Spartacist Canada No. 163
State Repression Against Natives, the Poor
For 17 days in February, civil rights in Vancouver will be virtually erased as the city becomes an armed camp for the 2010 Olympics. Under the pretext of “fighting terror,” some 16,500 soldiers and police will descend on the city. Dubbed “Operation Podium,” this is the largest domestic “security” operation in Canadian history, combining various police forces, the Canadian and U.S. military and the CSIS secret police.
Numerous anti-Olympic activists and their families and friends have already faced harassment, including surprise visits by the cops at home, school and work. One professor at the University of British Columbia, Chris Shaw, was subjected to a campaign of RCMP intimidation that included calls to his ex-wife, while cops followed one of his friends to a college exam. The cops are of course preparing to infiltrate protest groups and provoke confrontations, openly rebuffing the liberals of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, who requested that the state refrain from such tactics.
Vancouver’s city council under mayor Gregor Robertson (a former NDP MLA) has passed a package of “temporary” Olympic by-laws that ban leafleting, unauthorized signage and megaphones. All protests must be pre-approved and must take place in state-sanctioned areas cordoned off by cops. The provincial government’s Bill 13 permits police to enter private residences to confiscate protest signs on display, threatening arrests and fines of up to $10,000 a day. Ominously, Vancouver police have acquired a “sonic gun” that can blast crowds of people with up to 152 decibels causing disorientation, pain and potential hearing loss. Widely used for “crowd control” by U.S. occupation forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, a similar weapon was employed by the cops against protesters at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh in September.
The current repressive moves intersect and are amplified by the ongoing “war on terror.” Heavily-censored CSIS/RCMP documents obtained by the media identify “several threats to Olympic security, including anti-globalization, anti-corporate and First Nations activists” (Province, 8 October 2008). The same report makes a deadly equation between leftist and Native activists and “international extremist organizations like al-Qaida.”
The rulers’ “war on terror” is not a “war” at all but a political campaign that aims to divide the working people against each other while strengthening the arsenal of state repression. In the first instance, it has seen a racist witchhunt of minorities, primarily Muslims but also Sikhs, Tamils and others. Ultimately, the central target of such police-state measures will be the organized working class, whose labour makes society run. The rights of labour and minorities must go forward together, or they will fall back separately!
Unlike liberal opponents of the Olympic crackdown, we Marxists understand that police violence and repression are not mistaken policies of a particular right-wing government or out-of-control state agency. One need only recall the killing by taser of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski two years ago by the trigger-happy RCMP to underline the fact that police violence is no aberration but the day-to-day reality of the capitalist state. Under capitalism, the state—comprised at its core of the cops, courts, prisons and military—exists to protect the wealth and power of a tiny minority, the bourgeoisie, who exploit the working masses.
A taste of the potential power of the organized working class was given by striking B.C. paramedics when they set up picket lines that disrupted a high-profile Olympic security exercise for four hours on November 5. The union was protesting government strikebreaking legislation against their seven-month strike—legislation that was reportedly introduced at the direct behest of VANOC, the Olympic organizing committee. The paramedics’ picket lines were supported by unionized firefighters, who refused to cross them. This is the kind of social power that must be unleashed on behalf of the poor and all victims of capitalist repression.
Downtown Eastside: Poverty, Disease and Native Oppression
Vancouver, regularly touted as “the world’s most liveable city,” has sores to hide and real estate to sell. Behind the glitzy, cosmopolitan image of the city lies poverty so horrendous that it approaches Third World conditions. A priority for the capitalist class is to keep Vancouver’s homelessness, addiction, disease and discontent away from the Olympic cameras. In preparation for the Games, the homeless are being chased from parks and thrown in jail, their property confiscated, as the city scrambles to hide its destitute thousands. And it’s not only happening in Vancouver. At a November 9 public forum on “Olympic Security Issues,” it was reported that hundreds of homeless people were, at that moment, being relocated from the Whistler area—the other main Olympic site—to Kamloops, hundreds of kilometers away.
Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is the poorest urban area in Canada, directly abutting a bustling tourist area and mere blocks from both the financial district and the Olympic Village. Local politicians have been scheming for years to purge the area of its poor residents and now find a convenient pretext. AIDS researchers foresee an increase in HIV infection as addicts are driven away from the needle exchange and safe injection sites in the area. The Downtown Eastside already has North America’s highest HIV infection rates. Some 30 percent of drug users there have AIDS, while over half are infected with Hepatitis C.
