Waking up from the Olympic dream

Michael Johansen
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The police officers were few, but highly visible. After arriving in pairs on bicycles, they kept well back from the demonstration forming in the wooded square in front of Vancouver's central train station.
It was a mild evening for January and there was no rain, for once. The hundred or so marchers had appeared from a side street opposite the backpackers' hotel, and they followed a single banner - one with an anti-police slogan painted with white letters on black cloth. When they reached the trees, their progress slowed. Speakers took turns shouting over megaphones, drawing their young audience into a dark corner of the park. They were warning them that the police - and the quasi-police forces like border guards, military and private security - were being given too much power. Moreover, the speakers said, they were all willing to wield it.
The dozen or so bicycle cops who watched the demonstration certainly looked fit enough to wield any kind of power they wanted, but they stayed at a discreet distance, almost out of sight. They obviously had no intention of interfering with the protest, not even (or perhaps especially) when the last megaphone speech turned into a chant: "We will! Fight back! We will! Fight back!" The crowd joined in on the second part and the speaker let them chant "Fight back!" by itself several times before he chimed in again with a few more "We wills …"
What sparked this public incitement to violence - maybe better described as a promise to retaliate - was the one topic every British Columbian seems required to obsess over: the 2010 Winter Olympics. They're saying the more than $1 billion spent on security is a waste of money.
The Jan. 22 protest remained peaceful, so authorities didn't order their police to act. But they were no doubt taking note when one speaker promised to return to that spot to form a bigger demonstration on the first morning of the games, declaring British Columbians will wake up to something they won't expect. The demonstrators, therefore, inadvertently gave authorities one justification for needing all that cash and so are helping to create the very thing they're protesting.
Those demonstrators, however, aren't the only British Columbians who are grumbling about the money going to put thousands of police, security guards and soldiers on the streets of Vancouver, and to put dozens of new video cameras over them.
That billion is only a portion of the total cost of the Games, but it's the one that sticks most in peoples' minds. They can't help but notice while the province can find more than enough cash to pay for things like that, the government is simultaneously planning to lay off more than 300 civil servants, close schools and fire teachers. As well, health authorities have been repeatedly postponing non-urgent surgeries because of budget cuts and the need to keep operating rooms free for athletes and foreign VIPs.
There are many who wish all the money being spent on the games would have been saved for programs and agencies that more directly benefit the citizens of the province and not, apparently, just a few select companies - like one soda pop maker, one fast food chain and a single money lender.
However, given that the Olympics steamroller is on its way and there's probably no chance anyone or anything can stop it - not even a dire warning from Washington that terrorists could indiscriminately target Vancouver streets because they can't get into the Games themselves thanks to a search-and-confiscate barrier more rigorous than the airline industry's.
A lot of people, except maybe the demonstrators who are looking forward to a good protest, are just waiting for the Olympics to be over and done with so everything can get back to normal - perhaps none more so than the bicycle cops who were keeping watch on that one small demonstration and hearing that citizens are quite ready to use violence against them.
Authorities are being promised a fight, but hopefully nobody really wants one. After all, the best way to prove the billion dollars was money wasted is for everyone to keep the peace.

Michael Johansen has gone into travel mode. For the next few months, he'll be writing from everywhere between Labrador and Vancouver Island.

Geographic location: Vancouver Island, British Columbians, Washington Labrador

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