Going for Gold on Stolen Land
A Roundtable on Anti-Olympic Organizing
The winter Olympic games will be held on unceded Coast Salish Territory (Vancouver and Whistler, British Columbia) in February 2010.
“No Olympics on Stolen Native Land” has been a rallying cry for those opposing the 2010 winter games, on the basis of this sporting event’s connection to capital’s encroachment on indigenous lands. As James Louie from the St’at’imc nation in Whistler says, “Because we have no treaty with Canada, the imposition and encroachment of Whistler – their hydro lines, their highways, their railroad, in fact all infrastructure development for the 2010 Games – in our territory is illegal.”1
The Olympics present a unique opportunity to draw attention to the history and ongoing reality of colonialism, as well as the massive corporate invasion that is a clear motivation for the games. As groups such as the Olympic Resistance Network (ORN) and Native 2010 have pointed out, the consequences for cities that host the games are well documented: the gutting of civil liberties, criminalization of the poor, gentrification and increased homelessness, worsening working conditions for migrant workers, ecological destruction, privatization, and public debt.
To discuss these issues, we formed a roundtable of local and international activists from host cities, including two activists from Vancouver, and one each from Salt Lake City, USA; Turin, Italy; and Sydney, Australia.
The roundtable participants address common challenges that emerge in so many of our organizing efforts and the inevitable tensions that surface in the context of Olympic resistance.
All of the participants felt that they played a meaningful role in challenging what roundtable participant Helen Lenskyj calls “the goosebumps effect,” or the staying power of Olympic industry rhetoric. The degree to which organizers felt they were successful in their efforts seems to be largely based on the strength of pre-existing local movements. But even the act of engaging in Olympic resistance creates opportunities for supporting and strengthening local efforts. For example, ORN has called for actions to protest the torch relay and this has provided an ongoing national focal point for resistance. When asked about the criticisms of summit hopping in the context of Olympic resistance, participants found that it wasn’t productive to create a dichotomy between summit-hopping and local organizing. Rather, they go hand-in-hand, provided that the goal of those who converge in the host city is to support local communities of resistance. The ORN has called for an anti-2010 convergence from February 10 to 15, 2010 in Vancouver.
Gord Hill is an activist from the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation in British Columbia. Based in Vancouver, he is the editor of no2010.com and Warrior Publications. He has been involved in Native resistance since 1990.
Harsha Walia is a South Asian activist, facilitator, legal researcher, and writer based in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories. She is currently active in anti-Olympics organizing through No One Is Illegal, Olympic Resistance Network, and by facilitating and supporting the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre Power of Women Group.
Amy Hines was involved in the Citizen’s Activist Network in Salt Lake City, Utah. In 2005, she wrote her Masters thesis comparing the exploitation of undocumented Latino migrant workers at Salt Lake City’s Olympics construction sites to Iraqi refugee construction workers in Athens, Greece leading up to the 2004 games. She is currently a union organizer in Sacramento, California.
Stefano Bertone lives and works as a lawyer in Moncalieri, Turin, Italy. Since 1997, Stefano and his friends Luca Degiorgis and Daniele Forni have campaigned against the olympic games of Turin. They run the website nolimpiadi.8m.com, wrote The Black Book of the Turin 2006 Olympics (2005, Italian), and continue to actively support resistance to the Olympics.
Helen Lenskyj was an active member of the Toronto anti-Olympic group, the Bread Not Circuses Coalition (BNC), from 1998 to 2001, and the Sydney group, the Anti-Olympic Alliance (AOA), in 2000. Lenskyj’s recent book Olympic Industry Resistance: Challenging Olympic Power and Propaganda (2008) examines how basic rights and freedoms are compromised as result of the Olympics.
The slogan “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land!” is a rallying point for many people organizing against the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games. Many would like anti-Olympic resistance to be Indigenous-led. What does being indigenous-led look like in practical terms, and how does the paradigm of non-Natives “taking leadership” from Natives inform this work?
Gord: The idea that anti-Olympic organizing should be “Indigenous-led” appears correct in principle, considering the anti-colonial orientation of the overall resistance. It is an acknowledgement of the colonial history of “Canada” and an effort to overcome white supremacy and European privilege, particularly in regards to social movements. This can be contrasted to, for example, the anti-globalization campaign of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which lacked any such orientation and primarily reflected the views and politics of the Euro-left (even when these efforts were led by people of colour).
