiry for using excessive force, including pepper-spraying and pre-emptive arrest, against demonstrators.
Eby and other civil libertarians may have wanted to avoid another APEC, but it's unclear whether some of the more hardcore members of ORN shared that sentiment.
During the BC Place standoff between protesters and police at Beatty and Robson streets, some of the protesters seemed to be trying to provoke the police into using APEC-style force. This minority of demonstrators verbally abused the police when they weren't spitting or spraying vinegar or hurling objects at them.
"There was a deliberate attempt to provoke the police into an over-reaction," VPD Deputy Chief Steve Sweeney said. "But it also failed."
Sweeney said the VPD learned from the APEC episode and now tries to minimize its presence at demonstrations, with police riding bikes or wearing baseball caps rather than coming on heavy from the get-go with Darth Vader-style riot gear.
"We're going to escalate our tactics based on the dictates of the crowd," Sweeney said. "We don't want to present a hard image right away because that level of force isn't necessary."
Sweeney said that many of the VPD's crowd-control officers receive special training in Britain and are selected for their ability to be patient and not overreact under pressure.
"We don't want to take actions that would predicate more violence," Sweeney said.
The VPD's point man for Olympic security issues is pleased that the worst-case draconian measures predicted by anti-Olympic activists never happened.
"There was a lot of manufactured hysteria," Sweeney said. "There was speculation that we would round people up in the Downtown Eastside, that there would be protest pens, that the Assistance to Shelter Act would be used to force the homeless into shelters -- and none of that has proven to be true."
Twelve people have been arrested and six people charged for disturbing the peace, assault, assault of a police officer and mischief.
Sweeney said that the police were determined to protect anti-Olympic protest, so long as it was lawful and didn't interfere with the right of others to enjoy the Games.
"There was a legitimate anti-Olympic movement, but there was also a component that was here for destructive purposes. And I think the tactics of that small group did harm to the legitimate protesters."