[R-G] Fears of APEC-style Clash in 2010
fentona at shaw.ca
Mon Feb 16 18:10:16 MST 2009
Today: Monday, February 16, 2009
Fears of APEC-style Clash in 2010
Scene from APEC protests in Vancouver, 1997.
Distrust, anger festering between activists and police. Learn from
pepper spray nightmare, say critics.
By Geoff Dembicki
Published: February 16, 2009
"It was kind of torturous." That's how long-time activist and Olympics
Resistance Network member Garth Mullins described getting a face full
of pepper spray on the final day of the 1997 APEC summit. In late
November of that year, 18 world leaders descended on Vancouver to
forge greater economic ties across the Asia-Pacific region.
But their high-profile talks are now remembered as the footnote to an
event marked by ugly confrontations between police and protestors.
Mullins, who was 26 years old at the time, recalled how he pried his
eyes open to remove his contact lenses as pepper spray pooled behind
them. He told the Tyee he believes the APEC clashes were the product
of weeks of distrust and enmity between activists and RCMP in the lead-
up to the event.
Now a prominent figure in the anti-Olympics movement, Mullins has
joined a growing chorus of voices that accuse police of heading down
the same road to conflict once again. Unless things get better, they
say, pre-Winter Games tensions could trigger an even higher profile
confrontation in 2010.
"APEC was small-scale," said David Eby, acting executive director of
the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. "There will be a huge number of
tourists and visitors coming to the Vancouver area for the Games -- so
the potential for embarrassment is significant."
In late 1996, news that Vancouver would be playing host to the annual
economic meeting of Asian-Pacific leaders galvanized a fledgling anti-
globalization movement. Across the city, a diverse mix of protest
groups found common cause in a battle cry that linked free trade to a
stifling of democracy and police repression.
"Throughout Vancouver there was definitely a groundswell of activism,"
said Jesse Ferreras, a reporter for Pique newsmagazine who wrote his
master's thesis on the APEC confrontation.
The upsurge soon hit UBC's activist community after it learned that
visiting dignitaries planned to converge on the Museum of Anthropology
for the final day of the summit. Linguistics student and firebrand
protestor Jaggi Singh helped form APEC Alert, a collection of fervent
protestors that quickly became one of the most disruptive groups of
the anti-APEC opposition.
Over the next year, its members crashed a mini-conference of Asian-
Pacific diplomats, postered campus with "fuck APEC" signs and staked
out an "APEC-free zone" near the Student Union Building.
The student population began to take notice -- and so did the RCMP.
On November 13, 1997, RCMP Staff Sergeant Lloyd Plante informed fellow
officers that he intended to seek charges against Singh for an
altercation between the activist and a campus security guard six days
"An anti-APEC group, APEC ALERT, have several planned demonstrations
which may involve civil disobedience from now until the conclusion of
APEC on 97/11/25," he wrote in an e-mail to four Lower Mainland
detachments. "It is hoped that we can obtain support from Crown which
may result in a charge of assault against the obvious leader of the
group, JAGGY SINGH. It is our intention if we can obtain a "no-go UBC"
with respect to SINGH, we may basically "break the back" of this group."
On November 24 -- the day before leaders were set to arrive at UBC --
Singh was surrounded by four officers as he strolled across campus.
Police wrestled the activist to the ground, placed him in handcuffs
and threw him into the back of an unmarked car.
Ferreras said the incident had a profound effect on the student
"It was a very dramatic arrest done in public of a very high profile
activist," he said. "It was absolutely a trigger for renewed anger
among the protestors."
Security fence collapses
The next day, students and protest groups had plenty more to get riled
Early that morning, law student Craig Jones was arrested for
displaying signs that said "Democracy," "Free Speech," and "Human
But even thornier was a controversial decision to relocate designated
protest zones out of the sight of visiting world leaders -- a
directive later traced back to the Prime Minister's Office. "That was
a huge issue," Ferreras said. "The excrement wouldn't have hit the fan
quite nearly as much if the protestors had known they could be seen by
After gathering outside the Student Union Building, more than 1,000
protestors defied RCMP orders and marched towards the security fence
at Rose Garden Plaza. Police watched warily as protestors climbed the
rickety structure. The fence swayed under their weight, then collapsed.
Alarmed officers unleashed pepper spray into the crowd, students and
activists were hauled to the ground and screams filled the air. A
second clash followed later that day. By the end of it all, dozens of
protestors had been arrested and Canada's reputation had taken a
"The whole thing culminated with the pepper spray," Mullins said. "But
it was the culmination of a very chilly climate for a protest."
Eleven years later
Not surprisingly, the Commission for Public Complaints Against the
RCMP was hit with a deluge of grievances after the event. Outraged
protestors alleged everything from charter violations to police
brutality -- claims the department considered serious enough to
warrant an official inquiry. The public hearing took several years and
offered an exhaustive look into the events leading up to the summit,
the actions of police and protestors on Nov. 25 and the shortfalls of
RCMP security preparations. In spring of 2002, the commission issued a
final report with dozens of recommendations.
It was clear the RCMP had shown excessive force and poor planning in
some instances, the report concluded, but APEC Alert's hostility to
police helped sour relations between the two sides.