In practice, the concept of Indigenous-led organizing has some limitations. Here in Vancouver, not many Natives are directly involved in anti-Olympics resistance, although there are groups and individuals who regularly attend protests and forums. Only a handful of Natives have been involved in day-to-day organizing activities. I differentiate between mobilizing and organizing. Although Natives will mobilize within anti-Olympic struggles, they are not engaged in organizing.
There are various reasons for this, including general apathy, the social conditions facing Indigenous people, and the massive propaganda efforts of the Olympics industry and the government. Because of state surveillance and repression of anti-Olympic resistance, many Natives are afraid to speak out or join in. So the idea of Indigenous-led organizing in fact places an enormous burden on the few Natives taking part in organizing, even if it is necessary in order to promote the anti-colonial aspect of the movement. Leadership emerges in practice, and is rarely a goal to be met. It happens spontaneously and naturally. In my opinion, too much emphasis has been put on this concept, although it is an advance that can strengthen anti-colonial consciousness and resistance. Both Native and non-Native political movements may need to mature a little more for this to be accomplished.
Harsha: The slogan “No Olympics on Stolen Land” brings to the forefront the critical question of Indigenous self-determination. Rather than being treated as one of many issues within a laundry list of demands (such as homelessness or public debt), it provides a necessary foundation for the movement, while also implicitly highlighting that Indigenous communities bear the brunt of most social issues (such as poverty, environmental degradation, and state repression). It is very significant that the anti-Olympic movement is rooted, at least theoretically, in an anti-colonial politics of Indigenous self-determination and liberation. It contests the idea that the “anti-globalization movement died after September 11, 2001” by revealing the ongoing struggle against colonization. It is a testament to the power and significance of grassroots movements critically engaging in discussions – particularly those arising from the anti-globalization era – about race and class privilege, and also actively organizing to root/re-root and link resistance by directly impacted communities with anti-capitalist struggles.
There was a groundswell of Indigenous resistance to the Olympics before the games were brought to British Columbia. In 2002, members of the St’at’imc and Secwepemc Nations filed a submission with the International Olympic Committee to oppose the bid. Since then Indigenous peoples have been disproportionately impacted by the pillage and theft of their lands, poverty and homelessness in urban areas, and repressive policing and surveillance tactics. In this context, Indigenous resisters on the land and in urban areas have provided powerful opposition to government propaganda about Native consent to the games.
To me, “taking leadership” means being humble and honouring these voices of resistance, as well as offering tangible solidarity as needed and requested. However, organizing in accordance with the principles of Indigenous leadership does not mean that the movement has to become paralyzed in a search for (often tokenized) Native leaders, feel stuck in the dynamic of internal conflicting opinions, or place an unrealistic and inappropriate burden for directing the movement on Indigenous people struggling to survive. This kind of “White Man’s Burden” in the left is a constant struggle, including in anti-racist leadership, feminist leadership, and working class/poor people’s leadership. The challenge is to actually put these politics into practice and construct possibilities. This will be aided by a willingness to decentre oneself, take responsibility for learning by means other than cultural appropriation, and theorize and discuss these issues in the context of on-the-ground realities and relationships.
Amy: Based solely on my experience with CAN (Citizen’s Activist Network) in Salt Lake City, Utah, there was no commitment from the leading activist groups at that time to be Indigenous-led.
The Shundahai Network, led by Shoshone activists fighting against nuclear waste transportation and storage in the Utah desert, attempted to use Olympic attention to raise awareness of their own movement. On the other hand, there were Ute tribal leaders who were quoted as saying that the Olympics was another opportunity to get their image out into the world and proclaim “we are here!” on a global stage (a position many thought of as tokenism). These are the same tribal leaders who gave the University of Utah permission to keep using the “Ute” as their athletic mascot because “any publicity is good publicity.” As you can see, both view the Olympics as a positive thing for the same reason: mass media exposure.
