When it comes to placards and protest, nobody has a monopoly on what free speech should look and sound like. At the Olympics protest on February 12 in downtown Vancouver, all manner of Canadians clamoured freely for an audience, from Burnaby, BC teachers protesting public education cuts to angry jocks yelling from a megaphone “Go, Canada, Go.” The latter, barely a handful who didn’t last an hour, waved red-and-white, computer-generated signs that read: “They say protest, we say party.” I even saw some old gents outside the Archdiocese of Vancouver wearing sandwich boards that said things like “Fear God, Judgment is coming”, “Winners Trust Jesus”, and “Winners Turn from Sin, Turn to Jesus.”
– photos by Heather Conn
A young man in a costumed top hat and tails joked that he represented “Billionaires for the Olympics” while a bagpiper said he was playing “an instrument of war” with a peaceful message. Overall, the poignant and playful event brought recognition to the suffering of the homeless and people on the Downtown Eastside and the harsh contrast of their lives to the Olympic bon vivant atmosphere.
Dalannah Gail Bowen, a Vancouver activist and former addict who runs the Downtown Eastside Centre for the Arts, challenged the audience to imagine a life of poverty in an SRO (single-room occupancy) hotel while the city fetes and feasts at a multi-million-dollar, two-week party. A professional vocalist who is part-Cherokee, she led a plaintive song while drumming a native drum and said: “These are the cries of our people.”
David Eby, president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), said that he was incredibly proud of the free speech and tolerance displayed at the protest. Yet, he condemned police for visiting protesters’ homes prior to this event “as if there’s something illegal because you don’t support spending money on this enterprise [the Olympics].” He said: “The police should not be buying military-grade crowd-control equipment.”
Eby called the double standard in treatment of pro-Games people to those who protested the event “an embarrassment as a free country.” He told a story of a homeless friend who tried to keep warm by a kerosene lamp after trying to find space at a downtown shelter. He was turned away and ended up burning to death. “People have a right to shelter,” said Eby. “That is a priority before a party.”
Eby told the crowd of roughly 2,000, a diverse age and class mixture of Canadians: “Thanks for exercising your free speech rights. You’re very brave to be here. I congratulate you.”
I enjoyed seeing the creative interpretations of the Olympic five-ring emblem, particularly the one above. That same image of the faces in the Olympic rings was ordered removed from the Downtown Eastside by police last December because they deemed it “graffiti”, even though it was a painting hanging over brick. (For details, see my December 14 post “What’s happened to free speech in Vancouver?”)
As a helicopter hovered overhead, a faint aroma of pot wafted through the group. Some of the BCCLA’s hundreds of legal observers, wearing orange T-shirts, took notes and monitored the police presence; officers stayed on the outskirts of the event. Bicycle cops in yellow jackets walked their bikes along the curb on Georgia Street. One cop told me he had received crowd-control training for the Olympics and confided: “Peaceful protest is great. Non-peaceful protest isn’t.”
(This image was taken earlier that morning on Commercial Drive.)
Crowd chants varied from “No Olympics on stolen native land” and “Homes not Games” to “Shame on Canada” and “This is what democracy looks like.”
As the protesters marched towards BC Place, where the Olympics opening ceremonies were beginning at 6 p.m., they faced barricades and a phalanx of police officers spread in a block-long line along Beatty Street. Behind these cops stood a row of 12 police on horseback, each equipped with a wooden baton about four feet long. The crowd pressed against the barricades and some protesters hurled a few things at the police, but the event remained peaceful.
Unfortunately, the following morning, a group of protesters smashed windows at The Bay downtown, which displayed figures wearing Olympic clothing and accessories with other merchandising. The police made several arrests. Such needless vandalism undermines the peaceful efforts of those who speak out against the Olympics and its out-of-control costs. How unCanadian.
On a celebratory note, I liked the Olympic logo made out of O-ring jar insulators in the window of Home Hardware on Commercial Drive near 1st Avenue.
Let’s keep speaking our minds and work to find solutions to the city’s social problems.