By Marla Renn
Vancouver, you deserve to pat yourself on the back for forcing a critical and thoughtful public debate over the 2010 Winter Olympics. What began as a small minority reporting and responding to the (now familiar) consequences of hosting the Games is today a strong majority. Evidence of popular dissent and participation in a debate we were never invited to is everywhere.
Opinion polls now show that the majority of residents see through the Olympic charade, letters to the editor reflect critical evaluations, growing numbers of community groups are taking part in debates and organizing opposition activities, and water-cooler conversations expressing outrage and disbelief over an endless number of issues being raised by the Olympics has even surpassed the monopoly that reality TV once enjoyed. With no shortage of reasons to oppose the Olympics and no shortage of folks to share and discuss them with, a new story and image of the Olympics is emerging, one that is making powerful and invested interests nervous.
The success of the Olympics depends on its ability to conjure up images dripping with the triumph of the human spirit, the glory in struggling to be your best, and fair play. Those images are important if the Olympic Games are to be a favourable marketing environment, but they also work to insulate the real agenda: the deepening of neo-liberal economic policies that are advanced and crafted by real estate developers, hungry for land grabs and publicly subsidized development opportunities.
Such a climate chills free speech. Initially, this meant merely marginalizing the opposition, but today that opposition is commonly criminalized. We are witnessing an increased use of policing to obstruct the sharing and development of these critiques.
The attempt to silence voices of Olympic dissent has recently been exercised at the Canada-U.S. border. Amy Goodman, the renowned independent U.S. broadcast journalist and author was held by Canadian border officials for 90 minutes and questioned over her intentions to speak about the Olympics while in Canada. Goodman’s reception came as a shock to many, but it is not a unique demonstration of how thickened borders are being used to restrict and intimidate social dissent over the Olympics.
On December 10, it was my turn. I was travelling to Portland, Oregon, as a member of the Olympic Resistance Network at the invitation of community organizers there. The planned events were designed to provide information about the Vancouver Olympics and how people are opposing its agenda and working to protect ourselves against the impacts. But I never made it past the border. Instead, I was held by U.S. border officials for six hours, during which time I was interrogated, fingerprinted, and my speaking notes were photocopied, before I was required to sign an official document stating that I had been refused entry into the U.S. because I could not prove I had ties and equities in Canada. Despite having no criminal record, being married and now holding a professional teacher’s degree, my unemployment since graduating three months ago was the official evidence cited.
The concern over my employment status was disingenuous, however, given that the focus of their extensive interrogation was my ties to anti-Olympic organizing, the names of people in Portland who had organized the speaking engagements, and the nature of my relationship to them. Once released, I was physically escorted to the Canadian border, where officials there were given my cellphone, camera, and speaking notes by the U.S. border guards. I then endured another two hours of interrogation regarding my involvement in the anti-Olympics movement, including this slam-dunk question from Canadian border officials: “Were you planning to recruit people in Portland to the anti-Olympics cause?”
My refused entry to the U.S., accompanied by interrogation, intimidation, and harassment by officials on both sides of the boarder, demonstrated once again how $1 billion in Olympic security is designed to stifle dissent, even the public-speaking variety, and not to ensure public safety as is officially claimed.
The Olympics present a unique impetus for popular education and collaboration across issues. Countless organizations, nonprofits, and community coalitions have identified the real Olympic agenda—to disguise developers behind the veil of athletic triumph—and they are raising their voices against it, building bridges, and collaborating to devise strategies of resistance. The 2010 Welcoming Committee is an example of a broad-based community coalition. It combines the efforts of almost 20 diverse groups and coalitions, and more continue to get involved and work toward building a creative, inclusive, and vocal public protest to coincide with the opening ceremonies. You can contact firstname.lastname@example.org, if you are interested in becoming involved.
The most significant accomplishments of the Vancouver Olympic Games will not be those of Vanoc, the City of Vancouver, or the sponsors. The real successes belong to us the people, for being critical and building a shared response to an event that is advancing an agenda much larger and more heinous than the plans and preparations for a monthlong party.