"We are here to join the Convergence and offer solidarity to the Indigenous people of Turtle Island," said a man dressed in black wearing sunglasses and a black balaclava covering his face from the nose down. He was the only person among his group of about six, similarly-clad, who was willing to talk to media. He said he would not identify himself.
It was 8:30 am Saturday, February 13. About 30 people were gathered at Thornton Park in downtown Vancouver. "Each day of the Convergence there is a different theme. Today's theme is a diversity of tactics," he said.
The march was named, "Heart Attack." The intent was to "clog the arteries of capitalism." It was billed to media by the Olympics Resistance Network (ORN) as a "non-family friendly" demonstration, and those uncomfortable with the possibility of meeting police violence, tear gas and jail time were advised to consider not attending.
"We're here to confront the narrative put forward by VANOC and the IOC: the narrative that Canada is a friendly country. Canada is at war with the Indigenous of this land and the Indigenous people of Afghanistan," said my interviewee.
The Obama administration, with Canadian support, led a military surge – the largest since the invasion of Iraq in 2001– last Friday, February 12, in Afghanistan. Some speculate the surge was timed to coincide with the Olympics opening ceremonies, when the international media spotlight was on BC Place. Prior to the Games' commencement, Canada adopted the UN Olympic Truce Resolution for the 2010 Games.
"We want to disrupt the opening day of the Olympics to send our message of solidarity to the media. There will be no violence from our side. The violence will come from the cops; the violence will come from what has already been done by VANOC and the IOC," he said.
The gathering in Thornton Park grew to about 300 over the next hour. Medics and legal observers handed out information about what to do in the event of tear gas or violent attacks by police. By 9:30 am, march organizers distributed half-sheets of paper with information about the planned route for the demonstration, including three 'plan-B's' in case of police-enforced dispersal.
As demonstrators convened they became less willing to speak to media. Most responded with, "Not now." "Not today." "Not here." "Maybe later."
"The march today is spearheaded by a radical contingent. The balaclavas are about trying to protect each other, trying to protect identities. They will be in the front lines, and if they should be identified while protesting they might feel a backlash from their employers or the public," said Patty Comeau of Vancouver. "It's completely understandable."
"I'm against the Games. The state is using the Games to enforce its neo-liberal, corporate agenda. The money spent on the Games while there are cuts to social programs is insulting, disgusting and inhumane," she said.
Comeau said she hopes a more radical demonstration will get people to reconsider the messages they receive from mainstream media.
The show of support from medics and lawyers is a sign of new strength in the movement, she said. "It's good to feel that if people from all walks of life have similar criticisms, they can band together to pool knowledge and skills."
Jay Barker and his two-year-old son, Lou, perched on a bicycle, stood slightly removed from the crowd.
"This is what I choose to be my Olympics experience," said Barker. "But we're going to stand a little back from this one."
"I took [Lou] to see the flame yesterday. The corporate propaganda – Coke, RBC – was at a level that blew me away. I'd rather surround him with signs that say, 'Homes Not Games' than, 'General Electric,'" he said.
Baker described the drone of fighter jets and helicopters that have punctuated the airspace in his neighbourhood of Strathcona. "It's a fantastic neighbourhood. You should visit while you're in town. But it's been seriously affected by the Olympics coming to Vancouver."
Barker was not uncritical of the ORN's decision to create space for a more aggressive demonstration.
"I fear that too many black balaclavas will make the public – even the progressives – take a step back," he said.
The march began circling the park, practicing changing direction by flag signals. A troupe of mustached, pink-haired white one-piece suit-wearers marched alongside those dressed black-on-black. Women with pamphlets asking for information about their missing daughters walked with bucket-beating drummers.
At 10 am, five hundred headed out on the street. "No Olympics on stolen Native land," chanted marchers. Pylons began flying into traffic; traffic made way for the marchers. A few police on bicycles followed behind.
Cameras were everywhere. Garbage appeared in the middle of the road. Buses sporting Olympics sponsors' advertisements emerged from the demonstration with little black spray-painted anarchy symbols and "No 2010" written alongside Coke's invitation to "open happiness." Newspaper boxes were tipped over and dragged into the street. Ladies on their scooters scooted with the Black Bloc, some of whom pulled dumpsters from alleys and tipped the contents into the roadway. Cars were not getting by. Cops and onlookers dragged the dumpsters and mailboxes back onto the sidewalk behind the march.
The demonstration passed Victory Square, and turned onto West Pender Street.
