Feared police crackdown absent during Games

Anti-poverty activists and civil rights watchdogs in Vancouver say their worst fears about police crackdowns during the 2010 Winter Olympics have yet to materialize, more than halfway through the Games.

Homeless encampments, free speech, marijuana use unaffected by police

Anti-poverty activists and civil rights watchdogs in Vancouver say their worst fears about police crackdowns during the 2010 Winter Olympics have yet to materialize, more than halfway through the Games.

Sean Spear, a director with RainCity Housing, said their emergency shelters and housing projects are full and their clients are appreciating a place far from the crowds.

"We also have people staying in our projects who are going to the Games and enjoying that as well, or finding other things that they enjoy about the Games — just watching some of the stuff on TV," he said.

Spear said one thing he doesn't like are Games visitors shooting pictures of the poor, which he called an offence to their dignity.

No significant civil rights violations

A legal observer program set up to monitor the rights of the poor reports no violations, according to David Eby, the executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association.

The program's 250 trained individuals have been on the streets day and night, on the lookout for police brutality, displacement of the poor or suppression of free speech or the right to protest, but so far they have nothing significant to report, said Eby.

"We haven't seen the excesses we were worried about, the signs being taken away, people not being able to march or leaflet. Those things haven't materialized the way we were concerned they would," said Eby.

Homeless protest continues

At the tent village Olympic protest site, the mood was a bit less conciliatory. The encampment was set up by anti-poverty activists, following the opening of the Games on Feb. 12, in a vacant lot on East Hastings owned by developer Concorde Pacific.

More than 100 small tents still remain on the lot, which is located on the edge of the busy Olympic zone in downtown Vancouver, but organizers would not say how many were actually occupied, and refused to let reporters into the site.

So far neither police nor Concord Pacific has made a significant effort to move the protesters off the site.

Village spokesman Dave Diewert said the protesters would not leave until homes were found for those living on the site, but could not say how many people that actually was.

But Elaine Durocher, who helped set up the protest encampment, said they will move on peacefully if asked by the lot's owner.

They are not against the Olympic Games, the athletes or the visitors, said Durocher, just the way the money is being spent.

"I am against the amount of dollars being spent on the Olympics, and none of it is given to homeless people down here," said Durocher.

"I am not here to swear, to smash windows. I am not here to smash cars. Therefore, if they ask us to leave here, before our demands are met, we will leave peacefully," she said.

The day after the opening of the Games, several anti-Olympic protesters were arrested and charged after about 200 marched through downtown Vancouver leaving a trail of smashed windows and newspaper boxes.

The protest provoked a widespread public backlash against the anti-Olympic movement, which until then had been enjoying significant public support.

No marijuana crackdown

At the New Amsterdam Café on nearby West Hastings, there was also little sign of a police crackdown on Vancouver's permissive marijuana culture.

Chris Szabla, 23, was in town from Toronto for the Olympics and happened by the New Amsterdam Café, where marijuana is smoked openly.

Szabla said he was impressed, but a little confused by the rules, which have led to some very smoky crowds celebrating on the streets of downtown during the Games.

"I've never had first-hand experience with enforcement here, so I just go by what my brother told me and what I see in the street," he said.

Szabla has good reason to be perplexed. Apart from medically sanctioned use, marijuana remains illegal even in small quantities in B.C., but enforcement is often as hazy as the air in the New Amsterdam Café itself. 

It is a position that even Vancouver police have a hard time articulating.

"Umm, how do I say this," said Vancouver police spokeswoman Const. Lindsay Houghton. "Our officers show a great deal of discretion when it comes to possession of marijuana."

That discretion, according to Houghton, means trafficking is not tolerated but simple possession rarely, if ever, results in charges.

That informal approach is being passed on to the roughly 6,000 visiting police officers in town to bolster security for the Games.

The visiting officers are told the rules are the same here as anywhere in the country, said Houghton. "However, a lot of them know, because it is quite well documented in the media, discretion is shown."