To avoid future conflicts, the report put the onus on security forces
and activists to develop "cooperative relationships" well in advance
of major public events.
More than 11 years after "peppergate" -- as the events of Nov. 25 are
often called -- this conciliatory framework appears to be all but
abandoned as the RCMP-led Integrated Security Unit prepares for the
biggest peacetime security operation in Canadian history.
Like APEC, the 2010 Winter Games have united a diverse swath of
protest groups eager to make their message heard. But as activists and
civil liberties groups have attested, much work remains to repair a
troubled relationship that could erupt in conflict when the world
descends on Vancouver.
"There's absolutely a risk of the problems we saw with APEC," the
BCCLA's Eby said.
Eby traced current tensions between activists and security forces to a
relationship founded in rumour and suspicion. To provide a safe and
secure Olympics, the RCMP was put in charge of a coordinated unit
composed of local police, military and private security forces. Though
Games security could cost $1 billion and put 12,000 officers on the
streets of Vancouver and Whistler, preparations have been shrouded in
With such a large force and scant details on how it will operate,
activists feel left out of the planning process -- and worse, like
police are scheming against them.
"Before the ISU ever contacted any activist groups, reports started
coming out that intelligence officers were approaching activists and
asking them to become informants," Eby said. "That started things off
on a relationship of mistrust."
Mullins said nobody is sure if police have spied -- or are spying --
on the Olympics Resistance Network. But with protest groups listed by
police alongside al-Qaeda as the biggest threat to the Games, he
considered it likely.
"I would be extremely surprised if they weren't doing that right now,"
Police are trying
Like APEC Alert before it, the ORN is easily one of the loudest
protest groups in the anti-Olympics coalition. Its members have
disrupted VANOC press conferences, organized protest marches and even
appeared in city council chambers. And like its predecessor, the ORN's
actions have attracted police attention.
After a public presentation at city hall last month, three officers
from the ISU's community liaison team approached Mullins and several
other protestors. According to an ORN member at the scene, the
officers "glad handed, sweet talked and [distributed] business cards
in a very friendly way."
The activist wasn't impressed. "There is nothing to be gained from
meeting with these people, and I think ORN should not do so as a group
or as individuals," the activist wrote.
In a Q&A session with reporters several weeks ago, RCMP assistant
commissioner Bud Mercer said the ISU has boosted its community
relations team from three to five people over the last year and
planned to double the numbers over coming months.
"I'm quite comfortable that they're reaching out to sectors of the
public that they need to," he said. But he suggested that building a
working relationship with protest groups requires cooperation from
"I think there's a responsibility on these groups that if we're not
reaching out to them, that they reach out to us," Mercer said. "We'll
continue to do our best."
'The meeting did not go well'
Worried that activists and downtown residents weren't being included
in the security planning process, the BCCLA recently formed an
outreach committee headed by retired judge Jerome Paradis. The group's
plan was to engage the ISU in a dialogue that would address the
concerns of local residents and protestors. But initial talks left
committee members frustrated.
"The meeting did not go well," Eby said. "The ISU was not prepared to
share any aspects of its security plan." Both sides have agreed to
meet again in March, but unless the unit becomes more transparent,
productive talks are unlikely, he said.
According to Mullins, the committee's experience has made many
activists question the motives of security forces. "It sounds like
they want a one-way flow of information -- they want to find out all
about what we're doing but they're not interested in sharing back," he
With only a year to go until the Games and large-scale military
exercises already underway, the window for meaningful security
consultations is closing quickly -- but the ISU still has a chance to
make things better, Mullins said.
As part of the bid process for the 2010 Games, VANOC, Vancouver and
the federal and provincial governments agreed on a list of social
commitments laid out in the Inner-City Inclusive Commitment Statement.
Chief among them was a promise to "commit to a timely public
consultation that is accessible to inner-city neighbourhoods, before
any security legislation or regulations are finalized."
Last month, Vancouver City Council passed a motion urging VANOC to
hold the meeting, a decision both Eby and Mullins supported. So far,
the ISU hasn't made any commitments and e-mails from The Tyee to VANOC
about the issue were not returned.
Lists of concerns
If such a meeting were held, it would give downtown residents, protest
groups and security forces a chance to voice their concerns in a
public setting, Mullins said.
No doubt, the session would be vocal.
Activists are worried that come Games-time, the ISU will force them
into far-flung "protest pens" where their message won't reach the eyes
and ears of spectators and media. They also want reassurances that
security forces won't try to provoke a violent incident with
protestors -- along the lines of the provocateur incident at
Montebello -- to justify a crackdown.
On the security side, military and police officials need to be certain
that activists will behave in a peaceful way and not try to disrupt
the operations of the Games. And the BCCLA has raised a slew of
issues, including the use of closed-circuit cameras, police crackdowns
on the Downtown Eastside and potential restrictions caused by security
But until the ISU makes meaningful public consultation a reality, it
runs the risk of repeating APEC all over again, Mullins said.
"If the police want to make Canada proud, they've got to change their
paradigm entirely and get on board with the understanding that protest
and resistance is really part of a democracy," he said.
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