May 1 2010

Dissent an Olympic Non-Event

Vancouver protests give way to games as 'unifying force'

Alissa Westergard-Thorpe--Photo Credit:

Alissa Westergard-Thorpe–Photo Credit:

For many people, the Olympics rank high on the Happy Meter, right up there with cuddly kittens and free beer. But those who take a closer look at the Olympics’ political-economic underbelly often end up seeing less feline and more freight train, a corporate juggernaut whizzing through town at taxpayer expense and leaving public debt and social dislocation in its wake.

Early on, activists in Vancouver, Canada, identified the perils of the Olympic industrial complex, beginning their organizing even before the city was granted the bid by the International Olympic Committee in 2003. Anti-Olympic activists put forth spirited, wide-ranging criticism: The Olympics took place on unceded indigenous (Coast Salish) land; public funds were misspent on a 17-day party rather than much-needed basic social services; the militarization of the police and the installation of nearly 1,000 surveillance cameras threatened civil liberties.

While protesters of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics were afforded extensive coverage in the U.S. media (Extra!, 7-8/08), their counterparts in Vancouver 2010 were virtually ignored. A Nexis search from January 29 (two weeks before the Olympic opening ceremonies) through March 1 (the day after the closing ceremony) turned up only nine relevant articles in the New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today. Over this time period, the Canadian press—the Vancouver Sun, Vancouver Province and the Globe and Mail—cranked out 76 articles.

The U.S. press coverage that did emerge was strikingly superficial. Blending cliche and lazy analysis, USA Today (2/15/10) saw “a daily dose of glass-smashing protesters” as part of the Vancouver Olympics’ “run of terrible luck”—alongside the death of a luge athlete and a cauldron-lighting glitch—but pointed to “the unflinchingly optimistic spirit of the host nation” and quoted an academic who expounded on “the kindness and demeanor of the Canadian people, the beauty of their city and constant reminder that sports can indeed unite diverse people.” Such oversimplification jibes with what Christopher Shaw calls “the Olympic frame” in his book Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games. This frame—which permeated U.S. media coverage—contends that Olympic athletics inspire world peace and kindle global compassion.

Parachuted into Vancouver, a few journalists (e.g., New York Times, 2/5/10) captured images of intense poverty in the Downtown Eastside—Canada’s poorest postal code—without sufficiently explaining why such poverty exists. When demonstrators were mentioned, they were often disparaged as “small” groups bent on disrupting traffic for everyday people (New York Times, 2/14/10), or as “emotional” yet “hard-edged” individuals who seemed hard-wired to complain about police (USA Today, 2/15/10). The Washington Post (2/14/10) depicted animal-rights activists as possibly willing to do physical harm to a fur-wearing figure skater, who was quoted calling the activists “crazy fur people.”

Canadian press coverage, on the other hand, was more complex and robust. It broke down into three sequential phases: (1) pre-Olympic stories that included space for dissent; (2) articles appearing once the Olympics began where media slipped into the well-worn ruts of activist denunciation, and; (3) articles appearing toward the end of the Games that praised the police and championed the Olympics as a success.


Phase 1:

Piggyback Accomplished

Before athletes skied the slopes and hit the halfpipes, activists were relatively successful in placing their issues under the media spotlight, piggybacking off the attention the Olympics brought to Vancouver. A Globe and Mail article (2/5/10) featured the advocacy of Rev. Ric Mathews, who suggested that the money and energy directed at the games might be used to defeat “the Olympian challenges of alienation, addiction, poverty and homelessness.” The Vancouver Province (2/7/10) wrote about an activists’ “border guide” that offered tips for getting across the border with less hassle. (One tip was to don a Canadian hockey jersey.) The Globe and Mail (2/11/10) reported positively on activists wrapping yellow crime-scene tape around a building where Prime Minister Stephen Harper was making an appearance, noting that East Vancouver MP Libby Davies publicly supported the action. Outspoken Olympics critics like Harsha Walia (Vancouver Sun, 2/8/10) were afforded space on the op-ed pages to present substantive criticism.

Alissa Westergard-Thorpe of the Olympic Resistance Network told the Globe and Mail (2/9/10), “Our impact will be to have our voice heard, to try and counter some of the corporate sanitization of Vancouver.” In that, the activists succeeded, at least before the Olympic cauldron was lit—no small task on the corporate media terrain. Activists benefited from years of organizing and the sharp juxtaposition between Olympic affluence and abject poverty. The 2008 economic collapse also made a farce of so-called public/private partnerships, as the government had to swoop in and rescue inept private developers. Such questionable spending opened up spaces for dissent. As an op-ed for the Globe and Mail (2/11/10) put it, “You don’t have to be a disciple of dissent to be dismayed at the amount of money being spent on security for the Vancouver Olympics.”

