Probing the protest

Three luxurious-looking, brightly lit cruise ships in the Vancouver harbour serve as a visual reminder of the 900 million dollar Olympic security budget. Instead of the typical uses for honeymoons and Alaskan getaways, these ships will house police and military personnel involved in securing the 2010 Winter Games. For some Olympic protesters, this security enforcement has gotten very personal.

Part of that budget has gone towards organizing “intelligence probes,” conducted primarily by the Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit (VISU) which, according to Native activist and Editor of No2010.com Gord Hill, have been efforts “to intimidate and create a climate of fear and paranoia, to scare away less-committed people and isolate those who continue to organize.” Hill has been an outspoken critic of the Olympics, and has also publicly endorsed and participated in militant protest tactics.

To Alissa Westergard-Thorpe, organizing member of the Olympic Resistance Network (ORN), it seems like “anytime they know who you’re dating, and where that person works, that’s fairly disturbing.”

In documents obtained by the Vancouver Sun in October of 2008, outlining the major “threat assessment” of the Games, anti-globalization, anti-corporate and first nations activists were all named as threats, alongside international extremist groups like al Qaida. The document also mentions that “intelligence probes,” will target such groups. Though an extremist organization did violently attack the Olympic games in the 1972 “Munich Massacre,” local protest groups are concerned with simply marching down the street to protest – an entirely legal endeavor, according to our Charter Rights to protest, free assembly and free speech.

Somewhere along the long Olympic road, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has become “[used by] the governments of the day ... as a piece of toilet paper,” according to activist and UBC researcher Chris Shaw. Activists are now left gathering the mangled scraps of their civil liberties along the fringes of that Olympic road, as they watch friends, family members and neighbors all endure police interrogation because of their association.

According to Shaw, the surveillance of activists has occurred in no uncertain terms for about a year, though “probably a little less obviously before that.”

The policing of the Games has fallen on the shoulders of VISU, which is spearheaded by the RCMP, and also comprised of the VPD, Canadian military, and other agencies. The tactics of their so-called “intelligence probes” have not been widely broadcasted by the organization, but it has been reported that they have left little territory uncovered.

A statement released in October of 2009 by Gord Hill says that VISU officials knocked on the door of his residence a number of times, once leaving “unrequested junk mail (their business cards)” and that the next time he declined to answer, they remained “sitting in a gold-coloured SUV across the street.” He adds that during a separate incident, when RCMP officers followed him around his neighborhood, one warned him that, “from this day until the Olympics, every time I looked over my right shoulder he would be there.”

Hill also stated in email correspondence that VISU RCMP officer Jim Stolarchuk followed him to his residence, while “maintaining a rambling diatribe about my anti-Olympic activities.” These actions have involved speaking, writing and protesting about “colonization of Indigenous land and peoples,” as well as militarism, corporate power, and environmental destruction, among other causes, “by any means necessary,” as he told the CBC. He adds that the officer threatened him with ‘extraordinary rendition’ if he ever attempts to enter the United States.

Westergard-Thorpe, whose major issues with the Olympics include the environment, poverty, and housing issues, reports that other tactics have included approaching people at their jobs, staking out coffee shops that people are known to frequent, and questioning people in parking lots. She finds the idea of waiting for someone at work and threatening to talk to their bosses if they refuse to speak particularly distressing, adding, “a sure way to intimidate someone is [threatening their] livelihood.”

Police have also been watching organizations, such as the non-profit, collectively run activist bookstore Spartacus Books. Matty Harris, who works with the collective, says that security officers have been “com[ing] in and taking free anti-Olympic material and asking [questions].” He is disdainful of the “spook tactics [police are using] against grassroots organizations,” and has trained with PIVOT Legal Society as a legal observer for the duration of the games. This position will, as PIVOT describes it, allow him to “act as the eyes and ears on the streets during the Games, monitoring police conduct and ensuring that people’s rights are respected.”

Harris also tells me that most of the activists he knows are “lying low” right now, because “they don’t want to get arrested.”

“If you say too much,” he adds, “they might come knocking on your door, Natalie.”

Chris Shaw has also been a major target for both media and authorities over the past year. Just this past week, officers in a black SUV approached him in his parking garage, “want[ing] to chat about stuff ... so the message is, they’re watching you all the time.”

It’s not just activists that are being watched, either. Shaw mentions that “they’ve been talking to friends in my neighborhood, talking to my neighbors … and I don’t talk politics with my neighbors.”

In a well-publicized incident on September 30 of 2009, intelligence officers also followed a friend of Shaw’s, Langara student Danika Surm, to her classes at school, and questioned her about Shaw’s activities. Surm told the Tyee that she does not belong to any protest groups, and does not even know very much about the Games.

Shaw says wryly, “she just had the misfortune to know me, and I guess the police thought that was enough reason to go talk to her.” During the same week, Shaw adds that his ex-wife was visited as well.

There has also been a mounting concern of surveillance among the group members of the “2010 Zombie Walk” event on Facebook. Organizer Nelson Mercer sent a message to all group members on January 30 stating “apparently ... we are being watched like mice by hawks.” The 2010 Zombie Walk, which is not tied to any specific political agenda, is intended only to “[give] the world a good old-fashioned zombie-welcoming.” In his message to members, Mercer advised all participants against any violent or aggressive actions, noting, “the aforementioned acts would be grossly out of character [for this event] anyway.”

