Understanding Violent Olympic Protests

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Friday’s anti-Olympics rally and march was a virtually fully peaceful event with some clear, powerful and coherent messages inserted into the global communication stream.

But then Saturday turned violent. But it is really not that simple.

Friday was the Olympics 2010 Welcoming Committee. Saturday was the 2010 Heart Attack, designed to stab the core of global corporate capitalism. While both events are related and orbited the protest convergence happening in Vancouver this week, their goals were quite different.

The Heart Attack was intended to invoke a seizure in the corporate masters who run the world through their well-subsidized politicians, funky psychologically-gripping marketing wing, and places like the World Economic Forum.

So it is not surprising that the Black Bloc anarchists from all over converged on Vancouver to take advantage of a chance to smash windows of Olympic sponsor corporations.

But before everyone gets too comfortable and over-simplifies Saturday’s violence, let’s explore a few things.

  1. The open source software movement and virtually all instances of non-profit altruism on the internet are a form of anarchy; one does not have to smash a window to be an anarchist. While anarchy can mean confusion, disorder and chaos, it also means “a theory that regards the absence of all direct or coercive government as a political ideal and that proposes the cooperative and voluntary association of individuals and groups as the principal mode of organized society.” You may be surprised that you too agree with at least elements of this form of anarchy. Global corporations and their comprador politicians may repulse you in the same way they repulse the activists and anarchists on the streets on Saturday.
  2. Global corporations use the Olympics and their nasty lawyers to secure unprecedented marketing space for their largely crappy products. Have a Coke and a Big Mac, why don’t ya! The Olympics are helping destroy the social fabric of BC through a massive funding shift; the corporations that force the athletes to pimp themselves in order to compete on the world stage are reprehensible. If you have read or seen The Corporation, you understand the psychotic nature of corporations. Do you condone their behaviour here, or here, or here?
  3. Various people have been dissecting the meaning of violence after Saturday’s activities. They rightly distinguish between property damage and violence against humans. Corporations are not humans. Their shareholders are, but I would argue that most shareholders have no or virtually no awareness of the social ill their corporation visits upon the world. So we at least need to understand why some argue that there are different kinds of violence. Is it the same kind of violence to throw a newspaper box through the window of The Bay as it is for Coke’s involvement in the murder, kidnapping and torture of union activists in Columbia?
  4. If you think the Olympics are for regular people and not the corporate elite, did you see any corporate media reporting on the fence that keeps people away from the Olympic flame? How’s that for disenfranchisement that symbolizes how there are first class citizens with access to the grand Olympic party while the millions of British Columbians who will pay for their party can’t even get close to the torch, which is supposed to symbolize…I don’t know anymore…something idealist?
  5. For more disenfranchisement, did you know that leading up to the next municipal election, our anti-social, neoLiberal premier has floated the idea of letting business owners vote in municipal elections? In the premier’s words: “There’s an opportunity to adopt principles of the provincial Election Act including: disclosure, spending limits and other changes that will improve fairness, accountability, transparency and public participation. Perhaps it’s time to restore the voting rights for industrial and business property owners in our communities.” In the same breath that he mentions enhancing accountability and public participation, he wants to let corporations vote along with human beings. What is to stop me from forming an, I don’t know, internet consulting business, paying for a business license in every municipality in and around Vancouver, then voting in future municipal elections all over the lower mainland? If you think democracy should be reserved for real human beings, you may want to actively oppose this drift towards corporations getting even MORE human rights. Can you get a sense of the depth of a threat corporations are to human being culture, society, economics and politics?
  6. The Bay has hundreds of years of history oppressing and violating people, complicit and instrumental in European colonization of North America. They happen to be an Olympic sponsor. They also happen to now be owned by NRDC Equity Partners, an American holding company, the great neo-colonial power of Canada [tar sands, anyone?]. You don’t need to wonder why they’re a target of anarchists along with RBC, the main financier of the tar sands devastation.
  7. BC Solicitor General Kash Heed waxes ironically on the rule of law: “One of the hallmarks of any civil society is respect for the law. The very laws that protect our right to free speech and the right for peaceful demonstration are at risk when a small group in society think they are above the law.” One way to understand the Heart Attack and the severe opposition to the global corporate elites is to explore the hypocrisy in this statement, from a government known for undermining the rule of law. VANOC is above the law. Its accounting is secret. They are not subject to freedom of information requests. VANOC instructed the provincial government to legislate the striking ambulance paramedics back to work last fall. The IOC is an international organization that is above the laws of all nations. It pays tax to no one, obeys no democratic political constitution or charter. It rejected women’s ski jumping from the Olympics by criteria it derived itself; in doing so, it violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The BC courts ruled that this gender-based discrimination is illegal, but that it has no scope of authority over the IOC. The global corporations that fund and steer the IOC on its rampage around the world profit from these violations of the rule of law. How can they be punished or sanctioned? Do we really have the guts to use existing or enhanced legislation to revoke their corporate charters? Here is a longer list of corporate activities that are opposed to the social good. If you oppose the violent methods protesters used on Saturday, how would you prefer to reign in unacceptable corporate behaviour?
  8. Kash Heed continued: “The [police] will continue to ensure that athletes and the public are safe from unlawful activity and able to enjoy the Games without concern.” In reviewing the difference between kinds of violence, is it reasonable to equate property crime with threatening athletes? Is that what was actually happening on Saturday?
  9. VANOC and corporate greenwashing: consider the realities of climate change staring us in the face, requiring us to act in the next few years to avoid irreparable harm and violence to the livelihood of billions of the people. Examine the real record of environmentalism in the Vancouver Olympics. Put up a few green-only Olympic rings, spew some chatter about carbon offsets, then helicopter snow from Manning Park to Cypress Bowl and conveniently don’t count a variety of dirty energy sources and you’re ok. Since the Olympics has become a monstrous PR campaign anyway, truth takes a backseat to optics and marketing. Where is there corporate accountability?

