Asking an Astronaut to Save The Rainforest

What an idiot can teach us about what went wrong at Toronto’s G20

Protesters serenade riot police during a demonstration against the G20 summit in downtown Toronto. CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS
01 August, 2010

A FEW DAYS BEFORE the Group of 20 industrialised and developing nations met in Toronto, I watched a video on YouTube posted by what I immediately decided was a wholly misinformed and misguided man.

His camcorder approached a police officer asking a pedestrian for ID inside the six-kilometre security perimeter set up around the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, where the G20 summit took place on 26-27 June. After the “documentary filmmaker” interceded and goaded the officer into the only reaction possible, which was, of course, to ask for ID, he cried foul and set off on a tirade of malapropisms: The US had invaded Iraq under “false acquisitions,” we must not let G20 leaders “decimate” us, his human rights were being “segregated.” He told the officer, “Of course I can show ID, but I refuse to,” after handing the camera to his accomplice so he could produce his Ontario driver’s licence for inspection. He even titled his chronicle of public space policing: ‘G20 Toronto Gestapo.’

He must be a performer of some kind, trying to be ironic, I hoped. Alas, the urbanite was more than likely out for his 15 minutes however he could get it. No real anti-New World Order soldier would intentionally taunt police in a Justin Timberlake hat and P Diddy shades unless he wanted to be seen doing it. He may have just come from a bout at the gym to look pumped on camera as well. What an idiot. This guy would be the type to jump into a lion’s den and curse the laws of nature for being eaten alive.

Yet, I sympathised. When the security measures that go along with a political summit of this magnitude came to a city not at all used to a visible military presence, people got nervous. Canadians just aren’t used to this sort of thing. There are no sandbagged sentries outside Pearson International Airport, no metal detectors or X-Ray machines at metro stations. For a few days, though, navigating the centre of Canada’s largest city was more like crossing from Israel to the Gaza Strip. By the time the summit was over, the lingering superlative had nothing to do with pegging the whatever to the dollar or regulating the such and such—it was the 900-plus protesters taken into custody, the biggest mass arrest in Canadian history.

Journalists were quick to post videos of police snatching their microphones. One says she was threatened with rape. After the weekend, there were more protests, calling for Police Chief Bill Blair’s head on a platter—or at least a resignation—over the taxpayer bill of 1.2 billion Canadian dollars (5.3 billion rupees) spent on the kind of security that could arrest and detain 900 people in two days, while black-clad ‘anarchists’ did some serious damage to storefronts on Yonge Street (all photos blaringly absent of any police officers). Conspiracy theories that the ‘Black Bloc’ were paid by the government to give leaders excuses for all the security in the first place were quick to follow.

As a Canadian watching from afar, this whole episode disgusted me as much as it did my family and friends who had to endure (and pay for) it. But after we finish our G20 rants about the elite unit of WASPs who created the financial crisis and who are now making us foot the bill—a wholly valid claim—what we need to learn from the whole thing is not to regurgitate what we already know about our phony democracies and the mobile police states that have followed such politicians around since the Battle of Seattle in 1999 (the same year former Canadian Prime Minister, then Finance Minister, Paul Martin, drew out the G20 world order with the US treasury secretary on the back of a manila envelope). The best lesson from all this comes from the aphasic with the camcorder, raging at a machine he can’t quite identify: You have to know your pitch.

In the 1960s and 70s, the protests that made history were a unified front. Marches against the Vietnam War. The Civil Rights Movement. The Paris student uprising in 1968. I remember watching the mass rallies that occurred around the world in 2003, demanding the US stay out of Iraq. I’d never seen one cause spread so far, and I was still young enough to think a peace protest on such a scale could work. And for one blissfully naïve moment, I thought, “Bush and Blair have to listen. They can’t ignore this.” Well, they did. Now the Iraq War may even outlast the time the US spent in Vietnam. Afghanistan already has. It’s the same sort of indignation we felt then that had people using the G20 as an excuse to burn police cars. The window smashing “thugs,” as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s mouthpiece Dimitri Soudas called them, were a bunch of coddled revolutionaries, ungrateful whiners jaded by the fact they’ve grown up in a country with one of the highest standards of living in the world and have to dream up things to be angry about; it was an abuse of free speech. But even many organised marches had weak pitches, given the context of the summit.

The Toronto protests were a disparate collection of demands to governments for migrant rights, aboriginal rights, animal rights, gay rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, environmental rights, etc. Having Manmohan Singh in Toronto brought out Canadian Sikhs and Kashmiris to shout about Khalistan and Kashmir Azadi.

But the G20, at its core, has nothing to do with what these people want. Don’t let heads of state and their photo-ops fool you: the G20 was formed as a meeting for finance ministers for the countries that would expand the G7 to 20, vetted on the back of that manila envelope by Paul Martin.

Just as Bretton Woods did after World War II, the G20 was created after a series of financial crises—this time, mostly in Southeast Asia—to regroup power structures, and that the 2010 summit is in Canada on the sharp stilettos of the global financial crisis was something of a homecoming, though it’s no surprise the banners waved weren’t exactly welcoming.

The state of emergency-style security that surrounded the summit also had a clear birth date—30 November 1999, the meeting of World Trade Organization ministers in Seattle.  But aside from those protests and those of subsequent G20 meetings that culminated in ‘Fortress Toronto,’ one alternative conglomeration born of Seattle was the World Social Forum (WSF). The WSF has met almost every year in Porto Algare, Brazil—once each, too, in Mumbai and Nairobi—to discuss alternatives to the policies of big government and groups like the G20. It sets its annual meeting in January to coincide with the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland (not a G20 country, incidentally).

You can’t demand that an astronaut save the rainforest. You can’t pitch an architectural blueprint to a news editor. Street protests, the last ten years have proven, don’t really do much except burden taxpayers and lose money for businesses unlucky enough to be situated close to a summit venue. Prime Minister Harper’s decision to hold the G8 in Huntsville, far from any major city, was reasonable. To then have the G20 bring the country’s commercial capital—the very one whose recession-proof banking system he wanted to show off—to a halt was counterproductive. You’d have had a more relaxing time strolling past the Jama Masjid in Srinagar than down Bay Street that weekend.

If organisations and alliances are forged in crisis, hopefully Toronto is both a precedent and a last straw. Hopefully, it has proven that our methods of dissent have become unsound, and from this security crisis, something new and more productive will emerge.

You know, our delusional popinjay, perhaps inadvertently, did get one crucial thing right. His pitch, however erroneous, wasn’t sent to Stephen Harper (he’d have a better chance getting Santa Claus to reply); it was posted on YouTube, which, these days, can be a powerful media tool. Just ask the Iranians with their videophones.

Instead of howling for blood from a distance no world leader will hear, why not band together and shout from an alternative conference venue? At least then there would be the appearance of a united front. And imagine if the media had no violent protests to cover, only support marches in favour of logical policies offered by arms of groups like the WSF. Security costs for summits would plunge. Local businesses would stay in the black. We as protesters would save ourselves from being self-created scapegoats.

Mass support of viable alternatives to the evils and abuses of G20 countries may even be entertained (more than antagonistic vitriol would), and if marches outside something like the next WSF conference dominated the news, not stormtroopers kneeling on students’ heads, post-summit dialogue would be a different beast altogether. World leaders may even pay attention, and it could save HG Wells’ prophecy from self-fulfilment.

But we don’t seem to learn any quicker than big government does, and something tells me the next G20 in South Korea will be more of the same.