On the morning of February 13, a group of marchers in downtown Vancouver were taped by mainstream media breaking windows at the Hudson's Bay, tipping news boxes and dumpsters into the street, and in at least one case hitting a Vancouver cop with a stick.
Since then many of the thousands of us who were united in our opposition to the Olympics as an obscene waste of public resources occurring on unceded first nations land and designed to promote the interests of the corporate elite while the poor and the homeless were left waiting for justice have engaged in various forms of debate about whether the masked figures we saw in the streets that morning were valiant revolutionaries leading the way to more effective resistance, police provocateurs out to discredit the entire resistance to the Olympics or testosterone crazed suburban white boys posturing as Che wannabes instead of doing the long term and demanding work of building a movement for social change.
Some of the debate's high points can be reviewed on line at Rabble.ca and Working TV:
For many of us, the low points occurred when one public figure who had criticized the actions taken on the 13th was physically assaulted and denounced as a "traitor" at a public meeting, and when the debates about tactics became mired in personal attacks on those who expressed cautionary notes or outright criticism of the Black Bloc direct actions taken that Saturday. Apparently to many in the left communities in Vancouver a respect for diversity of tactics means no respect for a diversity of views or critical perspectives.
The attentive reader will already have guessed by the tone of my opening paragraphs that I am not to be counted as a big fan of the Black Bloc action on the 13th or of what I see as the anti-democratic and unproductively hostile response too many fans of diversity of tactics have displayed toward those who have expressed criticisms. I think the events of the 13th were an enormous gift to the supporters of the Olympics, who dismissed all criticism of the obnoxious commodity sports/advertising orgy as the work of crazy people who break windows. The claims made that the events of the 13th upped the ante of anti-capitalist struggle by window breaking or traffic interruption are hard to credit. The Bay has insurance to cover the minor property damage done, and whatever slowdown the demonstration worked on Lions Gate traffic hardly counts as a blow against the empire Our movements for social change have no similar way of insuring ourselves against being portrayed as crazed and scary. Not scary to the cops or big business; scary to ordinary people watching the street action and wondering what all the macho posturing had to do with their lives or concerns. Those of us who do our political work unmasked have to live with the impacts of what the balaclava brigades did before they took off their costumes.
Everyone who enters into this debate runs the risk of being attacked on an ad hominem basis, and I expect no different. Granted, I serve on the board of the BC Civil Liberties Association, which has been attacked for not backing the Black Bloc tactics, and some of the people already being slammed for their critical perspectives are friends of mine. And I am an aging white man who lives in middle-class comfort on Vancouver's west side, so there are many openings for those who want to sling insults rather than arguments. On the other hand, I have friends on both sides of this debate and in my four decades of activist work on a number of peace, justice and environmental issues, I have been a walking model of diversity of tactics. I have committed classic civil disobedience and waited patiently for the cops to come and arrest me. I have participated in direct action tactics that involved covert property damage against corporate targets, and I have attended marches, rallies and demonstrations too numerous to count. I have also tried to use my access to the public as a journalist to advance progressive agendas. So I do not rule out any tactic out of hand; what matters to me is the context and effectiveness of any suggested tactic, and some degree of open debate rather than invective when alternative tactics are discussed. The events of February 13 and too much of the ensuing debate fail on both tests. The context did not demand or make sensible the "militant" tactics, and the tone of debate afterward was unfortunately sectarian and over personal.
We will never know, apparently, who the masked figures on Feb 13 were. I wish I could believe they were all police provocateurs, given what a gift the events were to the pro Olympics, pro business propaganda machine, and given my own conspiratorial turn of mind But, while we know that ISU ( the "integrated security unit" that policed the Olympics) refused to commit they would not use provocateurs, and we know at least one early resistance event featured an undercover cop posing as a movement bus driver, I am afraid that we have to go on the assumption that at least some of the masked marauders were members of our broader social movement. To them I would say, with all respect and solidarity, please give your head a shake and reconsider before taking up such tactics again, and please lay off the personal attacks on those who disagree with you. There is no reason to think that a little property damage at the Bay and ostentatious scuffling with cops did anything substantial to diminish the power of capital or the police state apparatus, and many reasons to think the main legacy of this morning of boy's own adventurism and infantile leftism was to distract the public from the Olympics onto resistance tactics and to stir up a bitter and pointless round of personal attacks and recriminations on the left. If they were not cops, the masked figures probably acted out of the best of intentions- a desire to stand against oppressive power and do something dramatic and effective. Unfortunately, they did something merely dramatic and in the end as stupid as a sack of hammers.
This is not the end of the world and it will not shape the entire legacy of Olympics resistance, but it is deeply unfortunate. A statement purporting to be from Black Bloc members shortly after the 13th said they were the folks who built community, attended public rallies, fed the hungry and supported above ground tactics like the tent village on Hastings. These are all worthy things to do, but the same could be claimed by many of us who did not support the Black Bloc tactics. I urge us all to lower our voices, stop attacking personalities and debate the observable impacts of our tactics. The other side will do enough to weaken and divide the movements for social change. It is not necessary for us to do their work against each other.
This article was originally published in The Columbia Journal online.
Tom Sandborn was born in Alaska, and now lives in Vancouver. He has been a taxi, bus and truck driver, a social worker, a gestalt therapist, warehouse worker, journalist and a bartender, although not necessarily in that order. He is a contributing editor at thetyee.ca and serves on the board of directors of the BC Civil Liberties Association. He publishes regularly in the Tyee, the Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Courier, the Vancouver Review and Trade Talk Magazine.