Phase 2:

Old Journalistic Habits Die Hard

Once the Olympic Games began, however, dissent’s news hole shrank dramatically. The media resorted to boilerplate protest coverage, with activists branded as violent, whiny malcontents putting forth a dizzying array of complaints (Extra!, 1-2/00). Protesters were dubbed “radical fringe groups” and “hardcore nutters” (Vancouver Province, 2/10/10) who were “churlish and sophomoric” and whose dissent was “not only farcical but gratuitous, a lame excuse to feed its insatiable appetite for complaint” (Vancouver Sun, 2/6/10). The Sun (2/12/10) later remarked, “Can’t the whiner and grumble-bunnies hold their tongues even on a special occasion, and allow Harper to relax and cheer on the home team?”

A Simon Fraser University criminology professor seemed to speak for much of Canadian media when he wrote dismissively (Vancouver Sun 2/22/10):

It’s time to join the party. None of our issues of concern are going to disappear from the political agenda, and raising them now as part of an anti-Olympic agenda…seems to be little more than a display of misplaced anger or sulky self-indulgence.

“Misplaced anger” was a commonplace characterization after a protest on February 13 resulted in broken plate-glass windows at corporations like the Hudson’s Bay Company. The approach was hotly debated within activist circles; critics maintained such tactics would only alienate the general public, while supporters argued that the company’s historical ties to British colonialism justified property damage. Rather than covering the controversy within the activist movement, however, the media took the opportunity to call the protesters names. The Vancouver Province (2/14/10) called the window-smashers “hateful morons” and “goofballs.” The Globe and Mail (2/14/10) reduced march participants to “a loosely organized group of ‘thugs’ from central Canada promoting anarchy.” The Province (2/22/10) forwarded the thesis that

the problem in Vancouver is that the protest movement has been hijacked by pea-brained anarchists and other perpetual malcontents, such as the window-smashing clowns who marred the second day of the Olympics. These punks not only spoil the Games for others, they force Canadian taxpayers to fork out millions for extra security and threaten the very existence of our fragile democracy.

Although activist Westergard-Thorpe (Globe and Mail, 2/14/10) asserted that “property damage is not the same as physical violence,” her proposition was drowned out by a chorus of condemnation that argued the opposite. Sun columnist Stephen Hume (2/17/10) claimed that smashing windows and fleeing was

on the same moral continuum as those who try to get their way by heaving bricks through people’s windows at midnight, by writing poisonous hate mail, phoning anonymous threats or secretly maiming a farmer’s livestock or killing someone’s pets to make a point.

Hume then compared anti-Olympics protesters to the Ku Klux Klan.

The newspapers never entertained the possibility that agent provocateurs infiltrated the march, even though police openly admitted they were covertly joining activist groups (Globe and Mail 2/17/10) and the Vancouver Integrated Security Unit refused to promise the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association it wouldn’t break the law disguised as activists (CounterPunch, 2/10/10). Only protesters were portrayed as “violent,” not the police who used batons and physical force to subdue activists.

Protesters were also portrayed as having a laundry list of disconnected, single issues. An op-ed for the Globe and Mail (2/11/10) commented about Westergard-Thorpe: “Any temptation to admire her dedication to the cause was negated by the fact that it was nearly impossible to discern what the cause is. Interpreting ancient Sanskrit might be easier.” As usual, the media viewed the interconnection of dissident grievances as a sign of weakness rather than solidaristic strength.


Phase 3:

O Canada!

As the Games came to a close, the press praised police and depicted activists’ concerns over civil liberties as overblown and all for naught (Globe and Mail, 3/1/10). The Vancouver Sun (2/27/10) asserted the cops “won a gold medal” for their restrained conduct. Although police were besieged by “an onslaught of visitors and protesters” (Globe and Mail, 2/17/10), they remained “gentle” (Globe and Mail, 2/20/10).

One op-ed (Vancouver Province, 2/22/10) even featured a letter of thanks ostensibly written by a protester to police: “I have never been surrounded by so many gentle men in my life…. Thank you is simply not enough to show you my gratitude, respect and, above all, admiration.”

In the end, the press assured readers the Olympics were a success for Canada as a nation. As the Vancouver Sun’s Hume (3/1/10) wrote, under the headline “Scoffs and Sneers Can’t Break Our Cheers: Games Win Gold”:

Instead of the nadir of disaster some predicted and a few wished for…the Vancouver Games have been an apex event: peaceful, marked by boisterous good nature and—most people seem to think—a benefit to the province and the city financially, in terms of global image and in generating confidence and self-esteem….Whatever else the Olympics may have been to critics, they were also a remarkable unifying force in a country of often fractured and regionalized national identity.

The key point missed by such arguments: It’s not the job of a free press to promote a “unifying force” by ignoring anyone who disagrees.