"They've Arrested the Torch"
The Olympic clock by the Vancouver Art Museum has been counting down the days until the opening ceremony: today. So the pressure was on this morning to ensure that the final leg of the Olympic torch relay met with a strong show of resistance.
Of course, the weather has already been cooperating with these "No Olympics" efforts. One protester's T-shirt this morning said "Pray for rain," but the woman laughed, "I'm not praying anymore!" Instead, she was mingling with several hundred people in a neighborhood park, about to set off to disrupt the flame. And besides, yesterday's chilly rain has so far given way to today's warmer gray skies, even as the Olympic Committee is desperately trying to transport snow from 100 miles away by truck so the winter games can go on. The greenest Olympics has had to counter the impact of climate change by resorting to long-distance transport in order to cover the bare mountains around Vancouver with the white stuff.
The absurdities of what goes in to this "party for the rich" versus "priorities for people," as many activists have declared, seem to grow by the hour. One Canadian health care worker doing indie media work at this morning's stop the torch interventions explained that she has to work this weekend and will miss out on the rest of the protests. She remarked how ridiculous it was, because she was going to have to sit around at her job and do nothing. Her hospital and many other health care facilities have canceled some one-third or more of surgeries, and have drastically limited health care over the next two weeks. The doctors are sitting around too, she said, on the assumption that they might be needed to deal with a terrorist attack during the Olympics. Other emergency workers are also on hold, not doing their regular work but waiting in the wings; many aren't being paid, but are instead being forced to volunteer if terrorism strikes.
Another woman, an exuberant member of a youth-run collective educational/social space, said that her center--the Purple Thistle--is one of the few open this week and next for programming and hanging out. We're mostly privately funded, she noted, and added that almost all the many government-funded community and social centers around Vancouver were commandeered by the Olympics. Programs for youth, women, indigenous peoples, and others have thus been canceled in favor of turning over these public centers to various countries for their Olympic athletes and friends to socialize instead.
A Vancouver anarchist with a "fags not flags" patch on her back observed that it feels extra hard watching all the changes to her own city. One of those changes, she said, was that most midwives in Vancouver are not accepting any clients during the Olympics. The midwives can't be sure of making it to a birth, given the situation with the roads. The special traffic lanes are reserved for Olympic and emergency vehicles, neither of which apply to midwives. This same anarchist also mentioned that numerous safe spaces around Vancouver have been closed or have had their usage curtailed. For example, a place called The Space for at-risk queer and trans youth was renamed Pride House and is being utilized to showcase gays during the Olympics. The local queer and trans youth no longer feel welcome, and have nowhere else to go this month.
It's much the same story in relation to other social services, such as homeless shelters and needed material aid to the poorest of the poor here in Vancouver and the surrounding areas. The streets of East downtown Vancouver are crowded with homeless people. For some, the Olympics is yet another inconvenience, or sadly, simply another event that offers a few free handouts--such as a homeless guy pushing his shopping cart of personal goods, now adorned with little red Coca-Cola flags boasting the five Olympic rings and the slogan "Open Happiness." For others, though, it appears to be cause for extra anger. Another homeless man sat on the sidewalk, with a chalked slogan in front of him: "2010 Olympics Can Kiss My Brown Ass."
This morning, that anger and frustration, but also a spirit of this really being "our neighborhoods" and "our lands," transformed the path of the Olympic torch relay into both protest and party. A dialogue, a dance, and disruptions. And most crucially, social power against, as one demonstrator said, the "social capital" that Canada is trying to gain by hosting these games.
In the little park in the Commercial Drive Neighborhood, an upbeat blend of people started gathering around 9 a.m., prepared to intercept the torch that was about to pass through what is, for many, their own streets. This area, too, has had to cede resources and spaces to the Olympic mania, and people were here to reclaim what was theirs. One of the organizers asked people to look down at the ground: "This is unceded Salish territory." Then she happily yelled out that the first torch disruption, in downtown, had succeeded, which only increased the desire of this neighborhood to do the same.
