VANCOUVER, Feb 15, 2010 (IPS) – The 2010 Winter Olympics opened with the largest protest convergence in the history of the Games.
Approximately 3,000 protesters of diverse backgrounds converged on Vancouver Friday afternoon, assembling for a peaceful yet boisterous rally and march through the downtown streets to the steps of BC Place, the site of the Games’ opening ceremonies.
As throngs of activists filled the Vancouver Art Gallery – indigenous, anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, environmentalist, anarchist, anti-war, pro-civil liberty, and anti-poverty alike – speakers laid out a laundry list of grievances against the Games.
The speeches opened with homage to the Coast Salish people, on whose unceded territory the demonstration took place. The march itself was led by Native Elders, while the most prominent chant heard was "No Olympics on stolen Native land."
Olympic Resistance Network organizer Sozan Savehilaghi said, "The Olympics are taking place on lands that have never been surrendered. The people that are going to be impacted in a negative way the most are indigenous people; they have the highest rates of poverty, of abuse, and they are highly over-represented in prisons."
One Native spokeswoman from the Downtown Eastside, home of the country’s "poorest postal code," told the audience to "send a prayer to people who think it’s all right to spend this kind of money while people are dying and living in poverty."
A recent tally by the Vancouver Sun estimated that at least eight billion dollars will be spent on the Games, and there are an estimated 15,000 homeless people in British Columbia. According to a report released by University of British Columbia researchers last December, the number of homeless in Vancouver more than doubled in the years leading up to the Games.
Accordingly, the slogan "homes not games," was found on many placards, and was a popular chant both before and during the march.
David Eby of the BC Civil Liberties Association called the intrusive role played by the police against anti-Olympic protesters in advance of the Games, "an embarrassment to the country."
Harassment, surveillance, and attempted infiltration of the anti-Olympics movement has been part of the nearly one-billion-dollar security budget that has seen more than 15,000 police, military, and private security put the Olympic venues and surrounding areas on virtual lockdown for the duration of the Games.
"The people who’ve spoken out against the Games have been visited at their homes, at their work, by the police, as if there is something illegal about saying they do not support the spending of public money on this enterprise," said Eby.
Christopher Shaw, member of the No Games 2010 Coalition and author of "Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games", praised those who gathered to protest, while denouncing the "hooliganism, the boosterism, and all the false patriotism that surrounds the games."
Speaking to the B.C. legislature on Thursday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper led what the Canadian Press called a "nationalistic charge," unfurling a Canadian flag and pronouncing, "Patriotism, ladies and gentlemen, patriotism as Canadians should not make us feel the least bit shy or embarrassed."
Placards carried by marchers spoke to the diversity of reasons behind the protests. "Dirty Oilympics funded by tar sands," expressed the environmental opposition to the Games, while "End Corporate Rule" spoke to popular discontent toward the corporate sponsorship of the Games.
Council of Canadians spokesperson Harjap Grewal called the tar sands, "the biggest most destructive [industrial] project on the planet," and listed a number of the Olympics’ corporate sponsors that are "profiting off the tar sands" and using the Games to engage in "greenwashing".
Whereas many of the throngs of onlookers and passerby were bespeckled in the red and white colors of the Team Canada, several marchers carried the flag of the Mohawk Warrior Society, a militant Native organization that seeks to protect indigenous land, language, and culture.
The march came to a stop on the steps of BC Place, where the opening ceremonies unfolded as scheduled. Over 200 police made a human wall to prevent protesters from reaching the site. As several police on horseback loomed behind the police line, protesters chanted, "Get those animals off those horses!"
Tensions rose as traffic pilons, water bottles, and sticks were thrown across the police line. Police commanders used the commotion to physically push the protesters back, causing a series of brief melees. Two protesters were arrested.
After a nearly two-hour standoff, organizers announced that people should go home and reconvene for additional protests throughout the Olympics.
Following the march, Savehilaghi told reporters, "We were successful in getting our message across, in coming to [BC] place and marching down here and voicing our concerns about the Olympics."
In contrast to the relatively peaceful rally and march on Friday, early on Saturday morning, approximately 300 activists took to the streets for a march dubbed "heart attack," which aimed to "clog the arteries of capitalism" and cause a disruption to the Games.
Although mostly a peaceful demonstration, direct action tactics were carried out by what police called a "number of anarchists…a loosely organised group of thugs." Tactics included smashing the windows of corporate sponsors, overturning newspaper boxes, and vandalism.
Whereas on the eve of the Games, Royal Canadian Mounted Police Assistant Commander Bud Mercer told CNN that they would be overseen by "friendly security," police on Saturday wore full riot gear as they clashed with protesters.
Saturday’s clashes with police resulted in at least seven arrests. The Vancouver Police Department issued a release denouncing "a criminal element within the legitimate protesters."
Gord Hill of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation, and spokesperson for No2010.com, said "The [International Olympic Committee] and [the Vancouver Organizing Committee] is the criminal element, pillaging public coffers, the effects of which we will see long after the Games."
Hill also disagreed that the level of force used by the police was proportionate to that used by the protesters, adding, "Buildings are not made of flesh and tissue. They are made of concrete and steel."
Sixty organizations endorsed a statement released by the Olympics Resistance Network on Saturday, which stopped short of denouncing the "heart attack" protest, stating instead "we should avoid characterizations such as ‘bad’ or ‘violent’ protesters. We respectfully request that all those in opposition to the 2010 Olympics maintain our collective and unified commitment to social justice and popular mobilization efforts in the face of massive attempts to divide us."
Various protests are slated to continue throughout the Games, including a protest on Monday by the local anti-war organization, StopWar, against "Olympics security, militarization of our city, and our country’s treacherous role in the occupations of Afghanistan and Haiti."
Prior to the Games, Canada’s Governor-General Michaelle Jean unveiled the Olympic Truce Wall at the Olympic Village, stating, "Building peace does not mean simply laying down our weapons."
Last week, local activist and author Derrick O’Keefe recalled in Vancouver’s Georgia Straight weekly newspaper that in 1980, Canada and the U.S. led a boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
"Thirty years later, it is the United States, Canada, and the other NATO countries that are occupying Afghanistan. Instead of a boycott, the Vancouver 2010 Olympics are being used to promote militarism in general and Canada’s role in the occupation of Afghanistan in particular."
*With additional reporting from the Vancouver Media Cooperative (VMC).