A variety of measures were taken by both Canadian and U.S. authorities against independent jounrnalists attempting to cover the protests around the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.
Listen to the report:
The 21st Winter Olympics are being held from February 12th–28th, 2010, in Vancouver and Whistler, in the Canadian province of British Columbia.
Host cities use the Olympic Games as a means to attract corporate investment in a similar way as with large-scale events such as the Republican and Democratic political conventions and global financial gatherings such as the World Trade Organization, G-8, and G-20 meetings.
Canada won the bidding process to host the Winter Olympics in July 2003. The following year, the operational cost was initially estimated to be $1.35 billion.
By the beginning of February 2010, the estimated total cost of the Games—including required infrastructure improvements—had risen to at least $6 billion, including a staggering $1 billion spent on security preparations, to be headed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, five times the initial security budget estimate.
The Olympics themselves are a massive brand. According to the official website of the Vancouver Olympic Committee, or VANOC:
One of the key conditions of being awarded the right to host the 2010 Winter Games was a commitment to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that the Olympic Brand would be protected in Canada.
VANOC took this quite literally, copyrighting lines from the English and French versions of Canada’s national anthem—which it will use on official merchandise—and managed to get a landmark piece of legislation passed in the House of Commons in 2007—the Olympic and Paralympic Marks Act—that made using certain phrases related to the Games a violation of law.
These include the number “2010” and the words “games” and “winter”—phrases which normally could not be trademarked because they are so generally used.
VANOC proceeded to take small local businesses to court for using the word “Olympic” in their names, including those in existence long before the Games were awarded to Vancouver.
VANOC’s often bizarre court forays included trying to prevent the non-incorporated “Eco-Tourism 2010 Society” from using 2010 in its name, and to target cheeky yoga-wear retailer Lilu-lemon—which launched a December 2009 clothing line called:
“Cool Sporting Event That Takes Place in British Columbia Between 2009 and 2011 Edition.”
With 7 years preceding the Olympics, a unprecedented resistance movement has grown up, based out of Vancouver. Harjap Grewal, from the Olympic Resistance Committee, explains why anyone would protest what was on the surface, a simple sporting event:
“It’s a unique moment in history because a call for a convergence normally happens at the G-8, WTO and World Bank summits that happen around the world, and this time organizers have actually called for a demonstration against the Olympics Industry.
We don’t see the Olympics Industry as being that much different than these other institutions that are unaccountable to the people of the world. The IOC is like the WTO, the IOC is like the IMF, is like the World Bank, and it encourages the transfer of wealth from public hands to private pockets.”
As early as 2007, over 70 percent of Vancouver citizens polled by Robbins SCE Research did not support the cost of the Olympics, and a January 2010 Canadian Press/Harris Decima poll found that 84 percent of Canadians believed the Games would end up in the red.
Harsha Walia, from the Olympic Resistance Committee, stated:
“We see that the Games have been overrun with a budget of over $7 billion, indigenous lands continue to be exploited and stolen, with ski resort developments all across British Columbia, increasing poverty and criminalization of the poor in the Downtown Eastside, a massive cutback in public spending and an increasing budget for policing and militarization here in Vancouver. We have $1 billion that are being sunk into a military police state in the lead-up to the Olympics.”
The most visible slogan of the anti-Olympic protest movement has been “No 2010 Olympics on Stolen Native Land”. In an interview with the Vancouver Media Coop, First Nation artist and activist Gord Hill explained why many members of Canada’s indigenous population oppose the games which are taking place on land whose status is uniquely unresolved in Canada:
“Well here in BC in particular, it refers to the history of colonialism here in the province, and the lack of treaties that the government was required—by its own laws—to make in its western expansion across Canada. So when they got to BC, which was forming itself as a colony at that time under the British, they started to make treaties.
The first ones were known as the Douglas Treaties, after the first governor, and he made a number of small treaties on Vancouver Island, and after that they just stopped the process and just imposed government control over all these indigenous lands here in the province. It’s illegal and it’s actually immoral because they were bound by their own laws to make treaties before they settled on any land or any business took place on sovereign indigenous land.”
