W2 forum focuses on black bloc tactics in February 13 protest against Vancouver Olympics

I just came back from moderating a discussion at the W2 Culture + Media House focusing on the diversity of tactics used by social movements.

This came in the wake of the February 13 anti-Olympic protest in downtown Vancouver, where several activists used direct-action "black bloc" tactics.

They donned black hoods, face masks, and smashed the windows of the Bay and the Toronto-Dominion bank near the corner of Georgia and Granville streets in Vancouver.

The two speakers, Harsha Walia and Derrick O'Keefe, have both been involved in Vancouver social movements for many years. For those who didn't see the live discussion streamed on Straight.com or Rabble.ca, I'll provide a summary of some key points.

O'Keefe began by expressing concerns about protesters hiding behind  masks, suggesting that  this  presents opportunities for police to act as agents provocateur. He also said that the best direct action tactics are done in a transparent  way that educate the public about the stupidity of a law.

He cited the example of African-American civil-rights protesters sitting at a lunch counter and being arrested because the law forbid them from eating in that area. He also highlighted the example of French farmer Jose Bove`s protests against McDonald`s.  

O`Keefe said that these types of direct actions involve a willingness to be arrested and to face legal consequences  to  advance the goal of  mobilizing the public.

Walia said she didn't use black  bloc tactics herself on February 13, but she praised the people who acted in this way. She said that some of the anonymous, black-clad protesters are the same activists who use other tactics and who are at the front lines of helping the poor and disenfranchised.

Walia praised their courage and said that using masks can be justified in an era of increasing police surveillance, noting that the Zapatistas use masks in Mexico. She also said these tactics help build mass movements.

One of her key points  was that they "create room" for other protests to be more effective, because they seem quite reasonable in comparison. She cited the anarchist tent city in the Downtown Eastside as one example, which she said is being supported by some of the same people who used black bloc methods on February 13. She also mentioned the February 14 women`s march in the Downtown Eastside as another protest that was more effective after the previous day's demonstration. The Valentine's Day march was designed to draw attention to missing and murdered women across the country.

Walia  also said the black  bloc protest was planned well in advance and she questioned why the mainstream media did not address the significance of the attack on the Hudson's Bay Company (now  known as Hbc).

Hbc  owns the Bay as well as Zellers, Fields, and Home Outfitters. In 2008, a New York-based private-equity firm,  NRDC Equity Partners, bought Hbc, which is outfitting Canadian athletes at the 2010  Olympics.

Walia  claimed that  direct action seems to be the only way to get the media to focus on corporations such as the Hbc and the Royal Bank, which are  both financial sponsors of the Vancouver  Olympics organizing committee.

Walia noted that the Hudson`s Bay Company has been a symbol of colonial oppression for centuries, and it was no coincidence that its window was targeted on February 13.

(The Hudson`s Bay Company received a royal charter in 1670 and is integrally linked with the rise of the fur trade and the history of Canada.)

One audience member, Eric Doherty, went up to the microphone to say he thought it was good to have this type of discussion. Doherty, who opposes the Gateway Program, said he attended the February 13  protest, but his group left after the first window was shattered.

With an amused grin, he suggested that the protesters smashed the wrong target at the Bay. He said that the display with an Indian sweater made in China would have been a much more appropriate window for the  black  bloc protesters to attack. (Nobody criticized his remark.)  Instead, black bloc activists threw a Province news box and chairs at a window display that featured television screens on February 13.

Another speaker in the audience, Harjap Grewal, pointed out that Bhagat Singh and others used much more extreme tactics in the Indian independence movement, and that this actually helped more moderate leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi, succeed in the end.

Walia received the loudest applause from people in the crowd who supported Black bloc tactics. Nobody at the forum spoke in favour of Vancouver hosting the Olympics.

Comments (14) Add New Comment
Ryan Postel
Walia questioned why the mainstream media did not address the significance of the attack on the Hudson's Bay Company??

Hello - you are just helping sell ads on mainstream tv and newspapers. Viewers see the violence and destruction, and ignore any of the mixed messages you are trying to send by defacing a Canadian national symbol. HSBC is integrally linked with the founding of Canada as a Nation.
5
3
Rating: +2
blahblah
So Harsha Walla claims "that direct action seems to be the only way to get the media to focus on corporations such as Hbc and the Royal Bank". If that is true, then this "direct action" was a total failure as all I am hearing and reading is people focusing on the irresponsible acts of the so called black block. In fact, if their tactics are so effective, then there would be no need to have this forum which was necessary to justify their "direct action". Don't get me wrong, I don't like people being exploited by corporations either, but I also don't like people being extorted by violent thugs. In fact, both Gandhi and Martin Luther King NEVER supported violent acts to further their cause.
3
3
Rating: 0
AWP
Well finally Ms.Walia has come out front and stated she supports Black Bloc tactics. If you look under defensive weapons on their website you will see that this group also condones viloence against people as well as property damage.

