By Dana Gabriel
(image by CasaZaza)
In advance of the 2010 Winter Olympics, critics of the Games have been subjected to surveillance, harassment, along with other intimidation tactics. Voicing opposition to the Olympics appears to be all that is needed for one to be labeled as a security threat. There are concerns over the negative impacts associated with holding the Games, as well as concerted efforts to stifle anti-Olympic expression. As the Coca-Cola/RBC corporate torch relay nears its final destination, the opening ceremonies in Vancouver on February 12, 2010, more protests are expected. The Olympics are providing the perfect cover for many police state measures with ramifications that could leave a lasting legacy.
In a recent report, the Civil Liberties Advisory Committee (CLAC), an Olympic watchdog group issued a series of recommendations aimed at ensuring that rights and freedoms are respected during the Winter Games. The group strongly believes that protesters have a right to gather anywhere on public property, provided that they do not break the law. In regards to safe protest zones, CLAC favors that they be defined by painted lines on sidewalks or streets and not by fences or security barriers. This gives the perception that protesters are a threat. The watchdog group proposed that the Vancouver Police Department (VDP) be given the lead role in dealing with Olympic protests. This is due to concerns over mistrust of the RCMP in the province of BC as well as out of town police officers being, “unfamiliar with the groups and practices associated with peaceful protests here." CLAC also recommended that, “the Integrated Security Unit issue a public assurance that plain-clothes police officers or other plain-clothes agents will not actively participate in protests during the Olympics.” There are fears that police could infiltrate anti-Olympic groups, in order to stage events which would justify a crackdown during the 2010 Winter Games.
At the Vancouver International Security Conference held from November 30 - December 1, 2009, Victoria police Chief Jamie Graham described how an undercover police officer posing as a bus driver, infiltrated a group of anti-Olympic activists. The group was on its way to Victoria to protest the start of the Olympic torch relay in late October of this year. In his article Police spying demands explanation, Paul Willcocks lays out the scenario, “based on what Graham told the conference, police secretly found out what bus company a group from the Lower Mainland was going to use. Then they approached the company and convinced the manager to pull the regular driver and let an undercover officer drive.” He goes on to say, “And then the officer drove the bus, keeping watch on the passengers in the rearview mirror, presumably eavesdropping and making notes on peoples' names and what they said.” Graham has so far refused to further elaborate on his comments, and it is unclear if the operation was approved by the police board or another agency. Willcocks also emphasized that, “These aren't terrorists. They hadn't done anything wrong. (And there were no arrests at the protests that day.) No court had approved surveillance. They were Canadian citizens on a bus going to a legitimate public protest.” Apparently, not everyone saw the protesters as people exercising their rights as Liberal MLA Harry Bloy labeled them as terrorists with a limited intellect. This sort of thinking is part of a dangerous pattern of equating free speech and protests with terrorism.
Another recent disturbing incident occurred when Marla Renn, a member of the Olympic Resistance Network was en route to Portland, Oregon to give a speech on the negative impacts of the 2010 Games. She was interrogated by U.S. border guards regarding her anti-Olympic activities and was denied entry. Later, she faced more questions from Canadian officials. This further illustrates the level of coordination of shared intelligence by American and Canadian agencies and how Olympic critics are being targeted as potential security threats on both sides of the border. Renn stated that, “Continued harassment of peaceful organizers and speakers by the police and border guards show that their real objective is to silence dissent and not to protect the public.” This dovetails with award-winning journalist Amy Goodman being detained and interrogated at the Canadian border. This was over concerns that while on her trip to promote her new book, she might criticize the 2010 Winter Games. Border guards repeatedly asked if she planned to discuss the Olympics and demanded that she provide notes on topics she would cover. It is becoming increasingly clear that this type of behavior is not the work of border agents or police officers acting alone, but part of directives coming form the top with the purpose to intimidate and curb any perceived anti-Olympic sentiments.
Just in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics, the VDP has purchased a Long Range Acoustic Device. Better known as LRAD, it can be used as a loudspeaker to communicate with large crowds, but it is also capable of emitting painfully loud blasts of sound. The LRAD sonic weapon was turned against protesters at the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh several months back. VDP officials insist that it will only be used as a public address system. Constable Lindsey Houghton said that the LRAD’s high-decibel tone function will be disabled until clear guidelines are established and he did not expect any policy to be in place before the start of the Olympics. As far as using the LRAD as a weapon, Houghton noted that, “If we’re going to be using it for the function of moving away people in a riot-type situation, the riot proclamation has to be read.” The precedent has already been set with the LRAD being used against protesters in North America and it is not hard to imagine a scenario whereby it could be employed in the same capacity in Vancouver during the Olympics.
Some anti-poverty groups have raised concerns over the Assistance to Shelter Act. They believe that during the Olympics, it could be used to roundup homeless people off the streets, under the guise of protecting them from extreme weather. Vancouver human-rights activist and writer Tom Sandborn said, “This legislation turns our homeless shelters into jails, with shelter employees as the guards.” He also added that, “Forcing someone to move out of a tent into a pew at First United or some other half measure shelter only makes sense in the context of clearing the streets for the Olympics.” The city of Vancouver has been subjected to frequent criticism for its lack of adequate shelters and affordable housing. Many believe that the high costs associated with holding the Olympics is money that would have been better spent on housing, social programs and other critical infrastructure. Much of the security surrounding the Olympics in Vancouver appears to be aimed directly at the homeless as well as protesters.
In a bit of good news, due to intense public pressure, a controversial sign bylaw has been rewritten. Olympic critics charged that it would have infringed on the right to free expression by giving police the power to enter homes without consent or a court order and seize protest signs. This did not stop the city of Vancouver from ordering the removal of an anti-Olympic mural under its graffiti bylaw. The picture was hanging outside a Downtown Eastside gallery and characterized a set of black Olympic rings, four as sad faces and one with a smile. The rights and freedoms of those who wish to celebrate the Olympics should be no different than those who choose to dissent. The giant security apparatus being assembled for the Games has translated into many police state measures which are being used to suppress free speech. There is no doubt that the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games must provide a safe and secure environment for athletes, spectators, officials, local residents and all others involved. This should not be at the expense of those who seek to engage in anti-Olympic protests or other forms of peaceful activism and they should be free to do so without intimidation and fear.
Dana Gabriel is an activist and independent researcher. He writes about trade, globalization, sovereignty, as well as other issues.