- The Washington Times - Friday, February 12, 2010

VANCOUVER, British Columbia | Various groups from an impoverished section of downtown joined forces Friday morning and caused the Olympic torch relay to change course twice, a small but satisfying victory for protest organizers.

“Community 1, Torch 0!” Lauren Gill of the Homes Not Games faction hollered into a megaphone following the first detour, drawing cheers from dozens of protesters scurrying to get to the second site.

The first spot was in front of the Victory Square war memorial. About 600 people gathered on surrounding sidewalks and street corners, about half to watch and enjoy and the rest to lash out against everything from the cost of the Olympics to tight security.

As several sponsor vehicles approached, protesters blocked the middle of the street and chanted, “You’re not getting through!” Officers on bicycles and motorcycles formed a wall in front of the activists, then were joined by eight more police on horses. Several protesters sat in the street, right in front of the police.

The standoff lasted about 15 minutes and was mostly peaceful as protesters were mainly interested in being seen and heard. Officers eventually pushed forward and cleared the middle of the street, but by then the torch had already gone by on another nearby street. A police spokesman said there were no arrests at either site.

Harsha Walia of the Olympic Resistance Network — a conglomeration of groups behind a “Take Back Our City” march planned for Friday afternoon — said the diversion was a sign of success, although the main goal of the protests was spreading their messages.

“We want people to realize the Olympics is not simply about sports and athletes,” she said. “We have no problem with sports and athletes. We just think it’s appalling for them to go through the neighborhood most affected.”

The poor, drug-infested streets of Downtown Eastside are only a few blocks from a hotbed of Olympic activity. Walia said residents were told they wouldn’t be displaced, but an estimated 1,200 have been.

“The Olympics have done more damage than good,” Gill said. “But one positive is the world getting to see what Vancouver really is. One block down from the games, you’re not seeing a world-class city. Downtown Eastside is an international model of disaster.”

While things were relatively tame, it was quite a contrast to anything seen at the Beijing Olympics.

Protesters banged drums, waved all sorts of flags and held up placards and banners in and around the streets. One woman held up a gloved hand with a maple leaf on her palm that carried the words “Riot 2010,” and another woman wore a ski cap that had stitched across the front, “The ‘free speech zone’ is called ‘Canada.’”

A half-block away, folks leaned out the third-story windows of the British Columbia Marijuana Party headquarters and waved a takeoff of a Canadian flag that featured a marijuana leaf in place of a maple leaf.

But then there were those there to have fun.

Matthew Smith and a buddy walked around with their faces painted red and white, wearing red cowboy hats and toting Canadian flags they were selling for $15. While the profit was nice, and scoring Olympic hockey tickets would be even nicer, Smith said they were mainly there to show that some folks are happy to have the games in town.

“We figured we’d show the true spirit of Canada,” he said.

Over at the war monument at the center of Victory Square, bagpipes played as elderly veterans in uniform held a variety of patriotic flags. Two trumpet players from the fire department stood atop a fire truck, while members of a religious group walked around handing out booklets titled, “The Way to Happiness.”

People in colorful “Legal Observer” T-shirts monitored the scene, as did a cluster of people from the Vancouver Film School, one of whom held a small dog that was wearing a Harley-Davidson shirt. The students, however, weren’t observing for any sort of educational purpose; they just couldn’t get to their classrooms.

This is the 106th and last day of the relay. The Olympics begin with the lighting of the cauldron at Friday night’s opening ceremony.

Earlier in the day, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger carried the flame in the city’s Stanley Park. He handed the torch to former track star Sebastian Coe, the chairman of the London 2012 Summer Games.

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