Friday, July 2, 2010

Democracy Died (Again) at G20 Toronto

Window breakers get jailed, peaceful protests get ignored, leaders do what they wish in secret, the rest of us are alienated. As intended.

By Crawford Kilian
2 July 2010

Since at least the APEC protests of 1997, and the Battle of Seattle in 1998, international politics has followed a script.

Far away from the United Nations, the great national leaders meet face to face when they don't really need to. But it's a photo op, and the world's media take lots of photos.

Few crowds ever gather outside UN headquarters in New York. But for these meetings, hundreds or thousands of protesters crowd the streets, objecting to whatever their leaders are deciding. Windows get broken, protesters get pepper-sprayed and jailed, TV reports this, and the leaders fly home.

The Toronto G20 meeting in late June did not change the genre. But the predictability of the narrative should make us consider what it's really saying.

We know almost nothing about the views or backgrounds of the protesters. Some of them are "anarchists," hiding in the crowds of peaceful (but misguided) protesters. They are not the anarchists that George Orwell fought beside in Spain, but that's what they're called. The anarchists break some windows, burn a police car or two, and maybe get arrested. We rarely hear them explain themselves.

Pepper spray is not the story

These arrests distract the media from reporting on the peaceful protests, so the rest of us don't know what their beef is. We do sense that the police have over-reacted. RCMP S/Sgt Hugh Stewart gained worldwide fame for pepper-spraying Vancouver protesters at APEC in 1997. But the event, not its cause, is always the story.

Our leaders being highly intelligent, they must by now understand this pattern very well. So to hold a G20 summit in downtown Toronto could not have been a naive decision that went wrong. It amounted to a calculated provocation, as calculated as the smashing of a Starbucks plate-glass window.

In effect, the G20 leaders and the anarchists were co-dependents, each side exploiting the other.

The leaders have spent the previous decade either committing war crimes or failing to condemn their colleagues for such crimes. They have also allowed the world to collapse into economic disaster, and are now retreating into the same public-spending cutbacks that helped cause the disaster in the first place.

To divert attention from these steps, they needed opposition that would anger the public. So they made opposition convenient. A G20 in Huntsville or Kananaskis would have been a tough commute for the anarchists and the media alike.

Anarchist restraint

The anarchists, meanwhile, restrained themselves to trashing well-known brands like Starbucks, rather than posing any real threat to the state. After all, these aren't terrorists planting IEDs on Yonge Street or shooting the police at point-blank range.

But their property crimes were enough for the police to tag them as conspirators and criminals, putting the governments on the side of the angels. A few broken windows were a far greater crime, after all, than slaughtering Afghan wedding parties and adding thousands of teachers and civil servants to the ranks of the unemployed.

The effect of this script is to alienate almost everyone involved. The people who bothered to learn about the issues of these summits, and didn't like them, have been reminded yet again that their government doesn't like them either. They also know that very few of their fellow-Canadians care enough even to vote one way or the other about the war in Afghanistan and the economy in Canada.

When the media lie

The media have learned, yet again, that the angle for summit stories is burning cop cars and vandals in balaclavas. If it doesn't bleed, it sure won't lead. And this comes just as a report by Harvard students documents the failure of the US media to call waterboarding torture if it's the US government doing the waterboarding. If American media won't report the truth, why should our own media do any better?

The police aren't stupid, and at least some of them must realize that they've been set up. They're supposed to "serve and protect," but they serve and protect their political masters, not the public. Police alienation may even play a part in their general misbehaviour, like the deaths of Ian Bush and Robert Dziekanski. Municipal police and the RCMP seem locked into both post-traumatic stress disorder and denial. So they resort to pepper spray and batons that only make their PTSD worse and turn denial into perjury.

Our political parties look alienated too. The NDP has asked for committee hearings on G8 and G20 security. But that's a pretty feeble response. The Liberals are just squawking about pork barrel spending in Tony Clement's riding.

When the Cossacks rode with their sabers into the demonstrators in St. Petersburg in 1905, the survivors wailed, "If only the Tsar knew what's going on!" Canadians in 2010 can't indulge in such self-deception. Our government, and the governments of our guests at the G8 and G20, know very well what's going on.

Seoul of democracy?

The governments will do what they damn well want to. Citizens who dissent will be clubbed and jailed, not reasoned with. Other citizens will be either silenced, or taught to fear and hate their fellow-citizens as crazy radicals who've got it coming. Our political parties will do the least they can possibly do, ensuring growing distrust about democracy itself.

So when the cuts come here as they've come to Greece, the teachers and firefighters and public servants won't be quick to march in the streets in protest. They did so in Vancouver in 1983, and got nowhere. In 2010, they've been warned, they'll get their heads cracked.

If anyone is happy about last weekend, it's the enigmatic anarchists. Whatever they may stand for, they at least suckered a democratically elected government into behaving like the bullies the anarchists claim them to be.

The next G20 meeting will be in Seoul next November. In South Korea, being tear-gassed is a cost of doing business as a citizen. A hundred thousand people will light candles in downtown Seoul over far less serious issues than budget cuts and war crimes.

So we can at least hope that the Koreans will reject our masters' message that democracy is dead.

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.
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