Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bad cops, bad cops

Those of you with lengthy memories will remember this song from the Simpsons. All of us should remember the madness in Toronto this weekend, where the cops were never there when you needed them and everywhere when you didn't. Countless reports of outrageous incidents came in via Facebook, Twitter, and the constant stream of online news. They could chiefly be divided into two kinds: people behaving badly on Saturday, cops behaving badly on Sunday.

If you don't know, here's a summary: hundreds of people were arrested, countless without justification and others with more than enough. Windows were smashed, businesses were ruined, Toronto's downtown (hospitals, hotels, universities, offices) was shut down, and a medieval-like city wall erected. For a weekend, Toronto was both a city-state and a police state where civil liberties were sharply and shockingly restricted.

What happened in Toronto this weekend was more or less a foregone conclusion due to several factors. These high-profile summits accomplish virtually nothing, although they are by no means a repudiation of face-to-face diplomacy. It's just that these summits are every bit as theatrical as the security around them. It may come as news to you that someone somewhere decided that the heads of the G20 should meet every six months, and so they have: Washington in November 2008, London in April 2009, Pittsburgh in September 2009, Toronto in June 2010 and Seoul in November 2010. Fortunately, someone came to their senses and these meetings will be once a year starting next year.

The very fact that these summits occur is part of the problem, but another part of the problem is that they occur in large cities. It makes sense for summits to take place in the capital cities of member countries: Toronto, Washington, London, Seoul and so on. However, this tends to attract people from the deep left end of the political spectrum who use it as a catch-all protest for whatever is wrong in the world. This is no problem on its own, but combined with the other preconditions, it is.

Having the summit in the presence of protesters in a major city creates the sort of chaos we saw in the Battle of Seattle, which Rage Against the Machine expressed neatly. If we want our cities to be battlegrounds for "progressive", "alternative", and other buzzwords, that's fine, but I don't think we do. It's not that we don't endorse the views, but that it's not the way to go about the process. Moving the summits elsewhere would, some argue, be a bad idea because leaders need to "see" the protesters.

Arguing for a physical immediacy to politicians is a bizarre argument, however. We have no right to demand that the Prime Minster live in Scarborough public housing so that we can see him everyday and harass him with our problems big and small, real and imaginary. Demanding a similar access to the leaders of the world, but only for the duration of a summit but never else, sort of the way we watch swimming and figure skating religiously but only during the Olympics, leads to the police state compromise. We get access, but with a series of walls in between and 15,000 seemingly nutless police officers roaming the streets (comparison: the Canadian Forces have 65,000 members).

The summits and their formulaic, useless joint statements, resolutions and press releases are useless enough in comparison with diplomacy between people that want to see each other. But, if we're going to do this, let's put this in the middle of nowhere like Huntsville or Brampton so that no one gets hurt. If you want to protest, you have the other 362 days of the year to find the leaders of the world and hold up your banners of socialist revolution.

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