- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 13, 2010

VANCOUVER, British Columbia | Police in riot gear confronted more than 200 masked protesters who hurled metal boxes through the 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.

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“Their tactic is to hide within the ranks of legitimates 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 protest was promoted on the Olympic Resistance Network web site 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 aboriginal activists who want to reclaim their property (“No Olympics on Stolen Ancient Land”) and those angry over the amount of money spent on the Olympics as opposed to public housing (“Homes Not Games”).

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 said. “These were not acts of violence toward people.”

After the demonstration, guards stood in front of Hudson Bay Company’s broken windows, which were cordoned off with yellow police tape while Olympic tourists snapped photos. Workers removed the metal newspaper boxes.

Hudson’s Bay is an official retailer for Olympic merchandise. Rich Gorman, regional vice president for the store, estimated the damage at about $10,000. He said the windows were expected to be replaced by the afternoon.

“It’s just unfortunate, but nobody was hurt and that’s the key,” Gorman said. “We’ll move on.”

A window at a bank near the store was also shattered.

Riley Arcand, 25, lives near the store and called the vandalism “disgusting.”

“We live in the nicest part of town and everybody’s excited about the Olympics,” he said. “And then you have people who want to ruin it.”

A police spokeswoman said rags soaked with vinegar were found at the scene, and some of the masked protesters were wearing goggles — which could suggest they were anticipating tear gas or pepper spray. Some protest groups tell supporters that rags soaked in vinegar and held to the mouth can minimize the effects of the chemicals.

On Friday, several thousand protesters staged an anti-Olympics “Take Back Our Streets” rally before marching to the stadium where the opening ceremony was held. A standoff with police near BC Place lasted about two hours and was for the most part peaceful. The protest also was staged by ORN.

The group said three people were arrested in that protest. The police reported just one arrest.

Chu said the 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.

Renee Smith-Valade, a vice president of communications for the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, issued a statement denouncing the violent protesters.

“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,” Smith-Valde said. “What’s more, we believe that the vast majority of people here in Vancouver would be strongly against the protesters’ destructive actions today.”

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