Hurting the cause

Violence turns the locals against anti-Olympic protesters

Hurting the causeVancouver, a visiting writer once remarked, “can dress up and act quite sophisticated when she wants.” Never has the city looked as chic as it did last week, with streets festooned in the colours of an Olympic celebration and lineups for star-studded parties winding around its city blocks. But when masked protesters descended on the downtown core on the first day of competition—smashing windows and spray-painting cars—Vancouver flashed another side of her multi-faceted personality: one that likes to drop the gloves.

No sooner had the black-clad demonstrators broken windows at the Bay department store and TD Tower than average folks began abandoning the safety of hotel rooms and waterfront condos to defend the city’s honour. “These people are trying to cause damage to Vancouver,” said 29-year-old Jon Reisenger, a Canadian who lives in Spokane, Wash. “The less of this mess the news media can see, the better it is for Vancouver.” Reisenger, who came to the Olympics as part of an organization that provides product discounts for athletes, spent his morning righting the newspaper and mailboxes the protesters had overturned and dragged into the street. At times, he verbally sparred with the marchers, laughing off their threats to do him harm.

One group of angry residents managed to isolate a male demonstrator who had a green bandana 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 back. And with that, the protester stormed away.

Even some of the locals whose interests the protesters purport to represent lashed back. Brannon Brassard, a resident of the city’s hard-scrabble Downtown Eastside for the past 15 years, dismissed the spectacle as an excuse to run riot. He bristled when a middle-aged, seemingly middle-class woman walking with the marchers asked if he “believed in homelessness.” “Lady,” he said with a shake of his head, “I’ve been homeless.”

The hostility comes as something of a surprise, as polls leading up to the Games suggested the public sympathized with Olympic critics and their grab bag of causes. In one B.C.-wide survey, fewer than one out of two polled figured the event would have a positive impact on their province. Callers to Vancouver radio shows complained about traffic interruptions, the cost to taxpayers, and the disruptions caused by the construction phase of the Games.

But the crankiness dissipated as athletes and visitors began flooding into the city. And when an opening-day protest forced a diversion of the final torch relay, causing a group of veterans to miss the event, sentiment toward the demonstrators soured. By the following morning, when the window-smashing took place, members of the public were literally cheering on the riot squad as it clattered through the city’s west end, blocking off the troublemakers with bodies, batons and shields. Three people faced charges, and the general attitude was best summed up by a woman reading the paper at a nearby diner: “They come here to break our windows. I’d like to see someone break their legs.”

Police could take at least partial credit for the turn in public opinion, as their refusal to get dragged into physical confrontations won favour in a city that remembers vividly the pepper-spraying of peaceful protesters during an APEC conference in 1997. They also employed an effective divide-and-conquer strategy that involved splitting the most unruly mobs into smaller groups, leaving them scattered and conspicuously less confident. Jim Chu, the city’s police chief, said the officers aimed to pry away the harder, “criminal element” who “hide among the legitimate protesters.”

All of it has left more peaceful demonstrators—representing causes ranging from environmental conservation to Aboriginal land claims—in a quandary. They won’t get much attention unless they force some sort of confrontation. But the self-styled anarchists willing to step over the line are angering their intended audience—if not outright scaring them. Even the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, a supporter of the right of protesters to use the Games as a platform, abandoned its practice of sending observers to ensure police don’t abuse their authority when it heard last week’s march might get ugly. “We have to assess everything for the safety of our observers,” spokesman David Eby told the Vancouver Sun.

Jasmin Mujanovic, a 23-year-old marcher who watched things get out of hand last Saturday, wasn’t about to apologize for his more militant comrades. “There are more homeless people in this city right now than there are athletes,” he said. “Nobody’s crying for them.” Perhaps. But as long as their advocates keep stirring the city’s inner tough guy, that seems unlikely to change.