They’ll be highly visible during the Olympics with their orange shirts marked “Legal Observer”. But they’ll have no more special rights than any ordinary citizen.
Worse, as some incidents in the U.S. have shown, volunteers like these may even be targeted by the police. They may be arrested and charged with anything from mischief to obstruction of justice. They may also get hurt or even killed if a violent confrontation breaks out between protesters and security forces.
Nat Marshik was made aware of these risks when she attended a recent workshop for civilians interested in monitoring protests and potential hot spots during the 2010 Olympics. At the end of the training, conducted by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and Pivot Legal Society in East Vancouver on October 11, she handed in her application to become a legal observer.
“Part of it for me is the desire to even just know what rights I have and what actions the police are going to be undertaking,” Marshik told the Georgia Straight during a break in the two-and-a-half-hour session. “I think one thing that’s characterized a lot of the lead-up to the Olympics is the general lack of transparency, and that includes all the police preparations as well.”
Eighty people have attended the two trainings conducted so far by the BCCLA and Pivot, according to lawyer John Richardson.
Richardson is the cofounder and executive director of Pivot Legal Society. In an interview after he instructed participants in the basics of legal observing, Richardson said these volunteers will serve as the “eyes and ears” on the ground that will record how human rights and civil liberties are being upheld during the games.
“It has entered the consciousness of the police and military organizers of the Olympics, and they are going to have to be extra conscientious and careful that their military and police forces are observing the Charter of Rights,” Richardson told the Straight about the presence of the volunteers during the games.
The BCCLA earlier announced that the Vancouver Police Department and the RCMP–led Integrated Security Unit for the 2010 Olympic Games had accepted its invitation for their senior officers to undergo the same training as those participating in the legal observer program.
The potential for conflict has grown as the Olympics draw closer.
On October 7, B.C. attorney general Michael de Jong introduced legislation that will authorize municipal officials in Vancouver, Richmond, and Whistler to enter private homes to take down unauthorized signage. It will also amend the Vancouver Charter to provide stiffer penalties, consisting of fines of up to $10,000 per day and imprisonment of up to six months for violators.
On the same day that de Jong brought in the proposed law, anti-Olympics activist Chris Shaw and Alissa Westergard-Thorpe filed documents before the B.C. Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of an omnibus bylaw enacted by Vancouver on July 23, 2009. This municipal law severely restricts activities such as distributing leaflets in several areas in the city during the Olympics.
Speaking before Vancouver city council on July 7 this year, RCMP assistant commissioner and ISU head Bud Mercer said that local, national, and international groups are planning “criminal protests”. Mercer also told councillors that a force of 7,000 police, 5,000 private security personnel, and 4,500 members of the Canadian Forces will be deployed in the mega event.
Vancouver resident Henny Coates attended the October 10 clinic for legal observers. She is concerned about how citizens will be treated by security forces during the Olympics.
“I think it’s easy for rights to be overridden if we don’t make sure that they know that they’re being watched, that we’re standing up for our rights,” Coates told the Straight.
Legal observers will work in pairs. They will document in various ways—from taking notes to filming—how security officials will interact with both protesters and ordinary citizens.
Participants were told at the training that neutrality is the key to being a good observer. Hendrik Beune is willing to set aside his opinions about the Olympics when he dons the orange shirt of a legal observer.
“I think this is the best way to exercise my civil rights and do my civil duty: being an objective observer,” Beune told the Straight. “Of course, there are a lot of concerns about the Olympics, the fact that corporations seem to have more power than people now. There are going to be some protests, so I’d like to be able to observe those.”
The BCCLA and Pivot will hold two more workshops to train observers at Vancouver’s Britannia Community Centre (1661 Napier Street) on November 22 and December 6, starting at 2:30 p.m.