3 min

Scrutinizing the 2010 Winter Olympic Games

'Civil rights are a verb,' says legal observer and lesbian filmmaker Aerlyn Weissman

OLYMPIC CONCERNS. "I want to raise awareness about the cost of the Olympics," says Kimi Hendess (right). "I feel like being on the margins in terms of sexual identity, I can relate to others on the margins. I am celebrating diversity." Credit: Samantha Sarra photo

“I saw officers hitting people with batons. I was taunted by one officer and I was detained for no reason, just for being there,” Peter Haywood says.

Haywood is one of several hundred Olympic protesters who took to the streets of downtown Vancouver Feb 13. About a dozen black-clad protesters broke windows and vandalized nearby stores.

Haywood says he was not personally involved in any destruction of property, but he nonetheless understands why it happened.

“People don’t understand that oppression is violence,” he says. “The corporations that were attacked have a history of violence. I think that life is more important than property. Cops don’t feel the same way.”

Haywood is a member of The Pink Resistance, a queer group that opposes the Olympics. Prior to the Olympics, he says he received a visit from Olympic security officials who already had him on their radar.

“Olympic security came to my home and I would get phone calls on a constant basis,” he says.

“It’s important that people know that the Olympic movement does not symbolize the peace, brotherhood and idealistic amateurism in sports that they purport to represent,” Haywood says.

Sonia Marino hasn’t forgotten the pre-Olympic queer cleanse that preceded the 1976 Games in Montreal. “Some of the men’s bars were shut down, trying to sweep the whole scene under the rug,” she says. “There was definitely a cleanup — much in the same way as with the Downtown Eastside.”

As a social worker, Marino says she’s seen many evictions in the lead-up to the Olympics. “There is no question that they are directly tied to the Games. Development that has happened since the bid, the general gentrification, even stuff in the last month, people forced out of hotels on Granville St to make way for tourists,” she says.

“My main concern is the increase in poverty, homelessness, rent increases, the gentrification of the lower Eastside, the allocation of public dollars for a party during Vancouver’s biggest housing crisis,” echoes Lauren Gill, who helped organize one of the Olympic protests. “Where are our priorities?”

“When it comes to the Olympics, I have real mixed feelings,” says Marino. “I wanted to be an Olympian — there’s nothing wrong with a sporting event — but when the Olympics has become the industry and symbol that it has, I think it’s important for everyone to speak up.”

Kimi Hendess came from Salt Spring Island to speak up. “I want to raise awareness about the cost of the Olympics,” she says, holding a homemade sign decrying “Owe-lympic crime” at the opening ceremonies protest Feb 12. “I feel like being on the margins in terms of sexual identity, I can relate to others on the margins.”

In her bright orange Legal Observer shirt, Cynthia Brooke has come to the Feb 12 demonstration to protect Hendess’ and everyone else’s right to speak up. “For me, it’s really about protecting civil rights,” she says. “I was very much concerned about the mobilization of security forces — more emphasis being placed on providing security and not civil liberty — and so I wanted to be a part of protecting our civil liberties.”

Brooke is part of the team of volunteer legal observers trained by the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) to monitor security and its impact on people’s civil liberties during the Games — to claim the democratic space to protest, says BCCLA policy director Micheal Vonn.

“Civil rights are the rights you exercise, the space that you take to read and speak and gather,” says legal observer and lesbian filmmaker Aerlyn Weissman. “Civil rights are a verb.”

“I think that in our ability to counter attempts to shut down our civil liberties, we’ve grown stronger,” says Marino. “People’s awareness of their rights is there. At the same time, in a post-911 world, we’ve had dramatic infringement and more restricted civil liberties.

“The bylaws created for the Olympics aren’t going away tomorrow,” Marino warns. “They are still on the books. The pretext to create more oppressive legislation is there.”

“Being part of a marginalized minority, it’s clear our civil liberties have been denied and restricted historically,” says Brooke. “Even when you cross the hurdle of gaining civil liberties, we live in a society where they are being eroded en masse, and I can’t help but be informed by my queer history and know that the fight is far from over.”

Lesbian athlete Nicole Rycroft was a rower headed towards the Olympics when a virus cut her career short. “As an athlete, I did have an appreciation of the principles of the Olympic games, the philosophy of peace and understanding, a level playing field for people to come together,” she says.

Then Beijing got the 2008 Games and Rycroft went to protest. Early one morning, she climbed a massive billboard to help hang a 20-foot “Free Tibet” banner.

“It didn’t take long for the police and paramilitary to show up,” she recalls. “We were taken to the police station, separated, interrogated for hours and asked to sign police reports in Mandarin before being taken to the airport and kicked out of the country.”

Some people had hoped Beijing would come to look more like Canada with the Olympics, but it seems Canada is beginning to look more like Beijing, says Vonn.

WATCH: Olympic protests and NDP MP Libby Davies on the need to prioritize housing: