The garbage truck wakes me up early this morning. This isn’t anything new. The garbage truck always wakes me up Fridays; what was different about it this time was that I was too jittery about it to get back to sleep afterwards. I tossed and turned in bed for about a half hour before getting up to shower. The morning is wasted compulsively cleaning the house, de-snailing my fish tank (seek out and squish) and reorganizing the bathroom cabinet. A lot of time spent furiously accomplishing nothing important. In retrospect I realize I was too nervous to have an appetite, and didn’t have a bite to eat.
At one thirty I leave the house and walk through the park to catch the bus up the hill. It takes me three tries to get out the door. I have to check if the garbage can has been brought in off the curb. I remember I’m supposed to put a skirt in my bag for the evening’s plans after the protest. I can’t remember if I turned my alarm clock off or not. I lock the door and check the knob behind me, and make it out onto the street, still fighting down anxiety.
The indecision extends to the music I’m playing on my headset. I can’t settle on anything, flicking through my usually favourite with angry dissatisfaction. I’m half-way to campus before it occurs to me that the only thing that’s going to be listenable is clearly Queen. Don’t stop me now. R has class until two twenty and I get up to campus at two, so I move in circles. I go to the pub and ask about tickets for the party that night. I go to the cafeteria and buy a bottle of orange juice, a bottle of water, and two granola bars.
I go to the concourse computing facility. We will rock you. Killing time is agonizing somehow. I check my email, and fire off a few replies. I take a sip of my orange juice and realize it’s ‘the official juice of the Olympics.’ Idly, I google-news ‘olympic protests feb 12’ and read the articles that pull up. I stick the orange juice back in my bag and realize I’m hungry, but I can’t really eat in the computing facility. I move out into the hall and eat one of my granola bars. Robin calls and says to meet him at Cornerstone.
I talk to my mother on the phone while waiting for him in the coffee shop. The conversation is vague, and surprisingly ordinary given how anxious she’s been about all this so far. We hang up quickly. I want to break free. R shows up, bouncing on the balls of his feet and waving cheerfully, playing with the strings hanging off the ear flaps of his hat. We get on the 135 together and bus down the hill to his apartment, where he drops off his books and I leave behind my things. The pile of stuff I leave on his chair include my credit card, the damn Olympic orange juice, my day planner, a pair of high heels and a skirt. The plan is that we’ll finish with the protest, come back, warm up, and go up the hill to the rowing party fundraiser tonight, since the organizers are mutual friends.
He grabs his camera, and we hurry out the door. The bus starts to go by as we reach Hastings, and we chase it for half a block. The sprint is just long enough that my heart is pounding by the time we do board.
The ride down town is interminable. People get on and off at almost every stop. Everyone around us seems to be talking about the Olympics. We’re next to two VANOC volunteer girls, who are discussing their postings. We run into another mutual friend who tells us happily that she’s going to the opening ceremonies tonight. She has a temporary tattoo maple leaf on one cheek. R glances at me sideways, and neither of us mentions that we’re headed to a protest.
By the time we reach down town, the bus has nearly emptied, and we’re running late. The protest is due to congregate at the Vancouver Art Gallery at three, and it’s nearly three thirty. We turn up a street and the bus very quickly slams on the breaks; the entire road is at a dead stop. The march has already begun.
Of the ten or twenty people left on the bus, one woman rushes to the front immediately and asks to be let off. The driver answers that he can’t legally do that until he can pull up to a curb. We’re actually parked at this point, and to make matters worse, someone has decided to install the bus with an extra-loud anti-crowd horn that sounds like something that belongs on one of the BC Ferries. The driver honks it periodically as his passengers get more and more fraught.
R and I glance at each other. The march is maybe a city block ahead. We can see signs being waved, but can’t read them. Someone is carrying a torch. The man in the seat behind us leaps to his seat and stalks to the front of the bus.
