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Changing the Story on Dissent

Changing the Story on anti-Olympic Dissent:
Free Speech against the 2010 Police State

“What is it that power-hungry politicians want from BC artists? Control over the story through the annihilation of the former story-tellers? Is this the agenda behind the decapitation of arts funding in British Columbia, while mega-millions are poured into the Olympics?” – Margaret Atwood

I posted the above quote a few days ago.  I posted it because it eloquently fit with the theme for this blog, and because it is great to see Atwood standing up to VANOC.

Atwood was responding to VANOC’s stipulation regarding the so-called ‘Cultural Olympiad’ that: “artist[s] shall at all times refrain from making any negative or derogatory remarks respecting VANOC, the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Olympic movement generally, Bell and/or other sponsors associated with VANOC.”

I will have lots to say about cultural appropriation at the Olympics later. But right now, this is about free speech. Or at least it has become about that.

Dave Eby of the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) was on CBC’s Q with Jian Gomeshi the other night talking about the same stipulation that Atwood is referring to. The night before that, Kieth Olberman of MSNBC was talking about the Canadian border guards’ harassment of Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman.

This is attention to the 2010 Police State finally being paid by mainstream media. But this was never supposed to be about free speech.

While the callouts for solidarity and mobilization against the 2010 Olympics have all stressed a diversity of both causes and tactics, free speech and civil rights were supposed to be just one issue among many.

At AW@L, the free speech contest with Kitchener City Hall was a means of engagement with the City and the local media. We were also picking up on the dialogue from the west coast scene at the time. I think for us, as likely for others, we jumped on this for good reason; it is working.

Pushing the civil liberties discourse has been a very successful language to speak engaging both media and government. For some people, especially it seems in the legal profession, civil liberties are their primary platform of engagement against the Olympics for legitimate ideological reasons.

However, by now, the free speech issue has become front and foremost in the media; ahead of the Indigenous land issues, ahead of the gentrification or labour issues, ahead of even the public funding issue—an inherently mainstream topic by nature, and also ahead of the militarized security operation itself—the strong arm of the 21st century state.

While it is tempting to cast all this attention from the media as both a victory for the anti-Olympics organizers and as a blunder on the part of VANOC and the Integrated Security Unit (VISU), I want to suggest another way of looking at this.

The discourse around the crackdown on dissent at the Olympics has now become distracted away from the billion dollar security operation which will see 1000+ American military personnel joining more than 15 000 Canadian cops, soldiers and private security as part of the largest policing operation in Canadian history.

Part of that billion dollar budget has paid for CSIS and RCMP agents’ harassment of activists and community members. In so-called British Columbia over one hundred activists have been visited by VISU.

Even here in Ontario activists, including myself, have been visited by CSIS and other intel/policing agents. One friend was pulled out of a class at York University by two CSIS agents who interrogated her concerning anti-Olympics organizing.

We are willing to risk this harassment and the crackdowns on activists, organizers, journalists and educators. We have been expecting it for some time. Fortunately, the BCCLA and others have been doing a very good job at fighting back against this police state agenda.

It is important, however, that we remember to focus our efforts on the very issues about which we dissent. That there is a general dissention registered is not enough. There are stories that need to be heard.

One of those stories started, for me anyway, at the Montebello summit in 2007. Not long after returning from the mobilization against that summit, I compiled a document on the Security and Prosperity Partnership called Understanding the SPP: following the paper trail.

Understanding the SPP was essentially just an organized list of hyperlinks to mostly government and corporate documents and websites. Through one of the non-governmental links in that document was the paper, Future of North America: 2010, the Coronation of the North American Community from the Centre for Research on Globalization.

“As the march towards 2010 accelerates along with the march towards the ‘North American Community,’ Vancouver will be subject to the establishment of a police state to provide ‘security’ for the Olympics. In essence, Vancouver 2010 will mark the coronation of a ‘new’ form of governance for North America, anointing a crown upon a regional bureaucracy and its corporate controllers.”

But the SPP agenda has gone back underground; “deactivated” by Obama and, in turn, decentralized back into the corporate and government backrooms where the NAFTA style agendas have so often been negotiated. So we won’t see the Olympic security operation talked about this way. However, those security agenda priorities that were already initiated, such as the Civil Assistance Plan [pdf] (which is what allows the American troops to “assist” in municipal and civil policing matters in Canada), remain in place.

It is a safe bet that similarly, the new by-laws and security technology (including CCTV and the infamous LRAD) put into place for the Games will also remain in place. It is also a safe bet that Vancouver-Whistler style security will be similarly deployed at the G8/G20 in Toronto-Huntsville this summer

These are some of the ways that the Olympics will change the landscape of dissent in Vancouver and the rest of the country; lasting legacies of 2010.

However, what I think we want people to remember is definitely not the Games themselves, but not the convergence or the police response either. What we want is for people to be left with the messages that are central to the convergence.

Making the Olympics part of the fabric of the discourse of our resistance is one way we can change the story. This is crucially important right now in Canada.

Activists across the country have already taken “direct action” in connection with the Copenhagen summits which start this week. It is dire that Canadian activists remember that when they are talking about climate justice, if their personal focus is not also on our own homes on stolen native lands, then their talk of justice is meaningless.

Activists across the country are furious about the formation of the CPCCA. While the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-semitism is an affront to our notions of meaningful anti-racism, in this country, any anti-racist action that does not recognize ongoing local anti-colonial struggles is, in many ways, missing the point.

Activists in Toronto are about to take action on the TTC fare hikes. An anti-poverty action taking place in downtown Toronto could be an opportunity to confront gentrification as a shared struggle amongst people living in urban cores across the country.

Activists in Canada working on anti-mining have an opportunity to confront the violently colonial nature of the Canadian mining industry when the Pan Am Games come to Toronto in 2015. The awarding earlier this month, of those games to the city, was a perfect opportunity to draw connections between the struggles of Indigenous peoples across Latin America against Canadian mining firms and the struggles of Indigenous peoples of the Coast Salish Territories to resource extraction, the tourist industry, and the Olympics.

These are all opportunities to make the connections between communities with interconnected struggles clearer to us all, to change the ways we understand those connections, and the ways those understandings inform our organizing and our actions.

What we need is for people to be left with the messages that are central to this movement.

This is stolen native land.

People need homes, not a corporate circus.

  1. December 6, 2009 at 3:34 am

    Hey, I agree the free speech issue that’s ended up overriding everything else. Every time I’m in front of a mike I talk about indigenous rights, homelessness, inequality, all the issues we have agreed on, and that gets cut every time. Maybe the solution is to frame this in terms of who is getting picked on and why.

    • December 6, 2009 at 1:36 pm

      I’ve had the exact same same experience. Last time we targetted RBC, Olympic sponsor CTV cut out everything we said about the Olympics and made it look like a “fill the hill” related action against the tar sands. We need an all encompassing way to frame these issues, a ‘meta-meme’, or something of the sorts. My next post is going to be about rethinking the ‘climate justice’ discourse.

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