Helen: The Olympics have almost always been held on colonized land somewhere in the world, and so the goal of Indigenous-led Olympic resistance is particularly appropriate. For their part, non-Indigenous Olympic bid and organizing committees continue these colonizing practices by routinely exploiting Indigenous people as performers and cultural symbols to enhance their own image. Indigenous peoples, like non-Indigenous peoples, are not a monolithic group. In the Australian context, there were divisions between urban and traditional Aboriginal peoples, and further differences between the “bureaucrats” (appointed as token Aboriginal members of government or Olympic-related committees), the “liberals” (who wanted to use the Games to draw world attention to Aboriginal problems), and the “radicals” (who called for boycotts and anti-Olympic demonstrations). Both liberal and radical Aboriginal groups joined the Anti-Olympic Alliance (AOA). In 1999- 2000, AOA member groups collectively decided on four demands of particular relevance to Aboriginal people: real land rights and an honourable treaty now; an end to mandatory sentencing and Indigenous deaths in custody; an apology and compensation for the stolen generation (Aboriginal children forcibly taken from their families and raised in non-Aboriginal boarding schools); and funding for public transport, health, and education.
In the lead up to the games, what has been done to fight the displacement of communities by the Olympics? What role do those most negatively affected by displacement play in organizing? What is the role of those who are not affected by displacement but are nonetheless involved in the struggle?
Harsha: There are many communities and ecosystems affected by displacement: from the downtown to the Little Mountain Housing Project due to gentrification, on Indigenous territories due to the expansion of ski resorts, or on ecosystems and neighbourhoods due to highway and infrastructure expansion such as at Eagleridge Bluffs. In fact, all of Vancouver and Whistler have been affected by displacement in some form due to the rising costs of living, real estate speculation, and massive public debt. Those most negatively impacted are significantly involved in resistance efforts. Native communities have set up blockades since 2002 at Sutikalh and Swekwek’welt to oppose ski resorts and this resistance continues with the support of allies. A diverse coalition of middle class residents, Indigenous people (including deceased Elder Harriet Nahanee), and environmentalists have been protesting the expansion of Highway 1. In the Downtown Eastside, a range of funded service providers, activist organizations, and resident groups have been rallying, lobbying, squatting, and campaigning against the Olympics since 2006, while working class Little Mountain residents have allied with mainstream politicians and social justice groups to make their voices heard. It is hard to comment about the specifics of each of these struggles, but certainly the ability of those most directly affected to self-organize is dependent upon social context, capacity, and resources (often limited due to systemic barriers), the nature of the demands, the overall analysis of each campaign, and the allies that are being engaged.
Amy: In the lead up to the Salt Lake Olympics, one organization that really stood out from the rest in helping folks survive homelessness in the Utah winter was Crossroads Urban Center, a homeless rights advocacy group mostly staffed by the formerly homeless. The amount of extreme waste associated with the Olympics is astonishing, so Crossroads attempted to mitigate it by lobbying for an overflow shelter to be constructed, and for all of the excess celebration and banquet food to be donated to their food banks for distribution.
At first, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC, headed by Mitt Romney, who subsequently sought the Republican nomination in the 2008 US presidential election) refused to donate any of the food due to fears of potential food poisoning lawsuits. When Crossroads agreed to take on legal responsibility if anyone got sick, SLOC decided to work with them, and many people were fed as a result. Many people were evicted as the Olympics drove rent prices above what low income people could pay, but Crossroads’ efforts at least secured the overflow shelter so that they had somewhere to stay.
Gord: Just prior to the 2009 provincial election, the more reformist groups organized a Grand March Against Homelessness of over 1,000 people. There have been scores of other protests, community forums, and other such actions. Among the most high profile, in my opinion, were a series of squats carried out by the Anti-Poverty Committee (APC) beginning in fall 2006 and continuing into 2007. Over 20 APCers were arrested during the course of this campaign. One squat near City Hall ended with a platoon of riot cops entering the building. As a result of this campaign, the provincial and municipal governments began to carry out several reforms beginning in 2007, including the purchase of a number of low-income hotels that were converted to low-income housing. Homelessness became a central issue in the Vancouver civic elections in fall 2008.
Among the groups I mentioned, there were some homeless/street people involved, but as far as I know most of the groups directly challenging the issue of homelessness were not themselves made up of homeless people. Many homeless people here in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside have drug and alcohol addictions and/or mental health issues. For this reason, there is not a significant movement of the self-organized homeless capable of organizing resistance. Rather, they generally participate in or seek the assistance of other groups, for example when they are evicted.
