Of Prayer Vigils and Police Barriers: Protest and Pilgrimage at the Olympics

31 08 2010

Originally posted on The Religion Beat, March 24, 2010

The triumph of Canada’s hockey gold medals now a month old and the memories of the Olympics are starting to fade. Watching the Olympics unfold in our own country is an experience in and of itself. I must admit I’m not a sports fan. Even as a child I was usually on the sidelines and unusually drawn to what was happening in the bleachers, rather than the events on field. I like to think that it was my budding anthropologist in me that drew my focus to the spectators rather than the athletes, but I suspect it had more to do with poor hand-eye coordination than it did with future career aspirations. But my interest in the activities on the sidelines remains. And so I passed my time watching the nation watch the Olympics.

And there was certainly a lot to watch. Canada has hosted the Olympics twice previously. However, this time was different, not only because it was the first time Canada claimed a gold medal (fourteen, to be more specific) on its home turf, but also because it marks the first time that we experienced such prominent opposition to our role as hosts of the games. As everyone knows there were numerous protests both in the weeks leading up to the event and throughout the two-week period of the games. Identifying themselves as the Olympic Resistance Movement a conglomeration of indigenous groups, anti-poverty demonstrators and environmental activists joined forces to protest the 2010 Winter Games. The primary slogan of the movement was “no Olympics on stolen Native land,” a reference to continuing disputes concerning treaties and land ownership.

And so I watched and was reminded of my research.

“It sounds like you went on a pilgrimage of sorts,” I wrote to my long-time friend Chris Miller, the chaplain and coordinator of York University’s Student Christian Movement (SCM). Miller and two other student activists from York, along with one of the SCMs national staffers, traveled to Vancouver over Reading Week to meet up with the SCM group at the University of British Columbia and joined the Olympic Resistance Movement. We met up a week ago to talk about his experience.

“Yes, it was, I think, a pilgrimage. There were four of us that travelled together and we became in a way a pilgrim community. We stayed with old friends of mine and connected with her and her family. A lot of us went through hard emotional experiences.”

The Reason for the Pilgrimage: Historic and Contemporary Issues

For Miller, contemporary concerns about the Olympics need to be rooted in their historical context. “This is all from my personal perspective based on things I’ve seen and readings I’ve done. There’s kind of a dark shady-side of the Olympics that we don’t talk about. Baron de Coubertin, who is the French man that invented the Olympics—the modern Olympics, or resurrected them in 1896. He talked about them as a pedagogical tool for giving children something to aspire to in athletics but a second side of this pedagogy was to show the supremacy of Western Europeans over colonised populations (indigenous populations in places where there were Western colonisers). And to use athletics to show Western superiority and dominance. So there was a colonial and fascist root at the bottom of it.”

He went on to identify politically-charged Olympic venues, such as the 1936 so-called “Hitler Olympics” in Germany (where the torch relay was introduced) and the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics: “although not necessarily related to the Olympics being there, the 1984 Winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo and ten years later the Sarajevo Olympic stadium is used as one of the largest morgues seen in the history of humanity after the genocides in the former Yugoslavia.”

More broadly speaking activists raised human rights issues concerning the influx of people to Vancouver and its repercussions. Along with vocalising concerns about potential human-trafficking and safety for sex-trade workers, members of the resistance movement were concerned about Vancouver’s homeless populations. “Wherever the Olympics go there is almost a class-cleanse. Not like an ethnic-cleanse but a class-cleanse of homeless people, people who are on the brink of being homeless, those living in poverty, and lower-classes and even the working-class are cleaned out of cities; they are moved to the suburbs and taken away from view to make cities look nice. It’s literally a cleansing to make them look nice for the international scene.”

Perhaps exposing his religious commitments, Miller also identified lack of community as a problem. “We have these euphoric moments with gold medals, especially with men’s hockey where everyone dances in the streets but the next morning they’re hung-over and angry and their life is just as lonely and isolated as it was before.”
Miller saw the protesters as calling Canadians, especially the leadership, on false sense of national identity.

“We were trying to show that we’re not unified as a country. There are massive problems: our government says they’re working for us but we’re seeing more unemployment than we’ve seen in decades in Canada. People are lonely and broken and we have no community. We have these two weeks where we somehow feel something bigger but it’s vanishing.” The excitement mounts in his voice as he is speaking. “Now that the Olympics are over people are trying to reach back to get those moments of community back, but their lives are still just as empty.”

He pauses for a moment, looks up at me and says softly. “That’s why we were there.”