“Fucking protesters,” he snarls as he goes, obviously furious with the situation. The bus lurches forwards a few feet, and he begins to get into a shouting match with the driver. He’s a reporter. He starts swearing loudly about the event ahead, but garners no real support from the rest of the passengers other than an unhappy mutter; the aggressiveness towards the driver is really what does him in. No one seems to be on his side at all, and he realizes it, shortly. Still, he asks out loud, “Why don’t they just call the police?”
At this point, R snorts and pretends it’s a cough. Later, out of earshot, he’ll perform a fictional conversation with a police officer. ‘Um, sir, there are three thousand people on the road blocking traffic with signs and fire.’ ‘Oh shit, I had no idea, son, I had better get down there. To the batmobile!’
As the angry reporter sits down into a seat, someone on the bus pulls the string to let the driver know ‘next stop.’ We’ve been sitting at a dead stop begging to be let off for fifteen minutes at this point. The bell goes, and the entire bus bursts into uncomfortable laughter. The reporter mutters that he’s late for work, and one of the poor VANOC girls is babbling an explanation into her cell phone. In all, the lot of us are stuck on the bus until about ten to four, until we can finally get to a curb.
At least R and I don’t need to worry about finding where the protest is? We sprint down the street after it, ignoring the blaring car horns, and approach it through the crowd. I overhear snatches of conversation that seems to echo the sentiments of the people on the bus with us. A woman reassures her partner that “Well, that’s what having your say is,” and he agrees a little too hurriedly, obviously as an amendment to something critical he’d just said.
It’s hard to break into the march. The police are lining the sides of the thing, walking with their bicycles wheel to wheel in order to form a wall. They’re wearing bright yellow lanyards. They move with military precision, like movie villains drawn in with highlighter.
We have to make our way forward from the back, and the kinds of people we see change as we do. The tail enders mostly don’t carry signs, or look strange, except for the occasional odd duck. A woman in a parka wears a sign proclaiming that ‘STEPHEN HARPER AND BIG BROTHER ARE WATCHING YOU’ around her neck. We keep rushing forwards, through a group of middle class looking, middle aged people. They slowly give way to a more diverse crowd. I remember passing an elderly man, walking with a cane. There is someone else in a wheel chair, and one boy who looks no more than eleven years old, walking with his mother.
The signs start to get interesting at this point. People handed out leaflets; one woman asks me to help her distribute a pile. “I can’t,” I protest, “I’m writing.” She moves off. There’s a man ahead of me holding a sign that says ‘Stephen Harper stole my crayons!’ His friend has ‘More arts funding means better protest signs!’ scrawled onto a ratty looking piece of cardboard. Those are the only outright humourous signs I see in the march that don’t have an insult worked into them. A little ways ahead of us, someone is carrying ‘Screw your bourgie circle jerk.’ It takes me a few seconds to work out what a bourgie is, and I have a brief flashback to sitting around a living room a month earlier and debating whether bourgeoisie is really synonymous with ‘upper class’ or whether or not it still specifically means ‘having access to the means of production.’ This doesn’t seem to be the time to ask the sign holder which he means.
At this point I’m having trouble writing and walking at the same time, so I put the notebook I’m using for research into my bag and grab on to the back of R’s backpack, letting him push through the crowd ahead and following him closely. I feel like an outsider, and not because I’m a researcher, but because of everyone around me and how they look. It’s just that we’ve wandered into the pothead section of the march, where crayola coloured hair reigns supreme and there are more piercings per capita than among parlour workers. Everything smells like weed and R starts to sneeze. Someone looks at us and it feels like being in first grade and doing something profoundly uncool. I miss my blue hair desperately. We move forward.
A man moves alongside us on the sidewalk. I don’t know whether he’s marching or just in the area, but his clothes are tattered and he’s clutching a garbage bag over one shoulder. He pushes past a group of tourists, and screams, “This is what poverty looks like!” There’s something tight and pained in his voice. I have to swallow, but the crowd yells wordlessly in response and immediate support.