Stefano: Being the winter games, most of the infrastructure for the Turin Olympics was built in mountain areas with low population density. We can’t really talk about displacement, except for a few cases where shepherds were deprived of parts of their pastures. In other cases, artificial snowmaking depleted wells, with consequences for the availability of water. Clearly, the Olympics ravaged pristine areas and landscapes, but I am not aware of any people forced to leave their homes as a result of Olympics-related infrastructure.
Our Comitato Nolimpiadi! – the Turin 2006 Antiolympics! Committee – was the only group in Italy created to oppose the games as a whole. We saw the Olympics as a greedy, military-sponsored cultural event, a monster of capitalism. We were convinced that opposition should be raised against any Olympics, be it summer or winter, in Italy or Australia, in my backyard or yours, because the planet and people should come first. We were a very small group, comprised of only three people and about ten friends. None of us were directly affected by any of the Olympic infrastructure. It had more to do with a broader philosophical approach with roots in the Bread not Circuses and the Anti-Olympic People’s Network of Nagano campaigns. The books of Andrew Jennings clarified for us, among many interesting things, the extremely right-wing orientation of those involved in organizing the Olympics.
Helen: In Sydney, tenant advocacy groups, community legal centres, Aboriginal services groups, and front line housing and homelessness workers were at the core of the AOA. With legislation passed in 1999-2000 giving police and security personnel a green light to harass and arrest people living in parks and on the streets, AOA focused much of its effort on protecting low-income tenants and homeless people from its impacts. One positive outcome was a Homeless People’s Protocol that limited police powers and provided homeless people with legal advocates.
How have you and others navigated divisions within communities most affected by the Olympics when it comes to making decisions about how to respond to, resist, or leverage the Olympics?
Stefano: Until 1999, when the games where “awarded” to Turin, Comitato Nolimpiadi! was working with several local environmental NGOs. After 1999, those NGOs (with the exception of Greenpeace, which insisted on opposing the games, although without a specific campaign) opted to cooperate with olympic organizers. Our paths separated. In our book, we include these NGOs among the groups that supported the disaster of the games.2
We won a lawsuit against Agency Turin 2006, the operative branch of the games, and filed several papers in court drawing criminal judges’ attention to illegal practices in the Olympic business.
Early on, we called the local NGO leaders and went to their offices. We brought research about other Olympic experiences such as Grenoble in 1968, where ski-jumping venues were destroyed after the games because of high maintenance costs; Albertville in 1992, which bankrupted towns in the mountain area for the very same reasons; and other similar instances of environmental and economic nonsense. That was in 1997-1998, and we were able to convince NGOs to switch from a monitoring group to members of a national coalition against the games because at that time they were keen to listen. Unfortunately, all this ended when the games were actually awarded to Turin and the NGOs became convinced to support the games (or as they say, to “observe” them). But their philosophy – that the games are here, so let’s deal with them rather than attack them – is misleading. In fact, they were not willing to come into conflict with important people, and there were also conflicts of interest since some of the leaders of NGOs were also managers in the Turin provincial government.
Harsha: It depends on the nature of the division within the community. Some divisions are based on core values and principles and are non-negotiable. Certainly, any community (however that is defined) has divisions. In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, for example, there are pro-Olympics residents and/or groups that are complicit in Olympics-related gentrification through funding partnerships. In Indigenous communities, there are members of the Four Host First Nations that are part of the Olympics industry. Alliances are based on shared values, principles, and analysis, and not simply on one’s identity. However, divisions that are not contrary to the fundamental core values of the movement, such as those about tactics, are internal matters for these communities. The basic principle of self-determination should apply and these conflicts should be for those impacted and those within the community to resolve. Certainly, allies in the movement will often be consulted and informed, but that should be neither an expectation nor necessarily a desired goal; if it occurs it is because trust is built and stronger alliances break down some of the divisions that isolate us.
Helen: These issues crystallized in Sydney around organizing a mass march on the first day of the games. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy in a downtown park was to be the rallying point for the AOA protest march. When the time came, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy leaders requested that all references to anti-Olympic protests (AOA’s fourth demand above) be removed from the poster advertising the march, and they disassociated themselves from any Indigenous or non-Indigenous groups that had a stated anti-Olympic position. In response, AOA withdrew from its role in organizing the protest rally and publicly acknowledged that it was solely an Indigenous initiative. The anticipated rally involving thousands of protesters failed to materialize.
