Activists Debate Vancouver Olympic Protests

by Derrick O’Keefe
After years of organizing work, the protest movement around the Vancouver Winter Olympics can proudly claim a number of important victories. A vibrant demonstration of thousands met the corporate spectacle head on, marching to within metres of the Opening Ceremonies at B.C. Place February 12.

The ‘Welcoming Committee’ that organized this mass protest was representative of the range of groups challenging the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Vancouver Games conveners (VANOC).

The achievements of this movement include: Pushing back hard against attempts to restrict free assembly and speech, exposing the “greenwashing” of the Games, and raising awareness of homelessness and indigenous rights issues. The IOC brand was successfully dented and the longer-term impact of the Games illuminated. Over the course of the Games, a host of creative direct actions and protests pushed demands for social justice.

However, there were also missed opportunities, and some acrimonious debate in the activist community.

The ‘dualism’ of an event like the Olympics was perhaps not seriously enough considered. It’s a two-week sporting event and mass spectacle, replete with tons of free activities for the general public – it’s not the same as a meeting of the world’s bankers and politicians. In fact, many if not the vast majority of those critical of the Games and their impact, and critical of the anti-democratic depredations of the IOC – people who would have preferred public resources had gone to housing, health care, education, and other urgent needs – still enjoy watching the world’s greatest hockey players, or going out to see a free show, or just walking about and seeing and meeting folks from around the world.

I think this dualism was missed or underestimated by some of us in the protest movements, and as a result opportunities for creative outreach around a range of social justice issues have been given less energy than they might have.

The main focus of controversy has been a protest action billed as a Heart Attack (‘to clog the arteries of capitalism’), which marched through Vancouver’s downtown core on Saturday, February 13. In a crowd of 200 or 300, a number of people engaged in property destruction. The windows of TD Bank and the Hudson’s Bay Company were smashed, newspaper boxes were overturned, private vehicles vandalized – confrontations with the police and angry members of the general public ensued. Such incidents are frequently the work of unwanted intruders. But in this case, many supporters of the action affirmed that the destruction was planned by participants in a ‘Black Bloc’ contingent.

The Olympic Resistance Network and some other activists declared this action a success, while many others of us questioned its effectiveness. We were initially told, by some, that to raise concerns about the action was to “break solidarity.” This is a major tenet of the notion of “respect for diversity of tactics,” wherein no tactics are ruled out ahead of time and criticism remains internal. In practice, this can mean suppression of open debate in the activist community, especially since, in this case, the groups that had signed on to “diversity of tactics” represented only a part of those groups organizing around the Games.

Defending the action in, Alex Hundert claims that all participants in the ‘Heart Attack’ knew what was going to happen, despite the fact that uncertainty is a central tenet of diversity of tactics action:

“Anyone who says that they didn’t know what was going to happen is lying. There were 200 people in black with masks on, and ‘Riot 2010’ has been a rallying call for the movement for more than two years now. Everyone knew what was going to happen, and they all marched anyway.”

This statement is false. Many of those who went along on the ‘Heart Attack’ did not know what was going to take place – and the actions did not even communicate clearly with some of them. One activist, a woman of colour who grew up under a military dictatorship, explained:

“Some of those who engaged in property destruction appeared not to have solidarity with other protesters, displaying a hostile attitude towards some other participants and even independent media members, as well as the general public. This looked like kids playing at street fighting and mocks the struggles of Third World people who have at times had to use violent tactics to liberate themselves.”

Eric Doherty, a long-time environmental activist in Vancouver, put it this way:

“I was at the Heart Attack, and I expected strategic and targeted property destruction. I worried that there might be ‘trashing’ at random; unfortunately that is a lot of what happened. Some of it just looked dumb, like the plastic garbage bin dumped out on the quiet side road – littering does not block traffic.… This is not a condemnation of the black bloc tactic. It is a critique of what was done by people in black on one particular day.”

And on this basis, a critique of particular actions can still be done in the framework of movement building and solidarity. The same vigorous critique needs to be applied to all tactics and to all sectors of the progressive movements, from electoral politics, to NGOs and the labour movement.

No matter the radical and no doubt commendable motivations of many of those who used the Black Bloc tactic, and of those who engaged in property destruction at the Vancouver action, the result was a setback for the broad movement.