According to David Eby, Executive Director of BC Civil Liberties Association, “the net effect of these visits is to give the public the impression that people who are opposing the Olympic Games are doing something wrong, and also to discourage people who are in precarious employment or housing situations from participating ... for fear that family, friends, employers, landlords will find out that the RCMP are asking questions about them ... it has a chilling effect on free speech.”

The message that you are constantly being watched is incredibly frightening, and the security forces for the Olympics seem determined to drill it into every citizen's head. Since January 18, 900 closed-circuit RCMP surveillance cameras have been installed around downtown Vancouver, and a recent CBC article noted that there is a possibility that the cameras will remain once the Games finish. This only adds to our culture of paranoia, and enforces the idea that we are all potentially “bad people.” This issue is so prominent that there is a class at Capilano devoted to studying “Surveillance society,” which will use the 2010 Games as a case study.

The tone is clear – nothing goes unnoticed. “Just going to a meeting, or buying an anti-Olympic t-shirt, or going to an educational event seems to draw the attention of the police,” says Westergard-Thorpe.

Westergard-Thorpe says that VISU has also been targeting individuals even after the ORN presented a lawyer’s letter in a press conference stating that VISU should not contact them as individuals. The desire for such a letter was ignited after a three day “blitz” over which time there were 15 “visits” to individual organizers.

“One of the interesting things about these visitations,” says Westerdard-Thorpe, “is that they claim they want to talk to the group. But we’re a public group with public meetings that anyone can walk into. We have a public website and a public email address ... that’s why it’s particularly disturbing that they contact individuals ... they never come to a [meeting] ... they never send an email to our [ORN] email address.”

While VISU seems interested in talking to anyone with even a hint of connection, their true intentions are fairly murky. Any description of the general line of questioning used by police is vague – Shaw says that, in general, they wanted to know what is going to happen during the protests. However, as ORN member Harsha Walia notes, information regarding ORN activity is blatantly public. Westergard-Thorpe claims that they are willing to talk to activists about absolutely anything “even the weather – and that’s a quote.”

Shaw adds that “I don’t think they know what they’re looking for, they’re just looking.”

According to the VISU informational website, the organization is not concerned with peaceful protests, but only with those that are violent or unlawful. Westergard-Thorpe notes that there’s “never been any violent acts or violent plans ... [so] when we’re asked about violence, nobody has anything to tell them.”

The VISU site also states that “police have the right to ask questions and gather information ... reaching out not only to protest groups but to any individual who may have information which would impact the safety and security of the Winter Games.” When contacted directly, RCMP Cpl. Joe Taplin stated that he was unable to discuss any tactics used in the organizations “intelligence probes,” saying that it would “jeopardize” any investigations, and that “information is confidential.”

Eby notes that “it would be na├»ve to say that there’s no security threats around the Olympics, but to think that the major security threat to the Games comes from the people holding open meetings on Commercial Drive, the people who are speaking out in the mediahistorically that’s not been a threat to the Olympic Games. The real threat has been people who have not been holding open meetings, who have been … building pipe bombs.”

He expresses concern that “the RCMP spends trailing around people that everybody knows about that present a very minimal threat instead of looking into the more serious threats.”

The effect that these visits are having on activists is in some ways the opposite of the “submission-by-way-of-fear” that must be intended. While Westergard-Thorpe frequently referred to VISU’s actions as “disturbing” or “chilling,” she and Walia both insist that if anything, it has made their desire to organize and protest against the Games even stronger. Walia mentions that there has been a lot of support for people who have felt harassed by police, adding, “the biggest weapon we have is solidarity.”

This solidarity is apparent both within activist groups, and between them, as ORN issued an endorsement of their anti-2010 campaign, with support from at least 30 other movements and organizations including the Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group, the Work Less Party, and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. The groups will come together in Convergence between the 10-15 of February, an action that the Tyee has called “the Olympics wild card.”

Despite the overwhelming feeling that their civil liberties are being stripped from them, Vancouver’s citizens have seen a few of those rights return, after Shaw and Westergard-Thorpe threatened the City of Vancouver with a lawsuit. Notably, one bylaw, which Shaw referred to as “an offensive piece of work,” would have banned protests or anti-Olympic signage within a 40 blocks area of downtown Vancouver. The bylaw, along with several others, has been rescinded.

While Shaw has expressed contentment towards, as he told Kelowna.com, a “good tactical victory,” he remains skeptical, saying that “civil liberties ... are hard to get and easy to lose.”

These activists also agree that although VISU claims to respect the right to protest peacefully, they really don’t want any protests to occur at all. Walia notes, “the IOC charter requires host cities to do their best to ensure that there is no protesting of any kind surrounding the Olympics.” Westergard-Thorpe touches on this as well, bemoaning the fact that VANOC is harshly opposed to any “competing imagery.” The host city contract, in section 47, states definitively, “no propaganda or advertising [which conflicts with any IOC contract or agreement] is placed within the Olympic venues or outside the Olympic venues in such a manner to as to be within the view of television cameras ... or spectators.”

The message that activists are getting from all this is that, as Chris Shaw puts it, “We are not quite as free as we thought we were.”

// Natalie Corbo,
news editor

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com