In subsequent public debates about anti-Olympic coalition building, the more radical Aboriginal leaders noted the barriers to organizing alliances. People working as bureaucrats or belonging to government-funded community groups would not run the risk of appearing anti-Olympic and hence “un-Australian,” which was the epithet applied to anyone publicly critical of the government or the Sydney Olympics. At the same time, the majority of Indigenous peoples were so traumatized by daily emergencies, living in a country characterized by systemic racism, that they did not participate in community organizing at all.
Amy: Of the groups that did want to do something about the Olympics, there were anarchists/animal rights activists (protesting the Olympic Rodeo), the anti-war activists (rallying around the slogan “what about the Olympic truce?”), and a larger, more general, CAN coalition whose message was focused on the misuse of taxpayer resources. It was made up of several representatives of other groups like Jobs with Justice, JEDI for women, the Green Party of Utah, the Independent Media Center, the Labor Party, Student Labor Action Project, and 4 R’s (reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmitic, and revolution).
The main bone of contention between the coalition and other groups was how to handle the unbelievable censorship that we faced in the post-September 11 environment under the guise of “security.” The animal rights activists/anarchists wanted to risk arrest and clashes with the police over our fundamental right to free speech. But given the conservative climate, almost no other group agreed with them. It was reported to us that Mitt Romney and the SLOC had many contentious discussions with Rocky Anderson (Salt Lake City’s mayor) and they finally agreed to allow protests inside free speech zones located ridiculously far away from the actual Olympic venues. CAN agreed to comply with the “free speech zone” regulations, and the Anarchist groups did not. As far as we know, no arrests were made for protesting outside of the free speech zones besides KWRU and JEDI activists at the “March For Our Lives,” but CAN wanted to win people over to our viewpoint by appearing as mainstream and non-controversial as possible.
I am extremely happy that we used a diversity of tactics. Without us, the anarchist/animal rights folks would have looked bad and angry for no reason. Without them, CAN would have looked like some milquetoast book-club group with no teeth. We complemented each other perfectly.
I feel that when groups are going to follow different paths about how to attack the problems of the Olympics in our communities, we should respect that and let them. In our case, too much time was spent trying to make the other groups see our viewpoint instead of just doing what we needed to do ourselves.
Over the last decade, there have been many criticisms of the phenomenon of summit hopping, often counterposing it to local organizing. In the case of the Olympics, do you see an intersection between these two frameworks? If so, what does this intersection look like and are there ways we can translate it into other forms of action?
Harsha: I think these generalizations are intended to deliberately create a dichotomy for the sake of debate. If anything, the noted lack of representation and the perpetuation of oppression at summits like Québec City and Seattle speak to the nature of the local organizing bodies. These are debates and critiques that were already happening in the local movements and were mirrored and amplified in those convergences. I think Vancouver, despite its flaws, has strengths. These include Indigenous resistance movements, anti-poverty struggles rooted in the Downtown Eastside, a migrant justice movement led by immigrant/racialized people, and a vibrant anti-imperialist movement involving many in exile. This can help strengthen the 2010 convergence by connecting it to these local efforts.
The success of the 2010 convergence will depend not only on the level of disruption caused during the games, but the strength it provides to social movements afterwards. I think critiques of summit hopping are legitimate and I share many of them, but we should be more specific about the nature of our concerns rather than undermining the entire notion of convergence. For example, one concrete issue is that summits frequently attract activists with the means and privilege to travel. So what can organizers do to facilitate travel for those with limited means and to increase accessibility and inclusion?
Helen: I question the validity of the concept summit-hopping. It sounds suspiciously like other right-wing put-downs aimed at progressive social movements (for example, “rent-a-crowd”). Where would grassroots activists find the time and money to jet around the world chasing summits? In the few instances I know of where anti-Olympic activists travelled to IOC headquarters in Lausanne or to IOC meetings elsewhere in the world, local individuals and groups did extensive fundraising to pay their expenses. In none of these instances did they abandon their local organizing efforts. In Australia in September 2000, many of the same activists who protested during the World Economic Forum held in Melbourne also joined the anti-Olympic protests in Sydney a few days later, and there were mutually beneficial links between anti-globalization activists and anti-Olympic protesters before and during the Sydney Olympics.