The aboriginal population in the Downtown Eastside is proportionally seven times higher than in the city at large. For years, Native youth have been driven to the city by the grinding poverty of the reserves elsewhere in B.C. On the Mount Currie reserve, 30 minutes from the multimillion dollar condos of Whistler, Native families live on a meagre $165 a month. When they get to Vancouver, they face a wall of racism that ensures they remain poor and marginalized.
Indeed, the Canadian rulers have never had anything but contempt for the rights, health and lives of Native people. Canadian capitalism was founded on the destruction of the pre-existing aboriginal societies, which were devastated by disease, military conquest by European colonialism, and eventual incarceration in reserves and prisons. The labour movement must defend Native rights! Only the destruction of capitalism and the establishment of workers rule can hold out a future for Native people.
Olympic Extravaganza Amid Capitalist Recession
The 2010 Olympics come amidst a world capitalist economic recession on a scale unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Unemployment in B.C. has doubled since January 2008. The Olympic torch run has passed through desperately poor Native communities and once-thriving working-class mill towns like Port Alberni, where unemployment has soared.
Like its predecessors, these Olympics are suffused with chauvinist flag-waving and nationalist reaction. The “ancient tradition” of the torch relay was in fact introduced by the Nazis for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Later Olympics have seen massive state repression. Ten days before the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, a massacre left some 1,000 dead after demonstrators in Tlatelolco Plaza were fired upon by soldiers and police for over an hour. In Los Angeles in 1984 the black population was targeted for repression. In 2000 in Sydney, Australia, it was Aboriginal people in the cops’ crosshairs, while in Athens in 2004 it was the Roma (Gypsy) population under the jackboot.
Many critics of the Olympics seek to take advantage of the fact that the eyes of the world will be on Vancouver to highlight the horrors perpetrated against the poor. But the program on offer from most activist groups amounts to pleading with the capitalists to adjust their priorities. One Downtown Eastside activist was quoted: “our government is spending about $6 billion on games…. That money could provide over 30,000 homes for people who are homeless in Canada. Or it could be used to completely wipe out poverty and homelessness in BC” (Carnegie Community Action Project press release, 7 February 2009). Indeed it could, but it is a complete fantasy to think that the capitalist rulers can be pressured to reorder their system in the interests of working people and the poor.
Capitalism is rooted in the grinding exploitation of the workers by a ruling class whose only interest is the pursuit of profit. The boom-bust cycle intrinsic to the capitalist economy periodically produces mass immiseration, while the capitalists always maintain a reserve army of the unemployed and destitute as a means of keeping downward pressure on wages. There is no way to end poverty and homelessness short of sweeping away this barbaric social system through workers revolution.
The social-democratic NDP, official opposition to the ruling B.C. Liberals, has spoken out against Olympic security spending and the attacks on civil liberties. But its pretense to defend the poor and oppressed is sheer hypocrisy. Despite its links to the labour movement, the NDP’s program has always been to defend capitalism, as was shown clearly when the New Democrats ruled B.C. during the 1990s. It was an NDP government that ordered the largest military operation in RCMP history at Gustafsen Lake in 1995 in order to evict a handful of Native activists from a “private” ranch, turning it into a war zone.
Even as the capitalist state ramps up its war on the poor, the fake-Trotskyists of the Fightback group are singlemindedly occupied with their “Take Back the Party” campaign aimed at bolstering the NDP by giving it a “left” facelift. In a November 25 statement, they write: “Fightback has long warned that the right-ward drift of the NDP leadership in BC would hurt the party in the polls.” In contrast, we Trotskyists seek to break the workers from the deadening grip of social democracy, starting with the most advanced layers.
These Olympics shine a spotlight on the repressive nature of the capitalist state, which cannot be “cleaned up,” reformed or pressured into acting on behalf of the workers and the oppressed. It must be shattered by workers revolution. Stopping racist state terror, defending the rights of Native people and the poor—all this and more requires the forging of a multiracial revolutionary workers party that fights to expropriate the capitalist class and build a new, socialist society where a centrally planned economy will produce for human need, not the profits of a tiny minority.