In the rabble article, Hundert asserts, “The Black Block is a wrecking ball tactic that makes space for more mainstream or creative tactics.” But part of making space involves the receptiveness of the public to your overall message. The action failed to communicate clearly with that public, whose reaction was overwhelmingly one of disgust, confusion or even fear. This was evident from hundreds of letters to the editor, and hundreds and thousands of conversations with ordinary people, even those predisposed to be critical of the Games.

The action didn’t create political space; it shut it down. And it served up a PR coup for the Vancouver Police and the Olympic organizers. No doubt this was in part whipped up by the corporate media, but that was an entirely predictable outcome. As author and Olympics critic Chris Shaw put it, it was VANOC’s “wet dream,” because it helped justify the $1 billion dollar security budget. Especially given that the authorities in Vancouver had refused to rule out the use of agent provocateurs, we must question the use of a “tactic” that inherently makes easier agent provocateur infiltration.

There are times and places where property destruction, sabotage and even armed resistance are necessary and effective. But the use of any tactic has to flow from a coherent strategy, and should be part of an effort to mobilize as broad a movement as possible. Effective use of civil disobedience is all about communicating with the people you are trying to win over. If the tactic you employ is not understandable to them, it’s counter-productive.

“Respect for diversity of tactics”, it must be frankly put, has become something of a shibboleth in parts of the Left today. A healthy Left shouldn’t let any shibboleth go unquestioned. In Vancouver, it was invoked to tell some of us to shut up. We didn’t. On this basis, I hope that we can count the debate around diversity of tactics as one positive outcome of the events in Vancouver.

With the G8/G20 looming and authorities promising to impose a “fortress Toronto,” we all need to be able to debate fully and frankly, and not be afraid to, if necessary, democratically decide to exclude certain tactics.

A version of this article will be published in Socialist Worker

47 thoughts on “Activists Debate Vancouver Olympic Protests

  1. Radical

    From: “I’m A Better Anarchist Than You, Some Thoughts on Vancouver and the Black Bloc,” by David Rovics

    I also have no doubt that most of the young people participating in Black Bloc and advocating for “diversity of tactics” (translation: “don’t tell me not to throw rocks, you oppressive, ageist liberal carnivore!”) are well-meaning people doing a lot of good work in their communities when they’re not throwing rocks through windows. But whether or not they want to believe it, when they start throwing rocks during a march they are doing exactly the same work as the police provocateurs – I mean literally, not figuratively.

    Black Bloc: doesn’t this make you wonder about what the fuck you’re doing?

  2. Durgan

    Its impossible to substantively join the comment thread here so I’m not even going to try. My comments will directly address the pretty chilled out and brief article written by O’Keefe.

    The main critique is that 2010 Heart Attack was ineffective because its goal was social justice and it brought about a mass condemnation from the public in general. The premise of the argument is that for an action to be successful it is necessary to win over mass public opinion. Then it is assumed that social change will occur. If the premise is false then the conclusion, that 2010HA was ineffective, does not follow.

    I am convinced that struggles for social justice are always struggles against common sense. Widespread public condemnation of the Black Bloc tactic at the Olympics was to be expected. In saying that the 2010 HA was ineffective, people have to concede that the other stuff was, and that there is a legitimate cause at stake. This is enough, nevermind that HA achieved the stated goal of shutting down traffic.

    A good analogy can be seen in the ‘paradox technique’ of system’s theory psychotherapy. In psychotherapy the goal is always therapeutic change. In paradox technique at the termination of therapy the target problem is solved, but the client leaves hating, or not liking, the therapist. Our overall goal in the movement is social justice. I simply may not be necessary to gain public support at the moment in order for this to happen in the long run.

  3. CO

    i would really like to hear your sources on this,
    “The history of police action in this city has proven that the first targets of violence are Indigenous people, people of colour, the poor.”
    thank you.

  4. Itrath

    I don’t understand why Derrick’s article and his arguments are being so viciously attacked. The Heart Attack rally was a public demonstration. It occurred in the public sphere. Surely we are able to engage with issues that occur in the public sphere. Derrick did not publish his article in the National Post. Seriously, people.