Gord: I find the term summit hopping derogatory and one that belittles the work of organizers. Every major summit or international event is itself a form of local organizing for those in the city/region where the event occurs. When groups make a call-out for solidarity, terms such as summit hopping only undermine this solidarity and should be avoided. From my experience, there are not large numbers of people simply roaming the lands from one summit to another. In any case, that a group of people travel from one city or region to another to participate in a counter-summit doesn’t mean there is no more local organizing. In fact, people may return to their communities inspired and empowered with new skills and ideas about how to resist. By massing our forces we increase our strength, and that is why groups make call-outs for people to attend. In my view, the division between local organizing and summit hopping is false. In the real world you do both, and only when you think about it too much and over-analyze (a basic problem for the Euro-left, it seems) does it become a question of either/or.
Have you found that you have been able to build a broad base of support without diluting a radical politic and the messages of that politic? Were you able to do so while maintaining support for direct action tactics?
Amy: No. In fact, the exact opposite has been the case. If anyone finds the secret to this, please let me know! The greatest success was that we defended our free speech rights against an amazingly aggressive onslaught. The failure is that we didn’t do enough to protect them (and for the record, at this point in my life I would totally have been with the Anarchists in the streets of Salt Lake outside of the free speech zones).
Almost all of the people involved were communists wishing to express criticism of capitalist greed and waste during the Olympics, which is essentially a two week party for the rich paid for with public money. However, we didn’t feel that we could say that without becoming even more marginalized than we already were.
Gord: Not really. I don’t think you can build a broad base with radical and militant politics, except when you are living in revolutionary conditions, when the levels of social conflict have reached such a level that many social sectors can identify with the use of militant resistance. However, you cannot even maintain a militant resistance at all if you never engage in it. The radical movement cannot grow, expand, or regenerate itself if it just adapts to reformist positions and slogans. The radical movement helps open up the debate and can shift the entire politics around a campaign to a more confrontational or radical position. There will always be reformist groups; many are funded by the government and for many of these organizers it’s a career. It’s also true that they can generally mobilize larger numbers of people. For example, the Carnegie Community Action Project has held an annual “Poverty Olympics” every February for a couple of years now. In 2009, they had about 400 to 500 people in the streets, with lots of street puppets, theatre, and so on. A few days later, the more radical Olympic Resistance Network held a Torch Light March with some 200 people participating.
It must be kept in mind that militant anti-Olympic protests have been met with large numbers of police as well as arrests. But without the militants, the authorities would have little to be concerned about with regards to Olympic security, because the reformists will never really do anything other than public relations campaigns. So although militant resistance does not have a large base under present social conditions, without it we’d be almost defenceless. And there are significant numbers of people in society who not only agree with our goals but also agree with our methods. They’re just not mobilized. As social conditions continue to worsen, our militant politics will find greater sympathy and support, but it’s something we have to continually develop and apply.
Helen: The situation in Sydney was complex, in part because AOA membership spanned the political spectrum from mainstream charities to radical student groups and radical Aboriginal organizations. As the Olympics approached, the persistent divide-and-rule tactics of police and security personnel, Olympic organizers, and the mainstream media exacerbated these political differences, as well as differences among Aboriginal groups, ultimately resulting in widening rifts.
Harsha: I do not think this has been achieved yet in the anti-Olympic movement and it is frustrating because it is one of the few moments when it is attainable. I think there is a false distinction between broad-based mobilizations becoming synonymous with reformist politics and militant actions always being relegated to a fringe minority. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is widespread discontent about the Olympics: from small business owners and working class residents affected by infrastructure expansion, to disgruntled taxpayers complaining about the growing public debt, to public sector unions that have lost the right to strike during the games, to the most marginalized affected by poverty, homelessness, and criminalization. Certainly, these sectors will not necessarily share an anti-capitalist or anti-colonial analysis, but there are ways to broaden the base of support and bring an increasingly powerful and politicized message to more people, especially in low-income neighbourhoods and amongst progressive allies such as rank-and-file union activists, anti-war activists, and environmental activists. Building strong networks and coalitions does not necessarily imply devolution into lowest common denominator politics, especially if alliances are built strategically, communication is kept open and respectful, and education about the politics of confrontation and tactical debates are prioritized rather than presumed.