The Experience

The group from SCM took part in a number of protests and resistance activities throughout their week-long trip in Vancouver. Their first big action attempting to block the torch relay at two points in the city of Vancouver proper in an attempt to draw attention to inner-city needs. Vancouver’s downtown eastside is identified as the poorest urban postal code in Canada, so the intention of the activists was to show that the very presence of the Olympic torch was an affront to more pressing social concerns. Miller explained, “we said this community doesn’t need a seven-billion dollar party, it needs investment in housing, in drug rehabilitation, in detox centres, in social workers.”

Along with the rest of the world, I watched the Opening Ceremonies and read about the various protests, including the so-called ‘Heart-Attacked’ protest, which attempt to restrict access to the Games on the Lion’s Gate Bridge. The group from SCM participated in both of these protests, as well as others. These protests were at times intense, and the extensive police presence was intimidating, but Miller experienced moments that he labels as “profoundly spiritual.” It was during these moments that Miller linked his experience to his understanding of his religious faith.

I asked him to speak about their presence in Vancouver as a religious group. “What did it mean to go specifically with SCM, rather than with another organisation, or by yourself?”

“I think for us as the SCM, we entered into a tradition that goes back through the history of the church and the history of religious groups that sees these links and struggles. Martin Luther King wrote in the Letter from Birmingham Jail that he wasn’t an outside agitator but that he was an invited guest to Birmingham. And they had organisational links through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I think we felt that connection because as Christians we follow one God, a God that is Creating, Redeeming, and Sustaining. I believe, and the group out in BC believes, that this is a God of justice and that we are God’s agents working in the world. I think it provides something that sustains us and gives us hope that even through troubles, through fears, through intimidation we believe in a new world and that a new world is here and is also yet to come. It’s hard to put words to it, but there is a connection that goes much more and much deeper than ‘let’s all get together and yell and make trouble in the streets’.

“One of the actions that we did as SCM is that we were there over Ash Wednesday that is the day that marks the beginning of Lent. In Christian liturgical traditions Lent is forty days of preparation leading into Easter and we took part in an Ash Wednesday Mass and had that reminder that ‘from ashes or dust you came and to dust you shall return’. We went from this Mass into a Prayer Vigil March through the UBC campus calling for and praying for an end to homelessness in Vancouver and around the world. We were marching through a university campus singing hymns and praying and reading scriptural verses calling for justice. It was a celebration—it was a lament and a celebration all at once.”

The image of a group of ‘freshly ashed-penitents’ calling for an end to social problems and singing hymns is a compelling one. And while Christian involvement in social justice advocacy and protests is not new (historically Christians have been involved in abolitionist factions, Latin American liberationist movements and more recently in protests against the WTO), what is interesting is that they root their movement in the social contexts of the biblical Jesus narrative. Recently, Christians from both ends of the conservative-liberal divide have appealed to Jesus’ role as a revolutionary and have advocated advocating that Jesus’ message was primarily anti-empire. They replace ‘Rome’ with ‘America’ or ‘capitalism’ and imagine themselves to be following a biblically-derived model.

“It goes right back to Jesus and the disciples countering the Roman Empire itself. We have our empires today that we’re trying to be a resistance force to and we’re met with the same levels of security apparatus. We were told that if we stepped onto certain streets on the UBC campus that we’d be arrested without question, without further warning. We were told that not just the people taking that step would be arrested but different organisers who were trying to control a group. All at once it was a fear that came from the police apparatus but here we were praying and singing. It did raise some awareness from different people. There’s a group just trying to pray and sing but at the same time there was a bunch of police all around with guns, in uniforms, pushing us away and hiding us.

“So there is a symbolism associated with that too. What danger are the Christians who are singing and praying? There’s no danger of us. We’re not going to bomb the hockey arena on campus or run around and smash windows. But I think there is that symbolic danger and so much of the state apparatus and the corporate apparatus, the systems of empire are based so much on symbolism and a constructed sense of power that our singing and praying was such a force to reckon with that they came out with all they had against us on a university campus. A group of students singing and praying was, at least for me, a symbol of what the resistance is and how those two symbols clashed so much.”

Christian Community

Of course it is difficult for contemporary Christians to situate themselves within this framework. While the best of the tradition has certainly aligned itself with the marginalised, one can easily observe the Church’s role, especially in Canada in relation to indigenous rights claims, as a hegemonic power.

“I think that not just in Canada but around the world the Church attaches itself to powerful institutions. Every president of the United States with a couple of exceptions who might have been Deists, have been Christians and look at the destruction that the United States has caused the world in this century and the previous centuries. In Canada we have the churches that carried out the government policies of residential schools. In Spain you have the Catholic Church that aligned itself with the fascist government of Franco. You’ve got the history of the Crusades and the Inquisitions, so there’s this dark side of religion too. We make power an idol; we seek it and we hold it and it’s a huge temptation. I think it takes a really deep and rooted spirituality: a radical spirituality . . . to overcome this temptation. There’s a lot of pressure within religious groups even today to say that resistance movements aren’t true religion, that it’s religion getting involved in politics.”