Out of the frying pan into the fire. The next group we encounter are the anarchists, though we don’t know it at the time. The anarchists dress all in black, with sunglasses and hoods and black scarves over their mouths. They move aggressively and they move together. Two holding either end of a sign push past me on either side, and I get a faceful of cloth for a disorienting moment before it jerks and unhooks itself from my head. R asks if I’m all right and I nod. Not quite clear on how things are working just yet, I get a brief look at the sign I was nearly ploughed over with, before R pulls me to the side because he wants to stand up on a planter to get pictures of the crowd from above.
I’m pleased to take the break to reorient myself, and anyways, the crowd seems to be coming to a halt. He snaps a few photos and I try desperately to record some of the slogans I’m hearing chanted. Everywhere we go people seem to be screaming something. In unison, they’re shouting ‘homes not games!’ now, and when R is done photographing we decide to see if we can move to the front of the line.
Internet blogs are generally not a great source of information, but in this case they’re probably mostly run by the organizers themselves, so I trust them. What I learned when I was doing my search that afternoon in the SFU computing facility was that the Feb 12th rally was primarily organized by the First Nations resistance movement, whereas the Feb 13th morning rally in Thornton Park was put on by the Olympics Welcoming Committee, and was more committed to a ‘diversity of tactics,’ as opposed to this rally which was intended to be safe and peaceful.
As we make our way forward, it becomes clear that there is a very strong First Nations presence in the group leading us. A float is parked in the middle of an intersection, and a woman riding it shouts calls out that the crowd around her answers. ‘No Olympics on stolen native land!’ she finally screams, as the group around her comes to a stop.
Suddenly, and completely inexplicably, R and I are on the wrong side of something. I don’t know what it was or how it happened, whether we walked into a group of people who all knew each other, whether it was my notebook or his camera, but the people around us link arms and shove us backwards.
“Media, give us room!” Someone shouts, and I realize that we’re being nudged into a throng of people with cameras, snapping photos. People are moving through the crowd with a purpose, now, and a girl is standing in front of us behind the row of locked arms.
“They’re following us,” she announces, loudly, into her earpiece, “we don’t know which way we’re going next and the elders have fallen behind. We want to wait here and bring them forward.” She moves away, still talking, and someone announces something incomprehensible into a megaphone.
While R and I move back around the crowd to reintegrate ourselves into the march, someone begins to speak. We’re still at a stand still, and he’s discussing the issues with capitalism and a sense of entitlement to the environment quite elegantly. About a quarter of the marchers carrying signs seem to be concerned with the Alberta tar sands, which I’ll confess I don’t know a thing about. The speaker is eloquent, but not particularly memorable. After he finishes, another man takes his place. R and I are back in the middle of things at this point; I’m clinging desperately to his backpack so that we don’t lose him, and we’re led in a chant- ‘No police states, freedom on the streets!’
Things get a little distracted at this point. Protesters notice that people are observing them from windows above us. A member of the crowd screams ‘flip ‘em one!’ and in unison, fifteen, maybe twenty arms raise and throw a middle finger at the sky. A helicopter chooses this moment to soar by and a man in a business suit rocks back from his window. For the first time so far I feel a faint surge of something approaching confidence, and a tentative triumph.
We’re cut off from our chanting when the woman with the headset climbs onto the float and takes the microphone. “We’re going to ask you to make way for our elders, ladies and gentlemen,” she requests, and the crowds part obligingly. The people around me make a careful corridor, only to realize that we’re not actually the part of the crowd they’re moving through. R, who is taller than me, tells me later that the Elders are a motley crew. One is riding on a scooter, none are well dressed. They make their way back to their place at the front of the march, moving slowly, and we begin to roll again, with an unparalleled energy.
We round a corner towards BC place sharply enough to trap a car- an SUV with a few people in it. Protesters rap and bang on the hood as we walk by and the passengers shrink in. A woman sticks an anti-olympics leaflet under one of the windshield wipers, another playfully stickers a ‘Vancouver is not a Military State!’ sticker onto the trunk. The driver is clutching the steering wheel furiously, wearing the trademark red VANOC approved mittens. A protester raps on her window and leans in, cheerfully, helpfully informing her, “You’ve got blood on your mittens!” Someone crows and someone else drums on the hood of the car, and then we’ve moved past them.