Radical sports writer Dave Zirin is quick to point out that the Olympics are a destructive force wherever they go. Speaking to Submedia.tv’s Franklin Lopez in Vancouver this January, Zirin explained his position:
“My beef with the Olympics is that everywhere they go you see the same three things—you see police repression, you see budget-busting graft, and you see hardcore gentrification and displacement. And that’s true no matter where the Olympics go.
Most people know about how this went down in Beijing—but it’s not a China issue, it’s not a Beijing issue, it’s an Olympics issue. Wherever they go they make these demands of a given community and I don’t think any community should have to deal with that to host a sporting event.”
After filming the January 20th interview with Zirin, Lopez got a little taste of where the $1 billion security budget for the Olympics was being spent:
“I produce a radical television/web show where I have been very critical of the Olympics for over a couple of years now. I’m also supporting Vancouver Media Coop, which is a local, independent, news-gathering cooperative that is very sympathetic to the views of the Olympic Resistance Network and the anti-Olympic movement. And thirdly I produced a video exhorting people to come to Vancouver to protest.
I was videotaping Dave Ziron, who is a radical sportswriter for The Nation—and he also writes for Sports Illustrated Online, and wrote A People’s History Of Sports In The United States. The place where he spoke was very close to my office. That event was put on by the Olympic Resistance Network and, as expected, the police were probably there undercover.
About an hour after the event was over, I get a call from one of my workmates [to say] that the Vancouver Integrated Security Unit—that is basically a special police force put in place to protect the Olympic Brand—had visited me and insisted that they ‘knew’ that I was in the building, and that they just wanted to talk to me for five minutes.
The folks were in plain clothes, and not just in plain clothes but plain, kind of hipster, grungy clothes, and they left their business cards with their Royal Canadian Mounted Police logos and their Vancouver Integrated Security Unit logos.
The only thing that I can think of is that it’s not that it’s hard to find anybody in this day and age, but that somebody followed me from the event, reported back to them, and once they were done gathering their intelligence at the event, they came and saw me, or tried to look for me at least.”
VIVO is an artist-run center in Vancouver that had planned a number of media, arts and activist-focused public events during the Olympics—both at its space and on the airwaves.
Armed with a 12-watt radio transmitter that had been used previously without incident in several art installations across British Columbia, it didn’t take long for VIVO to find out that the Olympics were not the time to get creative with your dissent.
I spoke with Kristen Roos from VIVO:
“We had only just been on the air not even for 24 hours. Normally I know that other pirate radio stations, they come and give you a warning, and if you keep broadcasting they give you another warning, but they came right in with, ‘Okay, if you keep broadcasting you’ll get a $25,000-a-day fine.
I’ve done projects like this, small scale stuff, before, and it’s kind of under the radar. It’s just a really particular time right now. Industry Canada doesn’t usually come knocking on your door with Olympic jackets on, you know? They all had Olympic jackets and VANOC passes to get into places. Not normal activity.
They’re supposed to be checking out things based on complaints but whether we would have got a complaint for such a small project like this if the Olympics weren’t here? I doubt it.”
Martin Macias—a student, radio host on Chicago Public Radio, and activist who worked on Chicago’s successful campaign against the 2016 Olympic bid—arrived in Vancouver airport on February 6th, prepared to spend a week documenting resistance to the 2010 Games.
Macias was turned away by Canadian immigration after being interrogated and having his belongings searched:
“They looked at my notebook, they looked at my newspapers, looked in the phone books that I had in my bag, and they found a number in there which is from the conference, and it’s a support number, I guess in case you need something while you are in Vancouver, if you need food of shelter or if you have problems with the authorities, any issues with them, you can call that number.
The customs agent, she saw that as a sign that I came to Vancouver with the intention of being involved in some kind of activity where I would possibly need support, in case I was arrested or in case I had issues with the authorities. And she saw that as reasonable grounds to refuse my entry.”
