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Fears of APEC-style Clash in 2010

Distrust, anger festering between activists and police. Learn from pepper spray nightmare, say critics.

By Geoff Dembicki 16 Feb 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Geoff Dembicki is a regular contributor to the Tyee.

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Scene from APEC protests in Vancouver, 1997.

"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."

Trouble brewing

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.

Police crackdown

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 earlier.

"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 population.

"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 up about.

Early that morning, law student Craig Jones was arrested for displaying signs that said "Democracy," "Free Speech," and "Human rights."

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 the dignitaries."

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 beating.

"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.

Rocky start

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 secrecy.

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," he said.

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 both sides.

"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 said.

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 barriers.

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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