Activists Debate Vancouver Olympic Protests

After years of organizing work, the protest movement around the Vancouver Winter Olympics can proudly claim a number of important victories. A vibrant demonstration of thousands met the corporate spectacle head on, marching to within metres of the Opening Ceremonies at B.C. Place February 12.


The ‘Welcoming Committee’ that organized this mass protest was representative of the range of groups challenging the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Vancouver Games conveners (VANOC).


The achievements of this movement include: Pushing back hard against attempts to restrict free assembly and speech, exposing the “greenwashing” of the Games, and raising awareness of homelessness and indigenous rights issues. The IOC brand was successfully dented and the longer-term impact of the Games illuminated. Over the course of the Games, a host of creative direct actions and protests pushed demands for social justice.


However, there were also missed opportunities, and some acrimonious debate in the activist community.


The ‘dualism’ of an event like the Olympics was perhaps not seriously enough considered. It’s a two-week sporting event and mass spectacle, replete with tons of free activities for the general public – it’s not the same as a meeting of the world’s bankers and politicians. In fact, many if not the vast majority of those critical of the Games and their impact, and critical of the anti-democratic depredations of the IOC – people who would have preferred public resources had gone to housing, health care, education, and other urgent needs – still enjoy watching the world’s greatest hockey players, or going out to see a free show, or just walking about and seeing and meeting folks from around the world.


I think this dualism was missed or underestimated by some of us in the protest movements, and as a result opportunities for creative outreach around a range of social justice issues have been given less energy than they might have.


The main focus of controversy has been a protest action billed as a Heart Attack (‘to clog the arteries of capitalism’), which marched through Vancouver’s downtown core on Saturday, February 13. In a crowd of 200 or 300, a number of people engaged in property destruction. The windows of TD Bank and the Hudson’s Bay Company were smashed, newspaper boxes were overturned, private vehicles vandalized – confrontations with the police and angry members of the general public ensued. Such incidents are frequently the work of unwanted intruders. But in this case, many supporters of the action affirmed that the destruction was planned by participants in a ‘Black Bloc’ contingent.


The Olympic Resistance Network and some other activists declared this action a success, while many others of us questioned its effectiveness. We were initially told, by some, that to raise concerns about the action was to “break solidarity.” This is a major tenet of the notion of “respect for diversity of tactics,” wherein no tactics are ruled out ahead of time and criticism remains internal. In practice, this can mean suppression of open debate in the activist community, especially since, in this case, the groups that had signed on to “diversity of tactics” represented only a part of those groups organizing around the Games.


Defending the action in, Alex Hundert claims that all participants in the ‘Heart Attack’ knew what was going to happen, despite the fact that uncertainty is a central tenet of diversity of tactics action:


“Anyone who says that they didn’t know what was going to happen is lying. There were 200 people in black with masks on, and ‘Riot 2010’ has been a rallying call for the movement for more than two years now. Everyone knew what was going to happen, and they all marched anyway.”


This statement is false. Many of those who went along on the ‘Heart Attack’ did not know what was going to take place – and the actions did not even communicate clearly with some of them. One activist, a woman of colour who grew up under a military dictatorship, explained:


“Some of those who engaged in property destruction appeared not to have solidarity with other protesters, displaying a hostile attitude towards some other participants and even independent media members, as well as the general public. This looked like kids playing at street fighting and mocks the struggles of Third World people who have at times had to use violent tactics to liberate themselves.”


Eric Doherty, a long-time environmental activist in Vancouver, put it this way:


“I was at the Heart Attack, and I expected strategic and targeted property destruction. I worried that there might be ‘trashing’ at random; unfortunately that is a lot of what happened. Some of it just looked dumb, like the plastic garbage bin dumped out on the quiet side road – littering does not block traffic.… This is not a condemnation of the black bloc tactic. It is a critique of what was done by people in black on one particular day.”


And on this basis, a critique of particular actions can still be done in the framework of movement building and solidarity. The same vigorous critique needs to be applied to all tactics and to all sectors of the progressive movements, from electoral politics, to NGOs and the labour movement.


No matter the radical and no doubt commendable motivations of many of those who used the Black Bloc tactic, and of those who engaged in property destruction at the Vancouver action, the result was a setback for the broad movement.


In the rabble article, Hundert asserts, “The Black Block is a wrecking ball tactic that makes space for more mainstream or creative tactics.” But part of making space involves the receptiveness of the public to your overall message. The action failed to communicate clearly with that public, whose reaction was overwhelmingly one of disgust, confusion or even fear. This was evident from hundreds of letters to the editor, and hundreds and thousands of conversations with ordinary people, even those predisposed to be critical of the Games.


The action didn’t create political space; it shut it down. And it served up a PR coup for the Vancouver Police and the Olympic organizers. No doubt this was in part whipped up by the corporate media, but that was an entirely predictable outcome. As author and Olympics critic Chris Shaw put it, it was VANOC’s “wet dream,” because it helped justify the $1 billion dollar security budget. Especially given that the authorities in Vancouver had refused to rule out the use of agent provocateurs, we must question the use of a “tactic” that inherently makes easier agent provocateur infiltration.


There are times and places where property destruction, sabotage and even armed resistance are necessary and effective. But the use of any tactic has to flow from a coherent strategy, and should be part of an effort to mobilize as broad a movement as possible. Effective use of civil disobedience is all about communicating with the people you are trying to win over. If the tactic you employ is not understandable to them, it’s counter-productive.


“Respect for diversity of tactics”, it must be frankly put, has become something of a shibboleth in parts of the Left today. A healthy Left shouldn’t let any shibboleth go unquestioned. In Vancouver, it was invoked to tell some of us to shut up. We didn’t. On this basis, I hope that we can count the debate around diversity of tactics as one positive outcome of the events in Vancouver.


With the G8/G20 looming and authorities promising to impose a “fortress Toronto,” we all need to be able to debate fully and frankly, and not be afraid to, if necessary, democratically decide to exclude certain tactics.

Leave a comment