Activists clash with riot police in Vancouver

Anti-Olympic protests erupted into clashes with police Saturday as a roaming band of masked activists broke plate-glass shop windows at the iconic Hudson’s Bay Co., smashed car windows and hurled trash cans and news racks into busy intersections.

Riot police moved in several times to secure key downtown thoroughfares and occasionally wrestled protesters to the ground with batons, though there were no serious injuries.

Police were finally able to corner the band of about 300 protesters on a commercial block in Vancouver’s west end and then formed a cordon around the leaders, sealing them off as the crowd screamed “Let them go!” They were released a short while later on the condition that they disperse.

Police said about 100 masked “criminal” anarchists were marching among about 200 protesters who appeared to be law-abiding.

“We still recognize that there are legitimate protesters out there that want to exercise their rights, but we also recognize that the criminal element has taken over,” Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu told reporters.

Activists opposed to holding the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver have threatened for weeks to protest and if possible disrupt the events, but so far have not interfered at any of the official venues.

More than 1,000 demonstrators marched largely peacefully toward Friday night’s opening ceremony, though police said one officer had vinegar sprayed in his face.

The action began at the main railroad station in east Vancouver and proceeded with a march toward the upscale downtown and West End, leaving behind a trail of minor property damage.

The worst occurred in the main shopping district on Georgia Street, where a small group of black-clad protesters smashed a plate-glass window at the Hudson’s Bay Co. store featuring Olympic events on flat-screen TVs and mannequins in Team Canada apparel. Red paint was splattered across what was left.

Police reported seven arrests, but opposition leaders said the number had reached 13.

Allisa Westergard-Thorpe, a spokeswoman for the Olympic Resistance Network, said Saturday was “a day of autonomous independent action” not organized by any group. The theme was “Heart Attack,” and the aim was to “clog the arteries of the city.”

“The Hudson’s Bay Co. is a corporate sponsor, and they’ve got a record of supporting colonialism,” she said. “No people were threatened. There was no violence. It was strictly property damage,” she added.

Gord Hill, another spokesman for the Olympic opposition, said that although protesters numbered only a few hundred on Saturday, they have widespread support from residents concerned about the multi-billion-dollar cost of the Games.

“The Vancouver Organizing Committee are the criminal element that have pilfered the public coffer of as much money as they could, and we’re going to see the effects of it after these Games with cuts to education, cuts to housing, cuts to all the public services,” he said.