On my own little protest now I will be neutral at best in my attitude in the future of all the groups that affiliate or support this style of activism.
4
4
Rating: 0
Barry D
I heard Walia on CKNW before the Olympics saying she had no idea if protesters would use violence. She was only worried about police violence. Now she says the attacks and smashing were well planned. How can anyone take her seriously now?
4
4
Rating: 0
wtf
black black tactics never work: seattle, genoa, quebec, what did that change? nothing. and in this specific case it's even more pointless because this is not a G20 where the city is flooded with bankers, this is the Olympics, and downtown is full of tourists, families, and all kinds of people who just want to have fun. especially now smashing and scaring is pointless and counterproductive. no one will care about the issues. you have no idea the mood the city is in. they won't hear you. you are not even close to a mass movement. the sad part is, after friday there could have been a building mass movement of protests that could have really got a message out. now i feel like that opportunity is gone. i think you have seriously failed to assess the situation for what it is. when you show signs that say "smash the state" and you downplay a horrifying episode, you are doing nothing to create a mass movement that could actually change something.
6
3
Rating: +3
Oldtimer
It is really sad that angry pseudo-anarchists can't find more intelligent and reasonable ways to educate the public and world media of the many reasons that we should question the status-quo in Vancouver or wherever one chooses to look. Legitimate free speech is not heard when the attention all falls on the pathetic behavior of a tiny percentage of the Olympic resistance. It is rather amusing that these people think that they are embodying the revolutionary spirit of the Zapatista, when in truth the actions of the "Black Block" mirror the Blackshirts of Mussolini and Mugabe (in other words FASCISTS) The Black Block ends up looking juvenile and absurd. Real radicals choose to make meaningful change in a positive way in their personal lives as well as in communities. Move out of the way Black Block, you are just giving the mainstream media all sorts of fodder to devalue legitimate criticism of the Corporate/Military world Order and it's Olympic Games.
6
4
Rating: +2
Slippery Slope
If we condone mischief as part of 'democratic expression of rights' (or whatever euphemism you want to use) we are opening the door to more extreme protest tactics. Does 'only damaging property' extend to the clothing that someone is wearing? Throwing paint on onlookers could then be construed as a legitimate protest.

Give these people an inch, and they will take a mile. I say the law is the law no matter the circumstances or time of day, and those people should be held accountable for their actions.
6
2
Rating: +4
Maxim
Before going into any other points, I'd like to deconstruct what people mean by VIOLENCE. "Violence is behaviour which is intended to hurt, injure, or kill people." No one, repeat, NO ONE, at the protest that day (or any day for that matter) had ANY intention to hurt anyone, except of course the Police who showed up with bats, "less-lethal" shotguns, and M4's (and who injured several people that day - watch the footage, read the straight article). Also, one has to put into context a BROKEN WINDOW in light of the DAILY VIOLENCE carried out by the state on the people of Afghanistan, the disenfranchised on the streets in the DTES, and the First Nations still trying to maintain a semblance of community and way of life which has been brutally violated by hundreds of years of state oppression. To Slippery Slope; the "law was the law" when only white men with property had the vote, but I guess we should have stopped that from ever changing? To most of you; criticizing a group of concerned youths willing to put their bodies on the line to make a message most of you are unwilling to even listen to while you do NOTHING to address issues of public resources, poverty, homelessness, criminalization of the poor, gentrification, genocide, war, environmental destruction, and so on, is dismaying. It's clear you value the mainstream media's take on the world more than what REAL people are doing about REAL issues in this community and abroad. Come down to the Tent Village and get to know us, see what bothers our hearts, and come help us build something new of out this shameful mess we call Canada.
4
5
Rating: -1
Puck
When you make it so easy to be dismissed as the looney left, whose agenda are you really serving? Tent Village would accomplish a lot more and attract more supporters if the signs weren't so militant and the people more welcoming. You have to try to win over the cars passing by and the optics of tent city are not accomplishing that. Put the anger aside and focus on reasoned well thought out arguments to explain that we need to build housing and expand education and social supports and people need to speak with their elected representatives to get this done. If you want to get attention target an action that will win over the hearts and minds of the populace. I want to support you but I'm very disappointed. There has to be someone out there with the charisma, intelligence and ability to reach out to a broad audience to galvanize the public at large to make the government act. It is possible. Somebody please save the protests from these anarchists who have no answers or proposals on how to make things run. I'm sorry but abolishing capitalism is not a plan, you'll never make it happen. Get into the real world please and lets work from there. Please Vancouver can't we end homeless already?????? Wealthy citizens can't you convince your fellow elites to accept tax increases so we can uphold basic human rights and preserve civil society?
3
2
Rating: +1
RodSmelser
Puck

When you make it so easy to be dismissed as the looney left, whose agenda are you really serving?
=================================

Puck, I have tried several times to make this point. Who do you think finances these professional protesters?

