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Beginning in the 1960s, Vancouver created a legacy for itself as a leading voice among the metropoles of the globe as an advocate for peace, a haven for U.S. war resisters, and a hub of anti-nuclear activism.
The now-global environmental activist organization, Greenpeace, was founded here. Vancouver remains one of four Canadian cities that has been declared nuclear-free. The high point of Vancouver's peace activism came in the mid-1980's with massive mobilizations for peace and for an end to the Arms Race.
On the other hand, Vancouver has, in recent decades, been a paragon of neoliberalism, has always had a colonial relationship with the Indigenous peoples whose land they've stolen, and is home to the most impoverished neighborhood in the country. For Vancouver, the neoliberal situation emerged in a period following the last time the city hosted a global event, the world's fair of 1986 (Expo 86).
Like Vancouver 2010, Expo 86 required gentrification and dislocation of the homeless, argues the Olympic Resistance Network. "Opposition to Expo 86 was difficult to organize, however, as government & corporate organizers funneled millions into arts, culture and community groups (creating co-optation & division)."
Radical activist, comedian, and novelist, Charles Demers is the author of a new book on the city, Vancouver Special. In it, he calls Expo 86 the 2010 Olympics' "traumatic, bookend precedent. Expo 86 and the Olympics are the city's twin late capitalism dislocations, each project brought about through the combined efforts of corporate hyperboosters and right-wing politicos... "
Although the entrenchment of neoliberalism posed a direct challenge to the progressive social movements, and contributed to their waning, there remains a vibrant social justice community, an anarchist tradition, and an anti-colonial, anti-racist, anti-poverty movement among Natives, immigrants, and the homeless. Together, these movements are converging to demonstrate resistance against the Olympics.
Their objective is to provoke a major disruption of the Olympics and show that there's this resistance in the hope of deterring other cities from bidding on the Olympics, so that it becomes something that people don't really want to have in their city.
One of the ways that this will happen is through the mobilization of alternative media that embeds itself within and reports from the perspective of the resistance, says Dawn Paley, journalist and organizer with the Vancouver Media Cooperative (VMC). She says VMC was launched "around the time of the Olympics strategically because there is no real independent media here, where it's open publishing and it serves social movements and activists." The VMC will combine professional journalism with "street level reporting, from people writing from inside the social movements."
A $900 million, 15,000 personnel strong security contingent will attempt to contain the convergence of protesters who intend to make the Games as much a political struggle as an athletic one, while corporate sponsors and the pliant media attempt to envelope the consciousness of consumer-viewers. Already, in anticipation of the protests, the 'Vancouver Integrated Security Unit' has been harassing protestors with intimidation tactics, attempts to label them as "threats," and have tried to infiltrate the movements.
These tactics have backfired and brought more people to the protest movments. This time around, with growing awareness of the rapaciousness of transnational corporations and the negative affects of neoliberalism, such division and cooptation has been more difficult.
The "Brand Vancouver" that Olympic organizers are trying to sell, Demers says, "is neoliberalism with a human face, the 21st century 'green' capitalism. Beating the shit out of protesters, and the international media arriving and seeing a whole bunch of homeless people, including a high proportion of Native peoples, by seeing things like that it's going to be harder and harder to sell this international brand of Vancouver. The image of the city as a brutal resort town for the rich with all the brutality that has to go into making the situation like that is going to come up to the forefront."
For Demers, "One positive thing that could come out of the absolute disaster of the Olympics is that the fantasy of turning Vancouver into a resort town for the global rich has been kiboshed."
As for the Olympics aftermath, he adds, "If we go through what I expect we will, if we go through what Montreal did (following their hosting of the 1976 summer Olympics), which is decades to come of municipal bankruptcy, Vancouver won't be a place that rich people want to take over. There's a actually a chance that the failure of the Olympics could, ironically, give Vancouver a few more years of the city we all kind of want it to be, which is this city that is accessible to every layer of it."
Gord Hill, an activist from the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation in British Columbia, believes that after the Olympics "the real class struggle is going to begin," pointing out how the British Columbia government "bought off a lot of the major unions here" by coercing them to sign "Olympic Labour Peace" contracts that would defer agitation until after the Olympics. Adds Hill, "the thing about it is we're still going to be here, our resistance movement is still going to be here, we're still going to have our network, and there's not going to be 7,000 pigs running in the streets. So, the government has set themselves up for a great big fall after the Olympics and our movement's going to be a part of it."
A translated version of this article will appear in the next issue of the Paris-based French weekly newspaper, Courrier International. It was also featured on the website WebofDemocracy.org. Anthony Fenton is an independent researcher and journalist in Vancouver, BC, who specializes in Canadian foreign policy analysis.