As we walk, R and I end up back near the anarchists. I realize for the first time that they’re a group moving together when one screams ‘tighten up!’ They shift closer together, grabbing each others bags and moving through the rest of us with a purpose that no one else really shares. The street is dotted with traffic cones the size of barrels, and the anarchists tip them as they go, collecting the smaller signage when they can manage it and waving it triumphantly. I watch one of the people dressed in black climb up a stop sign and scribble it with the iconic circled ‘A.’ The hostility is coming off them in waves, and we move away as quickly as we can.
There are fewer pedestrians walking the street next to us now, and the chanting is turning into call and response. People yell ‘jump, pigs, jump!’ at rooftop observers, and the woman on the float calls out “Show me what democracy looks like!”
“This is what democracy looks like!”
It feels like seconds later that we’ve arrived as close to BC place as we’re allowed to come. The police line up in front of us, in a row of two, then ten feet, then another row of men. Behind them are about ten officers on horses, and there are more men behind that. The marchers stop short of the policemen. Rain is starting to fall, and I’ve stopped taking research notes rather than ruin my notebook, and anyways, there isn’t really space and time in the bustle of the crowds. R and I push to the front of things and find ourselves standing next to the legal observers in their orange tshirts. I don’t see anyone I recognize.
The only body between me and the police man nearest originally is R’s, but a woman pushes forward. “I need to get through,” she says to the officer, and he shakes his head, explaining that she’ll have to go around. She insists that she has tickets for the event. He informs her that she won’t be allowed to pass. She asks for directions, and he tells her sharply that he’s a little busy. I lose track of her in the crowd.
What happens next is terrifying. Something shoots. It isn’t a gun, it’s some sort of projectile thing; it launches marbles over the heads of the protesters and into the police officers. The marbles scatter across the ground and one of the horses almost falls. The police officers move hurriedly, sweeping them aside, and the animal rights itself. Meanwhile, the protesters turn in on themselves.
“Idiot!” the man next to me shouts, raising his voice along with a dozen or so others. The First Nations people are speaking again, and R and I push away from the police a little nervously, back towards the center of the crowd. It’s a little unclear what’s happening at first, but one of the Elders is given the microphone and begins to sing, as drums bang around him. His voice is beautiful, and there’s something almost spiritual about the situation for a few minutes as we listen, raptly. He tires quickly and steps down.
At this point I sustain my protest injury. I step sideways and trip into a bush. That’s pretty much the most exciting thing that happens for the next half hour, except that I run into the staff of the UBC student newspaper. Oh, and two protesters get into an argument. One makes a comment about a video screen behind us where people are waving at the torch.
“They’ve got it on mute because they’re saying ‘Heil Hitler!’”
“That isn’t funny.”
“There was an Olympics held in Nazi Germany, you know!”
“That was a forty years ago, fuck.”
“The morals are the same! They’re controlled by the corporations.”
“Get those animals off of those horses!” is the next chant we take up, and it isn’t profound but it’s certainly rather funny. R and I have moved back to the front of things so he can snap a picture of the policemen, and they’re smiling too, even if they do look fraught and a little nervous. I can’t blame them. The anarchists are getting impatient. They get the idea to start throwing the barrel-like traffic cones at the officers, who don’t respond except to clear them to the side once they are tossed. Five or six of them are thrown before someone hurls a glass bottle.
This finally provokes a police response. The front of the line presses forward, no more than five feet. What this does, effectively, is create a wedge, forcing the protesters onto either side a little more heavily, utterly preventing a head on push against them while not escalating things any further.
Someone screams ‘they’re using vinegar’ and I get my goggles out of my bag, utterly sure we’re about to be pepper sprayed. We clearly aren’t being, after a few minutes, and I tuck them away again and pull out my hat instead, since the rain is starting to come down a little harder.
