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Lessons from APEC ’97

The Olympics are closing in.

The countdown has begun. News organizations have flocked to Whistler to commemorate just one more year of waiting. RCMP helicopters and who knows what else are gazing down on us from above. People are anxiously scalping undesirable tickets to the Belarus-Kazakhstan preliminary men's hockey game.

Outside the mainstream concerns of 2010, a movement is simmering. Fractured factions of Olympic opponents are building up plans to make 2010 as difficult as possible for its organizers.

They can be found under a variety of monikers: 2010 Watch, the "only independent watchdog" of the Games, calls bullshit on claims that the Olympics are sustainable; No to 2010 thinks the Games are being held on stolen native land; the ultra-radical Anti-Poverty Committee wants to literally "f*** Olympic shit up," if its website is any indication.

It's easy to dismiss these people - I've done it myself. But history tells us we probably shouldn't.

Flash back 12 years ago to APEC 1997, a conference that brought world leaders such as Suharto and Jiang Zemin to UBC. These were men who collectively worked to arrest, purge and execute dissenters within their own countries. Communists on one hand; Falun Gong practitioners on the other.

The leaders were to get together with other nations on Nov. 25, 1997 for a final meeting at UBC's Museum of Anthropology, tucked into a corner at the north end of campus.

The RCMP, in charge of security at the summit, couldn't take a chance on a world leader's safety. They erected a massive barrier around the campus's north end to protect them. They sealed off a student residence, a performance hall and various academic buildings inside a long steel fence placed far enough from the museum so that leaders could enjoy a quiet retreat.

A radical faction of students objected strongly to having human rights abusers in their backyard. Protesters working under the moniker of "APEC Alert" erected their own barrier - an "APEC-free zone" painted in unwashable paint on the ground. They began at the campus's student union building and built it further and further, eventually hoping to encompass the Museum of Anthropology.

Other tactics included sit-ins at the Student Union Building and hanging protest signs from the university's Goddess of Democracy statue.

A year's worth of tension hit the fan on Nov. 25. The day before, a high-profile activist leader was arrested in broad daylight by four plainclothes RCMP officers. The incident gave protests an extra spark just before the conference. Over 2,000 protesters hit UBC the next day.

A lengthy barrier outside UBC's law building ensured that passing motorcades could hardly catch a glimpse of protesters.

Activists carried drums and dressed in costumes as SWAT officers marched across campus that day. They approached a barrier that was held together by twisties and placed atop a concrete block. They pulled on a chain link fence, so hard that the flimsy fasteners broke and trapped them underneath.

RCMP and VPD members, not quite understanding what happened, pepper-sprayed the rapped protesters in the face. Others who tried to break through a line made up of RCMP bike officers met with the same fate.

Toward the end of the day, RCMP Staff Sgt. Hugh Stewart took on the name "Sgt. Pepper" when he sprayed protesters after one-second warning to stop blocking a motorcade route. The image of Stewart spraying directly into a CBC camera played over and over on the news.

All things considered, APEC left a bad taste in the mouths of all parties involved. Protesters tasted pepper spray; police took heat and were roasted in the media; politicians endured brazen attacks from the public for the boneheaded decision to bring dictators to a free-thinking university campus.

2010 isn't APEC, but it still has lessons to learn from it.

Chief among them is to communicate effectively with all parties involved. A recommendation of the Hughes report that followed an inquiry into APEC was that police liaise with protesters before major events and come to a mutual understanding of what each party wants. I can't be sure whether this has already been observed with regard to 2010.

Also important is that security personnel be given the space and confidence to protect people during the Games. Yes, we can criticize. Yes, media can try as hard as possible to get details on what those security plans are. The debacle around the APEC barrier could have been avoided had security personnel been able to plan appropriately.

Finally, though, people ought to take these protests seriously. We can disagree, certainly, but we must all understand that these people believe fervently in what they are saying. The world's eyes will fall on Whistler and Vancouver in a year's time. It's a prime opportunity for activists to put out a message that all the world will see.

If we're not taking these protests seriously now, we will when it's way too late.

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