    As a woman of colour and a person who is identifiably Muslim, I resent the repeated dismissal of Derrick’s concerns as being that of white middle class privilege. I chose not to attend that rally because I do not feel safe with such tactics. And even in the Friday rally, which I did attend, I purposely stayed well away from the Black Bloc.

    The history of police action in this city has proven that the first targets of violence are Indigenous people, people of colour, the poor. In police attacks against protesters, it would not be Derrick who would be targeted first. It would be people like me.

  5. Alex

    Hi folks,

    I’m an out of town person, who wasn’t at the Olympics. My comments come from that position. I am really stressed out by how much dirty laundry is being aired online, and how much lack of trust is being presented here. I personally think folks might want to consider asking themselves why they are arguing. It seems to me like people are arguing for the sake of it and talking past each other. It’s really an unfortunate situation, it is also not well thought out. It’s really a bad idea to allow the cops to know who dislikes who and what organizations don’t get along, because they will exploit it. I’ve made this mistake before, and really regret it. It does not do us or our movements any good.

    In these debates we need to value 3 thing:

    This is the basis of healthy debate. Secondly, we need to focus on building unity rather than exacerbating rifts that are developing. It takes people being more mature and caring about people they really don’t like at the moment. It really takes dropping ego. I have a hard time doing this, but I know it is what fixes things. Real healthy debate will take people stopping to lay accusations and starting to acknowledge what they have done that was unhelpful, hurtful or dangerous.

    If people cannot discuss in things in a good way, what is the point. I guess to make folks sit at their computer shaking their head with stress, or to do the cops work for them and split our movements?



  6. Gary Jarvis

    Awesome thread.

    Wish I had more time to read it. Thanks Harsha via NOII email for putting me onto this.


  7. bineshii

    This is an excerpt from a longer article, “Black Block vs. Liberal Shlock
    which can be found here:
    It may at times be held in moderation, so check back if it is not available.

    …the denouncements overall from many people, seems to be trying to frame the participants in the Black Bloc action as people who lack ‘real’ community connections, and that they are antagonistic to having or making those connections, and further, that the methods of organizing and actions they take are inherently incompatible with community networks.

    These presumptions are groundless and false. Anarchist/anti-authoritarian direct actions are dependent on support and acceptance from a wider community base. And that while there is room for a lot of improvement here, in Vancouver, one of the distinct advantages of direct action, is that people who do it are part of and supported by a wider community. They are not a bunch of hoodlum vigilantes on a rampage. In general, resistance and activist groups in Vancouver organize in a fairly organic network with a lot of over lap between individual groups and communities. There are real life relationships involved where face to face conversation can and does happen.

    The denouncements both distort and invisiblize this entire area of organizing, making it more difficult to actually address the real challenges and problems that do occur in this process.

    The denouncements made by Eby et al. [including Derrick O’Keefe] attack the participants in the Black Bloc, but on a more insidious level attack the primary defense they have: community support.

    Anarchists and anti-authoritarians in Vancouver are aware to a certain degree that direct action must be anchored in a strong base of community support. If it is not, the participants in these actions are basically, ‘hung out to dry.’ (While this awareness needs to be vastly expanded on, there is a strong foundation of it that anarchists and anti-authoritarians have been developing for years in this region).

    Given the unlimited supply of ammunition the state has to use against resistance movements, in particular militant ones, the reason they don’t crush us with a single blow isn’t because they physically can’t. They don’t do it because cracking down harshly on would create a flurry of dissent from the communities militants are attached to. The State, and it’s policing agencies, go to great lengths to target, attack and dismantle these community networks. It is clearly a high priority for the State to delegitimize direct action oriented movements by characterizing them as socially aberrant. While O’Keefe actually promotes catering to it to this dynamic, proponents of direct action are saying, “No, confront it and challenge it.”

    This is why this matter is so important. It is why people are so angry and upset. It’s not just that someone dissed someone else on the 6 o’clock news. Or that someone made an insulting or critical statement on their blog. It is that these denouncements threaten the fabric of defense that anarchist/anti-authoritarian movements need to exist and have built over long periods of time. And to add insult to injury, they do this from an entirely fallacious and ignorant platform.

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