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.



Ryan Postel

Feb 20, 2010 at 3:04pm

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.


Feb 20, 2010 at 3:11pm

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.


Feb 20, 2010 at 4:41pm

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.

Barry D

Feb 20, 2010 at 11:00pm

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?


Feb 20, 2010 at 11:04pm

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.


Feb 21, 2010 at 12:54am

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.

Slippery Slope

Feb 21, 2010 at 4:49am

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.


Feb 21, 2010 at 1:27pm

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.


Feb 22, 2010 at 1:28am

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?


Feb 23, 2010 at 9:21am


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