An SFU expert on anarchism contends that actions like the anti-Olympics riot on February 13 have a legitimate place in broad social-change movements.
Although many people, including activist-lawyer David Eby, are upset about the acts of vandalism committed by masked protesters, history professor Mark Leier is also arguing that it’s a mistake to consider such deeds violence.
Leier is the director of SFU’s Centre for Labour Studies. He told the Georgia Straight that although the protest was neither quiet nor peaceful, it was “more in the way of disturbance than it was violence directed against people”.
“I have a strong suspicion that the kinds of protests that we’re talking about—the smashing of windows—may have created more space for the so-called respectable protest movements,” Leier said in a phone interview. “What I mean by that is the media coverage that I’ve heard so far over the last couple of weeks has been, ”˜The Olympics are coming. This is going to be great. Oh, yeah, there’s going to be some protests.’ Then what we’ve heard was”¦”˜Oh, my gosh! Some of these protesters broke things. But look, there’s always respectable protesters. Let’s talk to them and see what they want to talk about.’ ”
Leier also pointed out that British Columbia has a “long tradition of people creating disruptions to draw attention to their causes”.
This includes the 1912 free-speech riots by workers protesting the ban on public assemblies. Leier puts in the same category the historic train trek from B.C. to Ottawa by workers who went on a general strike to demand better working conditions and wages in 1935.
Plus, the historian cited the 1938 occupation of the Vancouver post office by unemployed workers, an action that drew popular support.
Leier added that several movements, including the hippie phenomenon during the 1960s, were largely inspired by—and employed tactics associated with—anarchism, a term that he said should be distinguished from anarchy.
“Anarchy tends to mean lawlessness, no order,” Leier explained. “Anarchism, though, is a political ideology that says that people do not need an authoritarian state to live in harmony. Anarchists don’t say that the world should simply be chaotic. What they say is that human beings can actually live together without force. And we all have examples of that in our everyday lives. Car pools, for example. There are lots of things that we do without having somebody say, ”˜You will do it this way, and if you don’t, there will be penalties.’ ”
The Straight caught up with Eby, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, during the 19th annual march for murdered and missing women on February 14 in the Downtown Eastside.
Eby was wearing the standard orange shirt issued to Olympic observers, who, he noted, were trained for free-speech events like that day’s march and the largely peaceful demonstration on the opening day of the Games on February 12.
Referring to that demonstration, Eby declared: “It was just a wonderful event, a lot of free speech and it was great, and then to see all that disappear the next day was very frustrating.”
With regard to the February 13 event dubbed by organizers the 2010 Heart Attack, Eby said: “I don’t see that there’s any place for those kinds of actions if we’re going to be encouraging free speech. If you want to speak your point of view in favour of or opposed to the Olympics, there should be space for that. You shouldn’t expect someone to put a chair through your front window.”
For Leier, the anarchist ideal is a time when people—not their leaders—decide for themselves what form of action they need to fight for their interests