Violence or vandalism? Safe Assembly at Vancouver 2010

0 Posted by - February 19, 2010 - Blog, Policy

On Wednesday night, the Safe Assembly Newscast at VIVO, a local artist run media arts organization, was host to a tumultuous gathering of activists come to discuss the tactics of property damage used in last Saturday’s Heart Attack 2010 rally. The so-called “black block” vandalized newspaper boxes and smashed windows including the Hudson’s Bay. There were arrests, and the images of angry black-clad protesters breaking things and getting taken down by riot police whizzed around the world. Shortly after, David Eby, head of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), denounced the vandalism causing a furor within the anti-Olympic movement. Among other things, these events have caused a significant and deep rupture within the anti-Olympic movement itself.

About 100 or so local organizers and activists gathered in the VIVO studios. Many were from the Olympic Resistance Movement, but there was also a vocal contingent who supported the strategies of the ‘black block’. (And, it seems, there was a cop or two in attendance – a staffer told me that he served a beer to a guy who looked remarkably like the photo of one of the undercover cops recently outed at the Tent City protest in the Downtown East Side.) Even Libby Davies, Member of Parliament for Vancouver East, was there.

The mood in the room was tense. Before the newscast got underway, David Eby, BCCLA Executive Director, had a pie thrown in his face. The event set the tone for the evening.

Up first was a relative newcomer to the Vancouver media scene, the Vancouver Media Coop with a series of videos – one about the banner hung from the Cambie bridge denouncing homelessness, a pre-arranged protest by the Pivot Legal Society which allowed for the banner to be hung for 20 minutes and then taken down. It was a fitting story to open with, one that raised a key point of tension among the activists: what constitutes real protest? Many felt that the 20 minute “permitted protest” was absurd. There were some in the discussion who viewed all forms of permitted protest as ineffectual: either protest is threatening or it isn’t protest, they claimed.

The second video report from the Vancouver Media Coop was about the tent city that local activists and residents have built on a parking lot leased to VANOC. The tents – provided by Pivot Legal Defense – have been up for three days and it is quickly becoming ground zero for restive Olympiad dissent. Local residents and activists have transformed the unused lot into a campground filled mostly with the small red tents handed out by Pivot Legal Defense in their campaign to bring attention to homelessness during the Olympic games.

There are two interesting rumours about the property. One, that negotiations to secure the land for community use are well underway, and that little will be done during the course of the Games to disrupt the squatters. The other is that Concord Pacific who owns the land is bargaining for a development perk (zoning change, density increase, etc.) in return for being the heavy and lodging the complaint that would give the police cause to move on the camp. Local authorities are increasingly embarrassed about the visibility of the homelessness issue (so embarrassed that local governments have jointly opened a housing kiosk for foreign journalists that some believe are intended to divert journalists away from community groups, activists and the homeless themselves).

Meanwhile at the camp, banners have been strung along fences on Hastings Street declaring “Profits before people” and “Resist the 2010 Corporate Circus” to all who drive by on this major artery of traffic feeding the downtown Olympic party zone.

Chris Shaw, spokesperson and one of the key organizers of the Olympic Resistance Network, described the week in terms of the good, the bad and the ugly. Good: media coverage of the Friday Convergence bringing issues of poverty, the environment, and Olympic excesses and abuses of authority to public light in the international media. Bad: the ways in which the vandalism diminished the movement by shrinking who might want to participate from outside the ranks of the already converted. And Ugly: the lack of general consensus for the vandalism. According to some, many of the core groups mobilizing against the Olympics were surprised by the events in Saturday’s march.

The response in the room to Shaw’s presentation was an accusation of class politics, accusing Shaw and the others of a professional and privileged habit of leadership underpinning a frustration that they had not been in control. A lack of consensus for one was foundation for freedom for the next.

Still cleaning the aftermath of pie from his face, David Eby spoke at length and somewhat courageously to a hostile crowd explaining why he had publicly condemned the vandalism. The hub of his argument seemed to be quid pro quo and escalation. If activists use vandalism and threats, he reasoned, they lose the moral legitimacy to complain when similar tactics are used against them. And, once all tactics are embraced, the dialogue becomes one of escalation. Others countered that these stakes were already at play in the threats and violence used by the state. Once again, it was an impasse: one group’s untenable escalation was another’s inevitability.

Up next was a local independent journalist working with the Media Coop – Dawn Paley – who was at the Saturday protest. She described being asked at the rally by a CTV reporter why the activists were so angry. She told the reporter: because of stolen aboriginal land, because of capitalism and colonialism and poverty- and if you don’t put that on television, she said, you’re a liar. Of course, the reporter didn’t put it on television. Paley’s point: that the movement should not gauge its success through the mainstream media. She referred to Dr. Robert Hackett’s (professor of communications at Simon Fraser University) three purposes of movement media: (i) to expand relations among subordinate groups; (ii) to increase public awareness and broaden the conversation; and (iii) for resisting the effects of power.

The “success” of the Olympics (“success” in imposing its agenda, creating mass audiences of support and bending political will to its needs) she argued was in large part a result of the media-industrial-sports complex of CTV/VANOC/POLICE – apparently CTV has been feeding VANOC and local police video footage in unprecedented volumes. She called it COP-TV.

And finally, Derek O’Keefe – writer, contributor to – weighed in with a strong condemnation of the pieing of David Eby earlier in the night. His point was that the left had a terrible history of fighting – some nasty stuff about Trotskyites beating Marxist-Leninsts with two-by-fours back in the day. Who needs that? he asked. Indeed, no one does. He emphasized long-term movement building, the damage that was being done to the IOC brand, and the importance of the diversity of allies. In the end, for O’Keef, the use of tactics must answer to whether or not they help the movement. And we may not like it, he said, but the mainstream media does mediate public events for most people.

(Which reminds me: Did anyone else know that on the opening day of the Olympics, and despite the absurd but presumably well-intentioned Olympic truce proposal by the United Nations, NATO launched the largest offensive to date in Afghanistan? O’Keefe referenced the story while drawing a comparison between the anti-war and Olympic resistance movements as long-term strategies.)

One intriguing criticism raised but largely ignored was that Saturday’s vandalism targeted a window display with a family watching television on a large flatscreen TV. Next to it, and left untouched, was a window protecting one of the appropriated Olympic Cowichan sweaters. “It was a missed opportunity,” someone said, “to turn a smashed window into a powerful symbol and criticism of the Hudson’s Bay history of colonialism”.

Another point of anger for those in favour of the property damage on Saturday was its characterization in mainstream press and by others at the meeting as “violence”, something which they said should only be used to discuss threats and attacks on people. Alas, the dictionary is no help in the issue, and the movement has yet to come to a consensus of its own.

It isn’t clear what was resolved, if anything, and maybe resolution isn‘t and shouldn’t be the goal. It was, as a colleague put it, an airing, the first time all concerned had been in the same room since last Saturday’s events and had chance to speak and probably more importantly to listen. It also isn’t clear that the fracture lines will be bridged, especially those rooted in the philosophical differences that make out vandalism as either the only form of legitimate protest (vandalism and its escalations) or as unwanted hooliganism. It was said a few times over the course of the evening, that now – presumably meaning after the Heart Attach march – “we know who our allies are and who they are not”. They may not be fighting words, but they certainly aren’t conciliatory.

And then there was VIVO and their role in putting the evening together – an arts organization who refused Olympic money and who will soon to be on the front lines of the most severe cultural cutbacks in British Columbia history – a full 88% decrease in funding over two years.

Where else, one might ask, could the conversation have happened? VIVO offered the infrastructure of a large room, but just as importantly the political credibility and ideological independence to host a neutral ground. And isn’t this one of art’s great offerings? A territory where entrenched beliefs and “truths” can be re-examined and future possibilities released from pasts that lock them into relationships that fragment larger struggles against the effects of power into less effective or perhaps slower and smaller acts of resistance.

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