Of course, not everyone was from this neighborhood, but the tone and tenor was all about a sense of place. Some anarchist-looking folks unfurled a big black-cloth banner, and its colorful block letters read: "Communities Not Olympics." When a man who'd come to see the torch started shaking his fist in the air and yelling "Go home!" at the growing crowd now blocking a main intersection on the torch's route, several demonstrators instantly responded with "We are home!" One of the organizers, a hippie-type activist, told the several hundred folks gathered together that some people--the black bloc--have chosen to wear masks today, because of their interest in autonomy, but that other people shouldn't fear them; people should stick together "because we're all love our communities."
And they did. A good-size contingent of black bloc anarchists and peace activists, climate justice folks and indigenous radicals, people on bikes and in wheelchairs, queer activists and kids in strollers, a marching band and teenagers released from school because of the Olympics, an assortment of neighborhood activists and non-black bloc anarchists, and many others kept up a rowdy and militant presence in the streets. The torch was diverted, and diverted again, and diverted yet again, each time by the diverse contingent holding intersections together. At the first intersection, for example, people ran string and barbed wire between light posts, across the entire street, fortified by rocks on the ground, while the chants ranged from "homes not games" to "no justice, no peace, fuck the police."
This direct action seemed remarkable on several fronts. For one, the police presence here in Vancouver is light, relative to such protests; it's clear that the police are in a bind, having to balance trying to maintain the Olympic festivities without creating a spectacle with all the tourists, athletes, and media in town. This, in turns, seems to be emboldening people who "normally" might feel less emboldened at such actions. Everyone blocked and held the intersections, everyone took the streets and kept them, not just the anarchists.
More remarkable, though, is that people on the streets seem to be acting from a "diversity of tactics" that opens up room for the militant and nonmilitant, the young and old, whites and nonwhites, anarchists and nonanarchists. For example, the demonstrators didn't seem to bat an eye when some of them chose to yell confrontationally ("you won't see the fucking torch today!") at bystanders, angry at not getting to see the torch, and others chose to engage in quieter dialogues about the Olympics' impact. Black bloc anarchists, to cite another example, took direction from the more peace and justice types with the megaphone, moving in sync with each other from intersection to intersection. And despite various liberal slogans, the space for the diversity of peoples and ideas on the streets seemed to push the overall message to a radical one, largely focused on people reclaiming the commons of their neighborhoods, cities, and lands.
There was a joy to this militancy today, because it was effective, and because of the lived solidarity that made it effective. And when militancy is effective, people seem ready to do more of it. There was a joy because people in this neighborhood knew that other folks had earlier done similar things to disrupt the torch downtown. So it felt especially nice that the victory of interrupting the torch's run again and again this morning ended on a serendipitously joyful note.
Just as everyone was about to leave, planning to regroup at 3 p.m. for the big "Take Back Our City" march to the Olympic opening ceremonies, a lone Canadian Olympic athlete appeared on the street, showing off her extinquished torch. The many hundreds of folks decked out in nationalistic display of Canadian pride and attire rushed around her to get a chance to see the torch, albeit sans flame, since it would be their own glance--thanks to the success of the Commercial Drive Neighborhood's efforts. The demonstrators, mostly the black bloc, rushed over too, and suddenly she and the police realized that her torch show-and-tell needed to end. Anarchists and others "escorted" her to a side street, yelling "Shame." I was struck how, if this had been in the United States, anarchists likely would have tried to attack her more vehemently, as if she were evil itself. Instead, people tried to illuminate her complicity to her, but also seemed to see her as person, capable of thinking through and changing her position. She might not be able to--at least not during this Olympics. Yet the demonstrators' behavior seemed to me more a reflection of how those in this resistance movement see each other: as multidimensional people, fighting in their own ways on different fronts--from nonprofits to social justice to militant and revolutionary, but all truly in this fight for a better world together. And all truly feeling their social strength together during this start to street resistance to the Olympics, on this stolen land called Vancouver.
As the police whisked the torch runner into a waiting police car, which zipped away, one person happily shouted out: "They've arrested the torch!" And a bunch of anarchists broke into a chorus of "na na na na, na na na na, hey hey, bye bye."
Or maybe: bye for now; we'll see you later this afternoon, with even more joy and militancy, with even more determination to take back our city.