Flamin’ heck

I serendipitously saw the Olympic torch today.

Not what I saw but you get the picture

I was heading to an appointment; I usually take the bus but today I had some things to do (plus it was rainy and cold), so I took the car. At Oak and 25th traffic came to a dead halt – and sirens blared, lights flashed and lo and behold, a gaggle of burly motorcycle cops authoritatively slid their massive bikes into the intersection in slick, circular movements that would have done a stuntman proud. Still, I couldn’t help thinking they looked a bit like alien visitors, these police men and (presumably) women, however asexual they seemed. (And I don’t mean the warm fuzzy kind, like ALF or my favorite Martian but the creepy ones in “V” – here to conquer the planet and eat earthlings for lunch.) Maybe it was their shiny yellow rain gear or those black helmets with the visors. In fact, next to them the small group of bicycle cops looked positively cherubic.

As people got out of their cars and reached for their camera phones even I began to realize Something Was Up. And in a few minutes, there it was, the Olympic flame, carried by a pretty young woman in a white ski suit. No idea who she was but then again, I don’t know such things.

I tried to muster up some enthusiasm – it really seemed too bad of me not to be swept up by all this excitement. I think I lack the fun/pageantry gene, like most curmudgeons. Oh well, maybe one of these days one of those dandy new gene “technologies” that so far have only managed to kill people will find a cure.

But I digress. So, the torch went by and it was just terrific and all that.

Then, some 20 minutes later, as it headed off it seemed we might be able to move. Given that I was the first car in my lane, I gingerly moved forward – unsure as to whether or not I was doing the “right” thing – and, given the massive police presence, what it would mean if I did the “wrong” thing. A ticket? Handcuffs? Worse? That’s the problem when security outpaces our ability to understand or communicate its meaning; for months they’ve been telling us about various restrictions but in such general terms that (other than knowing there’s some kind of cool “central command” to coordinate security) we have no idea what any of it means.

This got me to thinking of  lecture I had watched on cable television the night before, the proceedings of some meeting or conference titled “The Right to the City: The Economics of the 2010 Olympics” – specifically a talk by the BC Civil Liberties’ Michael Vonn. In calm tones she explained how mega events such as the 2010 Olympics which are about to begin in Vancouver, create an environment, under the guise of safety and security, that essentially “militarize’ civil society.

People who would normally never agree such things under normal circumstances – be it large numbers of surveillance cameras, scanners and weapons grade technologies (like that sonar thingie the Vancouver police just got – even though apparently they are not allowed to use it) – agree that the event must be kept safe. So the militarization begins, as do the limitations on free speech and various civil liberties. Vonn related how at that last large conference in Copenhagen, some 1000 potential protesters were arrested before they did anything. In case they did. (“Yes, in Denmark.”)

And of course the security that’s put in place never does manage to get dismantled after the event. It was a terrific talk and it’s available on line at www.workingtv.com/2010/right2city-economics.html.  Stuck behind the procession, I thought of this. Then, a little kid happily waving his maple leaf in the rain even seemed to think I was part of it, cheerfully calling out, “Hello person in the car! Are you an athlete?” OK, that was cute. But cute only lasts for 30 seconds; surveillance is forever. But, being the curmudgeon that I am, I began to wonder what this event would mean for this child’s future liberties and his democratic rights.

Yes, that’s cynical, particularly at a time when even people who weren’t all that keen on the Olympics are sighing and saying, “What the heck, we’re going to pay for it anyway so we may as well enjoy it.”  But cynicism, as Lillian Hellman once said, is really just an unpleasant way of speaking the truth.

Now if we could just speak truth to power.