Rod Smelser
1
5
Rating: -4
blahblah
Hey Puck here's the deal. You want the "wealthy citizens" to "accept tax increases so we can uphold basic rights and preserve civil society". That statement shows that apparently you don't pay taxes. I am not a "wealthy citizen", yet I pay approximately 35% of my yearly income in taxes. Vancouver and Canadian citizens are some of the most compassionate and caring people in the world. Yet, all we get for our troubles is people like you wanting us to give more to solve the world's problems. HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH??? I read an article last week stating that over $1million a day is poured into the DTES and that Vancouver has more social housing than anywhere in Canada. Yet still the problem persists. What makes you think that the homeless problem can be "solved"? There has been homelessness since the dawn of time, as well as drug addiction and prostitution. Only our ego's think we can solve these problems. Don't think I am a heartless person, but I put my money into programs that actually work - like the Salvation Amy. I don't see the point in giving more to people with no clear objectives. People who always want the government and others to "give more". If you want direct action, try Habitat for Humanity. Any action is better than wanting the government to "solve" the problem. Wanting is not action. I have encountered many people downtown who are perfectly able to work and care for themselves, but they prefer to let the government (that is the tax paying citizens) take care of them. If you ask me, less might be more. Is it too much to ask for a little personal responsibility? I know there are lots of people who need help, but unfortunately our society doesn't do anything to distinguish the needy from the greedy. The greedy being those who want something for nothing. When we create a CULTURE OF DEPENDENCY as we have done in the DTES, we spend all our money in maintaining the status quo instead of actually doing some good. When we enable drug addicts because they CHOOSE to do drugs by supporting their "right" to be addicts, then we are indeed our own worst enemy. Only when someone CHOOSES to help themselves can society be of any help. I know - been there, done that.
I do agree with your statement that groups like the tent city inhabitants would win more sympathy and friends if their demeanor wasn't so militant and angry. No one is for homelessness, yet they spit in the face of good citizens because we don't keep on giving. By the way, most of those people in the tent city aren't even homeless, they just CHOOSE to be angry.
As for "preserving civil society", that is what I want to be done with my tax money. My version of "civil society" is a society where those who can take care of themselves do, and those who need help get it. Not a society where those who don't want to do anything are given everything. I'd rather give my money to someone who really needs it - like sick people who don't expect the government (tax payers) to solve their problems.
1
1
Rating: 0
RodSmelser
blahblah

Vancouver and Canadian citizens are some of the most compassionate and caring people in the world. Yet, all we get for our troubles is people like you wanting us to give more to solve the world's problems. HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH??? I read an article last week stating that over $1million a day is poured into the DTES and that Vancouver has more social housing than anywhere in Canada.
===============================

I think blahblah was an appropriate name to use. These statements are totally baseless.


Rod Smelser
1
3
Rating: -2
blahblah
Hey Rod, I'm just telling you what I read in the paper. Apparently whatever is in the paper must be the truth - just look at how easily you and all the other perpetually unhappy people believe what you read in the Straight. Oops, the Straight isn't really a newspaper, just an entertainment magazine. And regardless of how untrue you might think it is, I will gladly stand by my statement "Vancouver and Canadian citizens are some of the most compassionate and caring people in the world". Some of the people around here need to see how the rest of the world lives. We are all blessed more than we deserve. Time for the "professional protesters" (your own words from another post) to quit whining, grow up, and take responsibility for themselves. I will gladly help those who are trying, but not the lazy, irresponsible ones who expect everyone to "solve" their problems.
1
1
Rating: 0
Barking Mad
It is encouraging to hear, amid the ranting, rational comments such Mr. O'Keefe's two points about effective protest. Protesters need to educate people to get results. Rage, anger and violence are not effective protest tools in our society. Secondly, taking responsibility for their actions and being willing to pay the consequences earns something that means nothing to the Black Bloc and their apologists: respect. These self-righteous vandals have no respect for anyone and have to hide behind their masks in crowds.

As for the other speakers who justify violence and vandalism by masked thugs, because it worked in Mexico and colonial India. They can't seem to grasp that our society and political system in Canada is not the same as in Mexico or colonial India. Also, does Ms. Walia really expect people to believe that Gandhi was grateful for the "help" he received from those who committed violence?
3
2
Rating: +1
Add new comment
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.