Anti-Olympics Organizing and the G-20 in Toronto
In your roundtable in UTA 9 on organizing against the Olympics the authors write: “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.” I would like to make some comments about my experiences in Vancouver, where I participated in the anti-Olympic protests.
To begin, I must admit that I had some serious qualms about going to Vancouver. I protested the WTO in Seattle in 1999, the OAS in Windsor and the IMF/World Bank in DC in 2000, the FTAA in Quebec City in 2001, and the G8 in Ottawa in 2002. So I’ve done more than my share of summit-hopping – and as a person of some privilege, I’ve taken a lot of the criticisms of that tactic to heart. My experience in those actions was not always one of supporting local communities of resistance; more often than not it was entirely focused on resisting the summit – which in reality often came down to nothing more than resisting its security forces. Notable exceptions were working in a struggling urban community garden in Washington DC and being a part of the “Seven Year Squat” in Ottawa. And while maintaining and defending that squat felt much more real than running around in tear gas (which, admittedly, I enjoy a lot) and is still one of the best actions I’ve ever been involved in, it needs to be said that – despite being a very local issue – it was still organized mainly by activists and not by homeless people themselves.
Alongside the criticisms of summit-hopping (some useful, some not), the past ten years have given us a lot of experience playing with the idea of a diversity of tactics and I, as well as many others, have come to the conclusion that this is the only way to organize successful mass mobilizations and, by extension, successful mass movements. So I went to Vancouver hoping to participate in a convergence that would have a solid model for diversity of tactics within a framework of supporting local struggles against problems caused or exacerbated by the Olympic Games.
I wasn’t disappointed. Vancouver was probably the most effectively organized protest against a major event that I have ever been a part of.
As a person almost entirely disconnected from the organizing on the ground in Vancouver (I showed up on the 6th and left on the 19th of February) I can’t comment on the internal dynamics of the Olympic Resistance Network and its allies. No doubt the planning was inspiring and frustrating and messy, and hopefully we’ll hear about it some time in the pages of this journal. All I can do is describe what I saw as a person converging on someone else’s city and how it felt to be a part of it.
First and foremost, “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land” was the basis of the convergence and it never felt like an empty slogan. The Unity flag was flying everywhere: at the front of the Take Back the City protest during the opening ceremonies on February 12 and poking through the chain-link fence at Tent Village. A press conference focused entirely on the environmental effects of the Olympics on Indigenous lands, and one entire panel discussion was dedicated to Indigenous speakers. In my experience, this is the first convergence to put this issue front and centre where it belongs.
One way that the ORN ensured that activists converging on their city supported local struggles was their approach to the 19th annual Women’s Memorial March. People were asked to put down their anti-Olympics signs and to not cover our faces as we walked through the Downtown Eastside (DTES) with the families and friends of murdered and missing women. All of our anti-Olympics energy was put towards a very local, emotional struggle on that day. As a result, the march was the largest it has ever been.
The next day. Tent Village went up. Again, people from the anti-Olympics convergence supported an action organized by the DTES community. We stepped in to help put up structures and tents, provide security and entertainment, and serve food. We took some work and stress away from Vancouver folks, but what we didn’t do was make any important decisions. In the end the Tent Village was a success – the City was forced to find housing for many of the people living there. You can’t always shut down a summit or a major event, and you can’t always do much about the damage already done. But you can show up, acknowledge where you can contribute, take on a supportive role, and do something that directly affects a community you might never even have known existed until the Olympics or whatever came along to destroy it.
There are some really important lessons for Toronto organizers to consider in planning for the G-20 summit in June of this year. First of all, we need to root the resistance in anti-colonialism. It wasn’t easy, in Vancouver, to make “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land” the focal point. Many people were confused about what Native land had to do with the Games. But a lot of people asked, and that’s exactly why it was useful. It was a perfect way to use the Games to bring attention to Indigenous issues both locally and in the international media (which, it’s important to remember, took it up far more frequently and in more depth than any Canadian media). It won’t be easy to talk about colonialism in the context of the G-20 – although Harper’s ridiculous statement in Pittsburgh last summer that “Canada has no history of colonialism” is a great launching point – but all eyes will be on us, and every time all eyes are on us, we have to be talking about colonialism.
The second thing that made Vancouver such a success was having very concrete links to local struggles. The best example of this was the Tent Village. The high concentration of homelessness and poverty in the DTES and its proximity to Olympic venues and tourists made this particular struggle very obvious and easy to understand - even for an outsider in Vancouver for the first time. Toronto is a bigger city and people may need to work a bit harder at making its local struggles clear to activists from out of town, but it’s essential that they do. A sense of mutual aid and community support will be cultivated at any summit convergence – it comes simply from knowing that we can work together to provide food, medics, legal support, and media without the interference of the state and corporations. But a sense of real solidarity can be cultivated only by having out of town activists actively participating in the community they traveled to and contributing something measurable to that place and its people. Having community organizers from No One Is Illegal, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and so on at the forefront of the planning is a good start. However, but unless people who show up in Toronto are fully aware of what exactly the local struggles are and have a concrete way to support them, it will still just be another summit where we come and rail against the meetings and tussle with cops – just with a more diverse crowd.