So regardless of who was doing what on Saturday, criminal behaviour definitely took place. Smashing windows is a crime, but did it serve a larger political purpose? Was that purpose valid or not? Was it civil disobedience for a greater moral good? Are corporations committing crimes against humanity to a degree that we choose not to punish? And if you find the objects being protested on Saturday to be guilty of anything, what steps are you willing to take to reign in their aberrant behaviour if smashing RBC/Bay/McDonald’s windows is not acceptable to you?

And in the end, has the window smashing helped you move to a more informed place about the nature of unacceptable corporate behariour in the world? If so, there has been some social good that has come from the violent behaviour, whether anyone condones it or not.

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Stephen Elliott-Buckley

Post-partisan eco-socialist. at Politics, Re-Spun
Stephen Elliott-Buckley is a husband, father, professor, speaker, consultant, former suburban Vancouver high school English and Social Studies teacher who changed careers because the BC Liberal Party has been working hard to ruin public education. He has various English and Political Science degrees and has been writing political, social and economic editorials since November 2002. Stephen is in Twitter, Miro and iTunes, and the email thing, and at his website, dgiVista.org.

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5 thoughts on “Understanding Violent Olympic Protests”

  1. “The Heart Attack was intended to invoke a seizure in the corporate masters who run the world through their well-subsidized politicians, funky psychologically-gripping marketing wing, and places like the World Economic Forum.’

    A pretty grandiose interpretation of break a window or two? Hardly seizure inducing.
    I mean, the whole thing wan’t just pointless it was counter productive and self indulgent.
    Kevin Smith did 500 times more damage to a corporation (south west air) on Twitter on Saturday then these 200 kids did by smashing windows.
    It’s making people think right? Yeah, it’s making the public think that black bloc should be arrested on site.
    Find a new, more effective tactic.

  2. I agree with Ana. Smashing a few windows and stopping traffic with overturned newspaper boxes really has no connection to any of the issues on your list. Or any other issue for that matter.

    I hear a lot of people saying ‘well it draws attention’. To what? Thinking that the mainstream media are going to make a connection between black bloc mischief and any sort of pressing social issue is naive at best.

    Really what is going to happen is that it will get sensationalized and will ensure that no real issues get discussed or even acknowledged when the topic of protest comes up. This isn’t speculation, we’ve seen it again and again.

    That sort of action doesn’t make anyone think. On the contrary, it removes any requirement of thinking in peoples’ minds. It provides a convenient excuse for people to simplify the issue down to one of ‘crazy anarchists’ just out to cause havoc.

    The missing womens’ march was fantastic and a great example of what peaceful protest should be. On message and easy to understand. That’s what gets people thinking about the right things.

  3. Re: “That sort of action . . . provides a convenient excuse for people to simplify the issue down to one of ‘crazy anarchists’ just out to cause havoc.”

    I share your perspective Graeme. And although one may draw a distinction between different types of violence, one cannot guarantee that a “lesser” or more “justifiable” violence against property will remain contained to such once it is unleashed.

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