VANCOUVER, B.C. – Police in riot gear confronted more than 200 masked protesters who hurled newspaper boxes through display windows of a popular department store selling Olympic souvenirs.
Seven people were arrested after officers carrying clubs and shields quashed the downtown protest on the opening day of competition at the Vancouver Olympics. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
Those arrested could face a variety of charges, including assault, police Chief Jim Chu said. At least one could be charged with weapons possession for wrapping a bicycle chain around his fist and threatening passers-by. None of the protesters was immediately identified.
Chu said police knew in advance about the protest, but decided to move in once they knew “criminals” were involved.
Authorities said they were wary of masked anarchists who dress in black and use a tactic called “Black Block” to hide their identities. Among them was a loosely organized group from central Canada known to disrupt events that draw media coverage, police said.
“Their tactic is to hide within the ranks of legitimate protesters,” Chu said.
He maintained that about half the protesters were “criminals intent … on committing violent acts, including damage to property, including assaulting passers-by.”
The Olympic Resistance Network said on its Web site it was protesting to “disturb ‘business as usual’ ” in Vancouver.
The ORN is an umbrella group for many causes surrounding the games, ranging from environmental to economic issues. The most prominent involve native Indians who want to reclaim property (“No Olympics on Stolen Ancient Land”) and those angry over the amount of money spent on Olympics as opposed to public housing (“Homes Not Games”).
ORN spokeswoman Alissa Westergard-Thorpe said the ORN did not formally organize the event, although it supports the rights of groups to demonstrate. She called the police action “violent, aggressive and totally unnecessary.”
“These were minor acts of property damage,” she added. “These were not acts of violence toward people.”
Renee Smith-Valade, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver organizers, denounced the violence.
“Expressing an opinion in a peaceful and constructive way is part of what Canada’s all about, but we don’t support disruption, violence or property damage,” she said.
Chu said police will continue to monitor protests but do not want to impede freedom of speech.
“We still recognize that there are legitimate protests out there that want to send messages and exercise their rights,” he said.