Comments on the G8 Demonstrations of 2002
The G-8 Summit of 2002 was held in a taxpayer-subsidized resort complex near the city of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Being interested in the evolution of the protest movement focused on these meetings, I decided to travel to Calgary and observe the demonstrations first-hand.
Placing the actual meeting place in an isolated location was a stroke of genius in terms of insulating the world leaders from the “commoners”, but it did require that said commoners pay a hefty price; preliminary estimates suggest that costs were at least 300 million dollars, and may be as high as half a billion dollars, of taxpayer’s money. The opportunities for a demonstration near the summit site were effectively eliminated by a combination of terrain and military presence. Fighter jets, helicopters, SAM launchers, and a large contingent of soldiers and federal police officers with permission to use deadly force ensured that no one breached the broad security perimeter. Fortunately, the only casualty during the event was a bear who dared to infiltrate the zone.
Circumstances dictated that any protesting would have to occur in the city of Calgary. The first event I decided to attend was a march to the Roundup Centre, where a dinner was arranged for lesser G-8 delegates and corporate executives. This being the only opportunity for activists to come anywhere near individuals connected to the G-8, I assumed it would be their show of strength - it turned out that it was and it wasn’t. A motley group, generously estimated at 500, participated in what is best described as a parade of street performers. This event was a good representation of the scope of the protests over the next three days, with demonstrators numbering in the hundreds.
Participants were primarily young, with an equal mix of males and females. Tattoos and unusual facial piercing was common, and the style of dress was often reminiscent of the Sixty’s hippie movement. There was also the expected sprinkling of union reps and fringe socialist politicians searching for media exposure, as well as a few elderly ladies, some indicating that they show up at all sorts of protests. Being that access to the summit itself was difficult and unproductive for the media, it seemed at times that reporters would ultimately outnumber the demonstrators.
So, what were they protesting? This turned out to be a very interesting question, for the answer was quite elusive. People were there to protest “something”, and it did not appear to matter exactly what that something was. Sure, individuals had their “pet projects” such as aboriginal beliefs, homosexuality, vegetarianism, communism, anarchism, anti-globalization, poverty, etc.; but the vast majority had no solutions to offer, nor a clear understanding of the issues. The easiest way to determine the depth of an anti-globalization protester’s convictions is to ask him/her what ‘globalization’ is; the definition appears to be somewhat of a mystery to many. The anarchists seem to be the confused ones of the lot, promoting a form of communism, and obviously having no idea what ‘anarchy’ actually means.
The most telling impression one gets from the demonstrators is their lack of passion. Even the guest speakers sound like their excitement is forced when spouting empty rhetoric devoid of substance. The majority in attendance do not appear to actually care about the issue they have chosen to use as their reason for being there, for in reality they are just there in order to be a part of the event.
So why were these G-8 protests such a dismal failure, in terms of getting a message across via numbers, in comparison to the 200,000 activists at the Genoa summit? First and foremost was location. The fact that G-8 leaders were inaccessible actually played less of a role than the locale of the protest itself. Demonstrations require the support of the local population in order to draw sufficient numbers, for those who feel disenfranchised often cannot afford to travel far. Alberta is the heartland of the Canadian “Bible Belt”, as well as the home of the extreme right wing. Judging by media comments, the local police were actually more concerned with protecting the protesters from citizens, than vice versa. This is also Canada, where inhabitants enjoy the fewest constitutional freedoms of any Democracy, and laws are such that the populace has been conditioned to be docile and compliant when government matters are concerned.
Another important factor was the plan formulated by the local police. Although a considerable force was brought in for security, only a token number of bicycle and motorcycle officers were visible at the demonstrations. Naturally, there were reserves hidden from view, and ready to respond to trouble; but they were never required. The bike cops spent most of their time redirecting traffic to protect the protesters from being run over, and otherwise formed a symbolic, flexible line in front of sensitive areas. There was no riot gear, no pushing and shoving, and no ordering the people to behave in any particular fashion; in other words, no intimidation. Due to excellent cooperation between demonstrators and law enforcement, the individuals who only attend protests for the opportunity to loot and destroy stayed away. Because of the peaceful environment created by this strategy, the participants on both sides felt compelled to police themselves. There were instances among both the demonstrators and the police where they prevented their own members from causing a confrontation.
The organizers of some of the groups involved in this year’s marches made an effort to create some semblance of order. Various individuals were informed of the tactics, and duties were delegated. Unfortunately, no consideration was given to the competence of these particular people, and grumbling about them was frequently heard amongst the crowd. Giving others a feeling of worth and empowerment is a wise course of action under these circumstances, but common sense must play a role in such decisions.
Holding a peaceful protest is obviously superior to the violent ones of the recent past. Rioting and destruction does not convey a constructive message. In such surroundings, the media only reports on the mayhem, and not on any alleged social cause behind the action. The public believes as the media tells them to believe, and so the people who the demonstrators need to reach see them as a danger, and look to the government for protection; hence violent protests are counterproductive.
The Calgary demonstrators did not get their message across either. Because they were so few, the media treated them as a novelty, reporting on physical appearance, the nature of the spectacle, and instances of partial nudity, but rarely anything that was relevant to the G8; and justifiably so, since the message was unclear.
The dynamics of this particular protest movement were pretty much as I expected, with one notable exception. I had thought that I would encounter a small minority that actually knew what they were doing; the driving force, if you will, behind the movement. In fact, I found no one who had practical solutions to any of the issues. This does not mean that these people do not exist, and perhaps because I was masquerading as a member of the media in order to move freely back and forth through police lines, it worked against me. Maybe they do not speak to the media; although that would seem detrimental to the cause. Yet if knowledgeable activists are so difficult to find, then change becomes highly unlikely.
There are positive aspects to the events that took place in Calgary. Future host cities may learn from the actions of the local police force, and avoid intimidation and confrontation. This would diminish the odds of experiencing an outbreak of violence. Both sides benefit, and the only ones who lose are the hooligans, who are universally unwelcome anyway.
The protesters have shown that they are capable of holding a non-violent demonstration. Although I have attended parties that attracted greater numbers, they also included more troublemakers. Considering the diversity of the crowd, it was quite remarkable that there were so few incidents.
Can organizers create future protests that are both peaceful and attended by hundreds of thousands? Probably not. They would require stronger leadership than is currently involved to offset the absence of looters and vandals with people who care enough about the issues to show up, and have practical solutions and alternatives that these people could endorse. As well, a pessimist might suggest that if authorities thought demonstrators had enough support to affect the status quo, they would provoke a violent confrontation.
It may seem that I have a negative perception of activism of this sort. Granted, I feel that many of the issues in question are a matter of altering public attitudes, and attempts at somehow persuading world leaders to unilaterally legislate change into effect is contrary to the values held by the protesters themselves. Some other activist problems are simply frivolous and unworkable; but there are decisions made at the G8 summits which benefit the elite at the expense of the masses, and peaceful demonstrations against those particular policies are justifiable, and perhaps even necessary. However, this requires that, rather than a crowd of individuals gathering to promote a hodgepodge of personal agendas, they unite to focus on one significant issue at a time. this takes tenacious leaders with knowledge, wisdom, and foresight; yet no one stands out among the activists, and those with the capacity to lead such a movement appear disinterested in doing so. Until there is specific intent and true passion, the activists will remain a sideshow; sometimes feared or ridiculed, yet always impotent.