What was gained for local activist communities in resisting the Olympics? What were some of the successes and failures? What lessons did you learn that would be helpful for organizers in cities where future Olympics will be held?
Stefano: Unfortunately, we cannot talk about “communities” resisting the olympics. If we had been 100 active people (rather than three), the Olympics would not have been given to Turin. We discovered that our worst suspicions were justified: a land parcel that had basically been described as useless by the property owners changed hands two times in four years in the mountain areas of the games; we later discovered it would be used for Olympic infrastructure. We also learned that you must be aware of burnout. Do not consume too many resources in the first years, because it is going to be a nine-year fight. You must be there before the bid and keep working until months after the mess is done. So conserve your efforts; do not feel pressed by the necessity of doing something at all times. You simply can’t do it. And it’s not necessary: you can mobilize more than half the population by explaining some of the most interesting aspects. You can convince top managers and analysts (it has happened!) by showing the repeated, chronic failure of past games. People will have much to reflect on when they discover that the “Olympic torch relay” is a Nazi invention. Start by writing “olympics” with a small “o”, and “games” between quotation marks and a new perspective is born.
Gord: First lesson: organize resistance to the Olympics when the city or region is still in the bid process. If you can prevent your local business and government elites from securing the games, it will save your community many hardships and much suffering. In terms of what was gained, this is something still in process as there are still six months until the 2010 Winter Olympics. Thus far I think we have established a good coalition of radicals who now have better communication and stronger relationships. Through the Olympic Resistance Network, many groups that didn’t work together now do (on anti-Olympic organizing), which can be utilized during emergency situations or crises. Certainly communication and networking is a big step. Through the ongoing campaign we have shared many skills, from organizing rallies to making posters, developing propaganda like leaflets and videos, and so on. We are also gaining skills in dealing with police surveillance and harassment of organizers.
Some of our successes have been to raise the profile of anti-Olympic resistance, which was rather low until 2007. Many people had no clue that anything negative could be said about the Olympic industry, as they were completely ignorant of the history or impacts of Olympic Games. Secondly, through our direct actions we have forced Vanoc (Vancouver Organizing Committee) off the streets to the point where they no longer hold large public ceremonies or events, but rather carry out small, often secret, media events with plenty of security. There has also been a campaign of militant clandestine sabotage, which has included over 60 attacks on corporate, government, and police and military targets, ranging from smashed windows to arson. This is something relatively new for the resistance movement in Canada (with the exception of solidarity actions undertaken during the 1990 Oka Crisis).
Amy: Our major success was developing a plan that was followed through. Before Olympics organizing, CAN was a fractured group bickering about its name and logo. After Olympics organizing it dissolved, but all of the activists went on to found or be a part of the Utah Independent Media Center, the Green Party of Utah, the Labor Party of Utah, the Salt Lake Chapter of Jobs with Justice, Wasatch Coalition for Peace and Justice, Marxist reading groups, bicycle cooperatives, food cooperatives, and housing cooperatives. We gained experience!
Helen: The tireless work done by members of anti-Olympic and Olympic watchdog groups in dozens of recent bid and host cities, although generally trivialized by the mass media and ignored by social scientists, has undoubtedly raised public awareness about the dangers of hosting the Olympics, the negative impacts on vulnerable people, and the huge financial burdens. BNC routinely posed two key questions: How much do the Olympics really cost? And who is really paying? In terms of lessons learned, the incredible staying power of Olympic industry rhetoric – what I call the “goosebumps effect” – must always be remembered. The television spectacle of medal-winning performances and the opening and closing ceremonies have a lasting emotional impact, even on otherwise critical, socially conscious people.
1 Jon Elmer. “CANADA: Native Rights Concerns Cloud 2010 Games” InterPress Service: December 2, 2008. Accessed October 5, 2009. Available at http://www.no2010.com/node/582.
2 Bertone, Stefano and Degiorgis, Luca. The Black Book of the Turin 2006 Olympics. 2005 (In Italian).