Black Bloc protester doesn't want to be stereotyped
Anti-Olympic protesters will have their last chance Sunday to draw world attention to their issues, but they appear headed into their so-called celebratory street party more divided and disparate than they were even as the loose coalition that organized a massive demonstration on the Games' opening day.
Momentum seemed to go out of the anti-Olympic movement after protesters, masked and dressed entirely in black, trashed display windows of the downtown Bay, the superstore selling Olympic merchandise, during a march the morning after opening ceremonies.
"Certainly there was a lot of discussion, some of it very heated and probably overall very healthy within different aspects of the anti-Olympic movement about whether or not some of the things that happened . . . were helpful or not," said Chris Shaw, one of the anti-Olympic movement's prime movers.
The 1,500 protesters -- a police estimate -- were mostly peaceful as they marched through downtown Vancouver the day the Games opened.
The next day, some participants among 200 demonstrators in the so-called Heart Attack march caused mayhem, breaking the Bay's windows, tossing newspaper boxes into the street and clashing with riot-equipped police before eventually being convinced to disband.
In the early going, spokesmen for the protest movement carefully parsed their words to avoid condemning the vandalism directly. At least one claimed the broken windows and spray-painted vehicles didn't amount to violence because it was against property, not people.
But then David Eby, a prominent social justice lawyer, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and an outspoken critic of the Games' heavy security presence, flatly rejected the group's justifications and praised police for their moderate approach.
He got a pie in the face at an anti-Olympic forum for his efforts.
"Since then, there is more nuanced discussion going on," said Shaw.
Shy out of town thugs?
The tactics of masked Black Bloc protesters -- they're not a formal organization so even using capital letters is debatable -- have become a focal point even as activists want to keep attention on their message.
Vancouver open-line shows buzzed with indignation over the property damage and police labelled the Black Bloc criminals and thugs from out of town.
Black Bloc proponents are notoriously media shy, but in a rare interview one of them challenged the stereotype.
"I'm a father and a husband," the soft-spoken man said in an interview with The Canadian Press. He didn't want his name used.
"I'm finishing my second degree with a 3.9-and-change grade-point average. I have no criminal record."
He was one of seven people arrested in the Feb. 13 protest on suspicion of mischief but he was released after eight hours without being charged. Two others are scheduled to make court appearances next month.
The man didn't want his appearance to be described -- to ensure, he said, the attention is on his message -- but it's safe to say he'd look out of place at a chamber of commerce luncheon.
Born in London, Ont., and turning 30 next month, he is studying for a masters degree in theology at the University of British Columbia, looking at the intersection between religious ideas and politics.
He said he's worked with the poor and disadvantaged, including drug-addicted street kids, for the last 10 years here and in Toronto.
It was Toronto's bid for the 2008 Summer Games -- won by Beijing -- that he said helped sensitize him against the Olympics. He said he remembers Toronto squatters being rounded up on the eve of a visit by the International Olympic Committee.
"When the IOC left town, they were kicked back on the street again without any of their belongings," he recalled. "That, for me, was an awakening moment when I thought maybe something is wrong with this Olympic industry."
He said he joined the Heart Attack march to help try to block a main downtown intersection connecting Olympic venues.
"Most of the standard ways of pursuing change I find to be largely ineffective," he said.
"I thought the protest on Saturday had a realistic chance of achieving its objective and I wanted to contribute to that."
Instead he was arrested for creating a disturbance as he tried to leave the protest after riot police had smothered it. He said he wasn't wearing his mask at the time.
"My cookies disappeared too. That was disappointing," he said. "I had this little bag of cookies that my wife made and they disappeared somewhere along the way when I was given my belongings back."
The Black Bloc protesters actions were intended to show people just how intensely they felt about the Olympics' adverse impact on the poor, he said.
He seemed unfazed by the negative reaction they got from bystanders and later the public at large.
"People can also react (negatively) in a situation one way and then they can go and they can think about it and they can choose to educate themselves," he said.
Eby, despite the hazing he's gotten from people who would normally be his allies, said that's "the best possible spin you could put on it."
"But the question is, is there not a way to cut out the middle step of people being repulsed and simply get to the point of doing the education work?"
Chris Shaw said he believes many people who might have been ambivalent about the Games and potential supporters for the protesters were turned off by the vandalism.
On the other hand, it could also have served as a morale booster for the movement's base.
"Sometimes ... if you're talking to people within your own community who are feeling disempowered and are feeling like their voices aren't heard and they're angry and don't now how to respond, that sort of thing actually energizes them," he said.