Legal Observing is a way of volunteering for the Olympics that fits with my values and feels useful. My son told me about the program when I expressed my ambivalence about the games. Our training stressed our neutral role, and reminded me of my first experience in contribution through witnessing.
In November 1969, I was part of a busload of Toronto university students at the Moratorium in Washington DC protesting the war in Vietnam. The organizers needed volunteers from the protesters to maintain the proportionate number of “marshals” required by their parade permit. So, along with many of the Canadians, I stopped marching and became a peacekeeper. Wikipedia reports that “a quarter of a million demonstrators were led by Pete Seeger in singing John Lennon’s new song ‘Give Peace a Chance’.” I was there in the front row, though my back was turned to the celebrities. I stood in the human chain around the stage, facing the crowd. In my role as buffer, I felt like I was living the lyrics.
The civil liberties issues are different with the Olympics, but I am glad that, by becoming a Legal Observer, I have found a way of situating myself to the games. Through visibility and record-keeping, I hope I can help maintain a safe space for the articulation of differing points of view.
One of the potential issues Legal Observers (or anyone else with a camera) will face when observing is a security guard, VANOC volunteer, police officer, or other Overzealous Olympic Official (OOO) insisting that a particular area or event is out of bounds to photographers. Here’s what to do:
- Follow directions, no matter how ridiculous, illegal or crazy they may seem.
- Ask for clarification and explanations—who the person is, what authority they have to give these orders, why no photos, and so on.
- Keep the camera rolling.
- Report incidents to your Observer Team Leader or the Legal Observer hotline.
Unfortunately, we already have a great example from Stephen Hui at the Georgia Straight that shows exactly how this sort of demand to “stop filming” should be handled.
Here’s the video:
The trial run of the Legal Observer Program went off without a hitch on Friday as the Olympic torch arrived in Canada. A team of Observers from Vancouver headed across to Victoria, ready to keep an eye on the torch relay and to train up a few more Legal Observers while they were there.
Here are a few photos of and thoughts on the day:
The interactions between police and protesters went quite smoothly, aside from a few scuffles. Observers reported concerns that some police did not have identification on their uniform. These officers did identify themselves when asked, but identification badges would increase the transparency and accountability of security forces. We hope this is addressed in the future.
There was also some concern that the number of police present was overkill. In some cases, the police outnumbered everyone else. This can lead to clashes if frustrated protesters run into bored police.
On the other side, there were some reports of protesters throwing marbles at mounted police, creating hazardous situations for the horses and officers. If it is true, this is completely unacceptable. However, our Observer teams saw nothing of the sort, so we hope it was an isolated incident or an inaccurate report.
In summary: A good start for everyone—protesters were heard, police were professional, and Observers were there to document the whole thing. Let’s hope the trend continues in February!