In an interview with radical sportswriter Dave Zirin at The Nation magazine, Macias chillingly reported what is becoming a clear conflation by security services policing protest at national and international events:
“I kept telling them,” said Macias, “[that] I wasn’t going to Vancouver to protest but to cover the protests but for them that was one and the same.”
Less anticipated than the Canadian crackdown was the interest that U.S. authorities would have in those turned away by its northern neighbor.
Following his denial of entry by Canada, on the grounds of misdemeanor convictions in the U.S. from several years ago, U.S. Indymedia journalist John Weston Osburn—a veteran of documenting both the 2008 Republican National Convention and 2009 G-20 protests—was interrogated by the Department of Homeland Security after he was sent back from the Canadian border:
“They took me inside their substation and basically started interrogating me. They asked me why I was heading for Canada, and I told them I was going to film a protest. And they asked me what the protests were about and they seemed like they wanted me to admit that it was an anti-Olympic protest.
And when they started asking me about the specifics of the protest, I basically got defensive because I didn’t feel like it was any of their business. It was my right to go film whatever I wanted to film and I didn’t feel I owed them any explanation for that.
So I asked them to speak to a lawyer, and they told me that I didn’t have the right to a lawyer, and that I was not either in Canada or in the United States but that I was in—as one officer worded it—that I was in ‘no man’s land’ and that I belonged to him. I found that really troubling.
As I was in there and they were telling me this, there was an American flag hanging and a big wooden eagle and I was thinking to myself, ‘If this isn’t America, then where the hell am I?’
He said, ‘So you want to plead the fifth then?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I do’ and he said, ‘Well you can plead it in here’ and he put me in a holding cell. While I was in the holding cell, it was basically a degrading experience because they completely ignored my demands to be released.
I asked multiple times if I was being detained and on what grounds. One time when I asked, ‘Am I being detained?’ and they said ‘No” but then I said ‘Am I free to go?’ and they said ‘No.’”
Meanwhile, on the streets of Vancouver, independent journalists were finding that the police were not making much effort to discriminate between protesters and reporters.
I spoke with Chris Bevacqua, a photographer working with the Vancouver Media Cooperative about what he witnessed covering Friday protests in downtown Vancouver.
Following the breaking of a few windows of corporations—who were official sponsors of the Olympics—the police moved into action:
“At that point, police knew we were coming, so riot police came from around the building and at that point we were penned in on either side. And still taking photos at that point. I don’t know when the call was made but then the police suddenly attacked. It seemed as though it was without warning to me. I didn’t hear anything. Maybe there was, I don’t know.
And people just started getting tackled and pulled to the ground and just hit with clubs and stuff, and I’m just clicking away, just trying to get in there and take photos. And then I realized that I got pushed back—not super hard but I was pushed back—and I kind of realized that the police were sort of attacking everybody and looked around and in particular—there’s a video of him on the Vancouver Media Coop’s site—who was most definitely a photographer who had a camera in his hand. He didn’t have a bandana over his face or anything like that and was basically beaten up by police. I think it would be safe to say he was pushed around pretty hard.
The cop in front of me swung his club and hit the protester’s leg next to me but it could easily have been either of us, he wasn’t really aiming for anyone in particular. I think he was just swinging his club.”
I asked Indymedia reporter John Weston Osburn why he thought it was important to drive 2,000 miles to report—unpaid—on what was happening outside the Olympics.
“Well I think when corporate media comes and covers them I think there’s a really obvious conflict of interests. If there’s people vocalizing opposition to policies of corporations and the actions of these corporations then the corporations aren’t going to cover them.
It’s been a really common thing during these protests that they’ll go largely uncovered or there’s a lot of misinformation that’s usually put into them.
In this country, if we really want to maintain free speech and freedom of the press, then we have to become the press. And that’s why I’m so committed to citizen journalism.”