Miller went on to criticise his own tradition for a failure to speak out against what he perceives to be the injustices surrounding the Olympics.

“I think that’s almost a disservice to true religion which I think calls us to something much more than political power. In the context of the Olympics, one of the things that has really struck me is the unquestioned support, even in the church community. I come from the Anglican tradition and we have a national newspaper in the Anglican Church called the Anglican Journal, and in January and February 2010 the main stories had to do with the Olympics. In January it was on a young woman who is an Anglican from Vancouver who was one of the ‘happiness ambassadors’ on the torch relay. It was a personal interest story about her: how she has ‘the best job in the world’. It speaks to a culture of consumption and consumerism and the creation of a false sense of community. I think as a religions group we’re called to form true and healthy and sustaining communities. It upset me that that’s the story that my church chose to do about the Olympics. In February, right before the Olympics started there was an opinion piece from the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada that spoke about the Olympics and how they are time for us to come together. It referenced Saint Paul and one of his Epistles about the virtues of athleticism, and how this is something we can all strive for.

“I think we missed a great opportunity as a church to really dig deeper and to peel back the layers of the onion and see what’s really at the centre of this. It’s really corporate greed and money. . . . I think we as a church, through promoting the Olympics, have taken a step back with indigenous communities. In 1993, the previous Primate of the Anglican Church, Michael Peers, apologised to the indigenous communities of Canada for the Anglican Church’s participation in the residential schools and said we stole your identity and your image and your culture from you and tried to reform you in our image. I think that’s one of the things that the Olympics are all about is stealing identity and stealing culture. If you look at the merchandise at the Olympics it was all branded as part of Canada’s indigenous peoples. There were souvenir pins of the Inuksuk, which is an Inuit tradition and is way farther north than Vancouver. So it wasn’t even a celebration of the indigenous traditions around Vancouver such as a totem pole. All these key-chains of the Inuksuk and t-shirts and sweat-shirts and hats—there was a whole line of ‘authentic aboriginal products’ which were available in the souvenir shops and online. If you look at the fine print they were all made in China.”

Instead of appropriating cultural artefacts, Miller would have preferred to see the church spend some time reflecting on its identity.

“We missed that as a church. We celebrated the Olympics and were encouraged to come together as a community. I think there is much more that draws us together as a community: celebrations of the Eucharist, of being with members of our parish who are going through hard times, funerals, baptisms, weddings which provides the true community with a foretaste of that community which is to come. Being encouraged to gather around the glow of a television to watch skiing and hockey, I think it numbs our relationships with one another and gives us a false sense of connection. We’re not engaging with one another, we’re spectators. I think the church missed that and that’s been really hard as a member of the church, watching the church’s reaction to things and saying: ‘this isn’t what we’re about.’ We’re not about empty celebrations and stealing aboriginal culture.”

Returning to my question about whether or not the trip to Vancouver was a pilgrimage experience, Miller said that it was.

“There was this connection to place that you don’t get in urban Toronto as a student finishing papers and going to work at another campus. In our fast-paced consumer culture we miss that. Even though we were in another major urban area surrounded by the consumer brand industry and the extremes of it, what we were doing and who we were doing it with connected us to place and there is great meaning in that.

“And then there are some of those small moments in protest. For example, the march on the Friday night where we walked behind the elders: it was cold, it was raining, and we’d been outside for hours. It was an hour and half march followed by an hour-long festival of dancing and songs and performances and speeches. Then we marched for another hour and then stood in front of BC Place where the opening ceremonies were, it had been drizzling the whole time and then the rain picked up and it got quite heavy. As the sun was setting and it was getting a bit colder, someone whom I had met at a couple of the summits and had seen at the other protests opened his backpack and pulled out a bag of chips which he shared with ten of us. I don’t know what meaning that had for him, but coming together in the cold and the rain in a protest with the police all around us and walking behind a group of elders.

“As someone who sees communion or Eucharist as something that is very important to spirituality that was one of the most Eucharistic moments that I’ve ever experienced: coming together, sharing food and saying, ‘we’re in this and what I have is yours.’ It is those sorts of moments that, for me, really emphasis the spirituality. It may not have been a spiritual experience for the person who shared with us but for us as part of a spiritual organisation and part of a faith group who thinks this way; we saw great symbolism in those little moments.”








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