Cops divide anti-Olympics protesters, and conquer them - Macleans.ca

Cops divide anti-Olympics protesters, and conquer them

Vancouver police strategy of passive enforcement is letting the air out of the protests. For now.

by

It was dubbed the “heart attack march.” The idea, said one demonstrator, was to clog the main arteries of downtown Vancouver “like a Big Mac clogs the ones in your body.”

Did it work? Well, traffic on Georgia Street did grind to a halt yesterday as about 200 protesters worked their way from downtown Vancouver to the West End, tipping mail and news boxes. The Lion’s Gate Bridge closed briefly, briefly cutting off the north side from downtown.

And the troublemakers inflicted a bit of damage, smashing windows at the TD Tower and the Bay department store—a corporate emblem of the Games as official supplier of the Canadian team apparel. Some of them defaced transit buses; others kicked cars. One masked demonstrator spray-painted the anarchy symbol on the side of an SUV carrying Olympic officials.

Still, a few cracked panes and some bemused motorists falls a long way short of what the organizers of this morning’s disruption must have envisioned. For months, a whole spectrum of protest movements have been promising to turn these Games into a platform for their assorted causes, from aboriginal land rights to homelessness. A few warned they’d get nasty if the police got in their way.

Yet so far they seem to be spinning their wheels, running up against public indifference and a platoon of riot cops who resolutely refuse to be drawn into confrontations. Seven demonstrators found themselves in handcuffs today while workmen quickly arrived to fix the broken glass on the damaged buildings. By noon, the Bay was back to selling it’s trademark maple leaf mittens.

The restraint of police answers in part one of the big questions hanging over the Games. Would these Olympics be defined by images of masked kids sacking the city and riot police knocking heads together?

If current trends hold, the answer is no.

The potential for ugliness was certainly there. With cops milling on street corners, and around the main Olympic sites, there was a discernible tension in the air. That tension rose after yesterday’s attempts to mar the torch relay and opening ceremonies. A couple of officers were hurt by flying bottles and sticks, testing the resolve of their colleagues to keep calm.

Today’s confrontations, said some of the young people on the ground, were a deliberate attempt to step up the stakes after last night’s more passive marchers ran up against the barricades well short of BC Place, where the opening extravaganza took place.

Using social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, ringleaders called on the faithful to strike on the first day of Olympic events, and warned participants to brace for trouble. “It was advertised as a bit more militant,” said Jasmin Mujanovic, a 23-year-old marcher told Maclean’s. “As you can see, the police made a large presence and put a stop to that.”

They did so using classic divide and conquer strategy. As the initially large mob of demonstrators marched up Robson Street toward downtown, waving a black anarchy flag, about two dozen police with shields suddenly rushed out from a side street. They formed a line across the street, blocking anyone from passing (several women carrying yoga mats were stopped and had to convince officers they weren’t with the protestors).

The standoff lasted about 20 minutes, protestors dancing, beating drums and playing a trombone while police maintained their human wall. Finally, without any apparent warning the police in the middle charged forward, pushing many of the protestors back down the hill. Meanwhile a group of bicycle police swept in and created a new line, with half the protestors now on the outside chanting “Let them go.” The police repeated this tactic until the protestors were fragmented into small groups. Some fled, a few were marched away in handcuffs.

More striking still was the open hostility the demonstrators encountered on the street. Jon Reisenger, a Canadian who lives in Spokane, Wash., followed the group, righting the newspaper and mailboxes the protestors overturned, snapping back at insults the marchers hurled his way. “These people are trying to cause damage to Vancouver,” shrugged the 29-year-old marketing manager, who came to the Olympics as part of an organization that provides discounts for athletes. “The less of this mess the news media can see, the better it is for Vancouver.”

Angry members of the public challenged one male demonstrator who had a green bandanna over his face. “I came out here and I did good,” he said defiantly. “And I’m going to go home tonight and sleep like a baby.” “Why don’t you take off that mask if you’re so damned proud?” someone shouted at him. He stormed away.

As with many anti-globalist, anti-capitalist marches, it was hard to make out a specific cause from the group. Lauren Gill, wearing a blue cloth badge reading “Fuck You and your Fucking Olympics,” said she supported the march but “I don’t support violence.” She said she was marching as part of a group of “feminist abolitionists” opposed to the sex trade industry. “That message wasn’t heard today,” she said because of the violence.

Another man in the crowd carried a giant placard saying,”Free Leonard Peltier,” in reference to the American native activist who is currently serving a double-life sentence for the murder of two FBI agents.

“If you want to put a banner to it, it’s social justice,” said Mujanovic, who travelled from York University in Toronto to participate in the protests. “There is a number of issues people are concerned about. Housing is a big one. Civil liberties are another. There’s also the destruction of the environment that happened as a result of all the venue and infrastructure that was built up for the Games.”

In any case, between the police tactics and the poor public reception, the demonstration slowly broke up into small bands of protesters darting through alleyways, in many cases texting their comrades in an effort to regroup.

All signs suggest they need a new strategy. The city’s police chief, Jimmy Chu, said today he and his officers are intent on prizing away the harder, “criminal element” who “hide within the legitimate protestors.” But the window smashers and spray-painters are about the demonstrators only hope of attracting much attention.

Which means the stakes are about to go way up in Vancouver. Or way down.

with files from Ken MacQueen and Jason Kirby

Filed under: