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Police show restraint, protesters show a lack of vision

February 13th, 2010 · 27 Comments

News reports are filtering in this morning of random vandalism by Olympics protesters downtown, which somehow doesn’t surprise me. There is clearly a small element that just wants some kind of trouble, even if it’s pointless.

I was at the 1,500-strong rally by Olympics opponents outside BC Place last night and found myself wedged right up against the police line that was holding back the protesters. It was relatively low-key, at least compared to the riots I was in when I went to Seattle to cover the WTO in 1999.

I was pleasantly impressed with police, who made a point of NOT coming out in Darth Vader-like riot gear, the way Seattle police did. Instead, they worse baseballs hats and yellow reflector vests over their regular police uniforms. And though they did the tough-guy thing they had to do — a big show of force with horses and double lines of locked-arms officers, grabbing at any of the bamboo sign poles that came their way, and pushing back yard when then the crowd surged forward — they made a point of not escalating the confrontation.

Some might argue that it’s because they were being so heavily recorded. Besides the media, it seemed like every second protester on the front lines was video- or cellphone-recording the front-line scuffles, and there were also designated legal observers hovering everywhere. But it also looked like good discipline, even while protesters were calling them pigs, yelling out “Get the animals off the horses” and yelling about the details of Frank Paul’s death. (For those who don’t remember, he was the native man who was dropped in an alley by Vancouver police ago after after they decided not to hold him in jail.)

Having had a few unpleasant encounters with police in Seattle myself, where you’d get pepper-sprayed just for disagreeing with them about where reporters should stand, I felt as though Vancouver police last night were showing reasonable restraint. Yes, it was scary to be pushed back by the police and feel like I was getting crushed or in danger of falling into the crowd at one point.   But I also got that, if protesters were attempting a surge, police had to push back.

It was also clear to everyone there that the protesters were longing for confrontation, with big “oohs” erupting from the crowd every time they thought police might be advancing on them. Most seemed to be anxious to avoid being arrested by doing anything too confrontational, but they seemed to be hoping police would lose it and start beating on them so they could demonstrate that police brutality is alive and well. In the end, it was minor skirmishing with even the most confrontational of the protesters unwilling to provoke anything serious, at least not with that many police around.

But mostly what struck me about the protesters was how disorganized they seemed to be. This was not a group of seasoned campaigners who knew what they were doing or even how to organize a protest. None of the signs, which ranged from opposition to the province’s Gateway road- and bridge-building project to the “No Games on stolen native land slogan,” made it clear what the central point was.  After about an hour of stand-off with the police lines, someone tried to organize a march back to the Vancouver Art Gallery but that didn’t seem to attract the crowd so the march tailed off.

The point here is that these are mostly young kids with some theoretical ideas about corporate exploitation, mixed in with a few diehard radical oldtimers, and a sprinkling of really marginalized people who are looking for something to vent against because of the truly crappy deal that life has handed them.

And in amongst them, yes, a few kids — you can spot the core group by their black hoodies, black bandanas, or black balaclavas — who just want to do some damage if that’s what it takes to get media attention. (As long as there aren’t too many police around.) And now they’ve got it.

P.S. Here is a message from the Olympics Resistance Network that went out prior to the protest march this morning that outlines their message, just so you have it straight from them, rather than me:

The olympic resistance mascot, Squatchi, will be speaking
to the press before a street march being organized titled “2010 Heart
Attack” on February 13th starting at 8:30 am.  The march is organized in
the spirit of challenging the social and economic system that the Olympic
Games support and represent.  They are making people homeless, leaving the
environment destroyed and continue the industrial expansion on indigenous
lands while corporations gain millions in profits.  Organizations from
across Canada and around the world have converged in Vancouver to march
together against capitalism and colonization.

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