R and I last until about six fourty five before we decide to head out. My pants are wet from my daring attempt to conquer the dangerous shrubbery with my legs, and it’s clear that one of two things are going to happen. The crowd will disperse and everyone will rush for transit right away leaving piles of people bored and searching for bus stops all at once, which we don’t want to happen. That, or the crowd will either succeed in finally escalating things, by throwing more than marbles and glass and traffic cones, which we don’t want to happen even more.
“I almost want to stay, but I know I’d only be staying in case something happens that I’d be interested in running away from,” I confess to R as we shuffle our way back to the bus stop. He texts his girlfriend, I phone my mother.
“I’m not dead!” I tell her cheerfully.
“Oh good,” she answers, calmly, “how did it go?” The story about the marbles and the horses positively horrifies her. She tells me that’s the last protest I’m ever going to. I inform her that that probably isn’t the case.
“You know,” she says, “when I was at McGill I marched to end apartheid.” I almost drop the cell phone. My mother has sworn up and down that she had never, would never be in any sort of protest except for pride parade. I’d written as much in my research notes- pride parade and having joined the communist party under a fake name. I don’t know whether she’d only remembered this just now, or hadn’t wanted to encourage me.
“And Nelson Mandela was freed shortly thereafter. It was nice. I felt personally responsible.”
“Hey R,” I say, “my mom singlehandedly freed Nelson Mandela.”
“Awesome,” he answers. On the other end of the phone she laughs, and tells me she’s going to sleep. I let her go.
We go to R’s girlfriend’s house for dinner, and pick up a red pepper and a bag of chips on the way. She has company over, and we’re half way finished making a pot of prepackaged gnocchi before I realize her friends are over in order to watch the opening ceremonies I’ve just been protesting against. R looks at me sideways and asks if I mind staying for a bit, and I’m cold and wet and the food smells good and I’m looking forward to drying off inside.
Which is how I end up sitting downstairs on a cushion on the floor, wolfing down food and watching choreographed fiddlers whirl around a stage. I get the dubious pleasure of trying to explain the legend of Maudit (the devil’s canoe) to a German and a Polish girl. French-Canadian folklore says that pioneers are sometimes approached by the devil in a boat that can fly them through the sky. He offers to get them home, a month’s journey within the space of a single night, if only they’ll row the boat for him without speaking a single word. They accept, and paddle through the night sky in silence, until dawn breaks and they’re just about to land and their town comes into view, whereupon ever last one of the settlers cries out for home. Maudit is a French swear word. It’s a squashed ‘mot dite,’ meaning literally ‘word said.’ It’s also a kind of beer.
Someone pours me a glass of red wine, and I’m half way through it when they tell me cheerfully it’s the official wine of the Olympics. Twice in one day, that’s happened. I finish it anyways. K.D. Lang sings ‘Hallelujah’ and it makes me miss my mother, like it always does. I’m even downright happy for Wayne Gretzky when he gets to light the torch.
I guess they win, huh?
R and I go back to his place and I collect my day planner and skirt and high heels. I borrow a couple of advil from him instead and head off to the bus stop to get home for the night. There’s absolutely no way either of us is going to the party. My head hurts and my back hurts and I miss my mother, and I’m not ashamed to say that I cry a little when I finally do get home, just past ten thirty. At ten forty five, I open my computer, check my email, and open a word document. I start to write.
It’s one twenty three in the morning. Ctrl+s, ctrl+p, and goodnight.
ADDENDUM THE NEXT MORNING-
Saturday morning protest turned violent. Things were spray painted and property was damaged.
Authorities say more than 200 protesters, many of them wearing masks, took to the streets at Granville and Georgia Streets before 10 a.m. and began causing damage to private property.
Cars were spray painted and street corner newspaper boxes were tossed into the windows of the Hudson's Bay and TD Bank buildings.
Witnesses say a group wearing black clothes and carrying a large green and black anarchist flag may be responsible for the damage.