The sound of smashing glass attracted journalists and the chanting of the marchers grew louder as the tone (this is for reals) was set. Camera-folk positioned themselves at the tops of hills, on ledges, in trees. More smashing. Mailboxes were sunk into the windows of the Bay, CANADA sweaters still hanging from mannequins. A modern history of the Dominion of Canada, for sale here. Glass shattered less than a metre from cameras seeking evidence of extreme action. There was little reaction, save managers of the Bay locking the store's doors, shoppers staring out at the demonstrators like deer in headlights.
Jay and Lou Baker glided about ten metres behind the march on their bike. Police stayed on the periphery.
More smashing, this time the Toronto Dominion Bank. Journalists buzzed. No-one fled.
"The squad, behind," someone said. A hundred cops in yellow vests, helmets, shields, batons and guns advanced. One hollered formation instructions, and police on bikes sank backward. A ladder was pulled from an alleyway and held horizontally by Black Bloc walking backward, riot police walking forward. A parallel dance. The march advanced.
Riot police hollered. The marching band got louder, the ladies on scooters and the ladies not on scooters got louder. The pink-haired, mustached white-clad marchers got louder.
Journalists and onlookers were instructed by riot cops – cameras shoved in their faces – to make the decision to join the protest or stay on the sidewalk. People with cameras flitted around police with batons and guns and protesters with musical instruments. A horizontal ladder invited cameras to shoot at the space it created, perpendicular to motion.
"I'm so relaxed!" said camerawoman Dawn Paley as she slid among police shouting instructions to each other, to bystanders and to protesters, and protesters singing back, "Ah! An-ti! Anticapitalista!"
A media "runner" biked up and took tapes from Paley to return to a media space to be edited and uploaded to the net... a half-hour sooner, turns out, than CBC or CTV would air any information about the demonstration.
From the top of the hill on West Georgia Street, marchers got a view of the intersection of Denman Street: the demonstration's destination. It was full of police cars with red, white and blue lights flashing and a hundred more riot police.
The demonstration walked into the intersection. Paley sent me home with more tapes, with instructions to keep security at the media space at a maximum, and with assurances that she'd be fine alone.
At 2:20 the next morning, a group of about 30 people, dressed head-to-toe in red and white, faces painted with red maple leaves, boarded the Sea Bus in downtown Vancouver. They sang "Oh Canada" and chanted "We're red! We're white! We're fuckin' dynamite!" across the water.
"If Canada loses [in men's hockey], there's gonna be a riot," announced one young man. The group cheered.
"If Canada wins, there's gonna be a riot. But if Canada loses..." he paused. "Shit's gonna get broken. There's gonna be a fuckin' riot. It's gonna be fuckin' crazy. People will be out in the streets and shit's gonna get smashed."
At the culmination of the Heart Attack march, at the intersection of West Georgia and Denman, riot police would surround a group of about 50 demonstrators, some of whom would attempt to break out of the circle of police. Some would succeed. Police would beat protesters with batons and shields. Protesters would shove police. Thirteen people would be arrested, most of whom did not participate in property destruction during the march. One would be charged with possession of a dangerous weapon and possession of a prohibited weapon (a bicycle chain, wrapped around his fist, which was equated to brass knuckles). Six in total would face charges. CTV cameras would follow black-clad protesters into alleys, filming their faces as they disrobed. CTV would share this footage with police. Police would pick up protesters as they dispersed. The Vancouver Police Department would release a statement calling the Black Bloc "criminal." The Olympic Resistance Movement would hold a press conference in which they called the IOC and VANOC "criminal." David Eby of the BC Civil Liberties Association, the group that was to offer legal defense to protesters, was to denounce the property destruction as "violent." Chris Shaw, author of Five Ring Circus, would call it "vandalism with political content," and "unwise, ... failing to bring people outside the movement in." No2010 Victoria would declare solidarity with a diversity of tactics. A debate would be sparked among Canadian activists, academics and journalists about the nature of violence; the usefulness of property destruction as a resistance tactic; the usefulness of any protest tactic; the question of solidarity in a movement; and the role and tendencies of the media in its portrayal of resistance. The next day – Valentine's Day, 2010 – the Women's Memorial March would attract 5,000 people, and an Olympic Tent Village would take over a private lot in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Canada's men's hockey team would narrowly beat Switzerland in a shoot-out. Independent journalists returning to the States would be questioned by the FBI and searched at the border.
Saturday, February 13, would leave this author pondering one question: What would have happened had police allowed the demonstration to occupy the intersection of West Georgia and Denman, and then allowed the demonstrators to disperse, without reprisal?