Thursday, July 01, 2010

In Search of MLK at the G8/G20

Most of us can recall the horrific scenes in Tiananmen Square nearly twenty years ago. Students protesting against a communist/non-democratic government being mowed down and crushed by tanks, sent in by the government to dispel the protest. Earlier in the 20th Century, we witnessed Indians being gunned down for their peaceful protest of British occupation. Through the 1960's we witnessed the marches for civil rights, for equality between gender and race. These protests were desperately needed to help move the government(s) in the right direction. And while it is ridiculous to suggest there is nothing left to protest, there is an air of tradition to the G8/G20 protests. They lack vision and clarity and purpose, other then the supposed importance of maintaining the right to protest, whatever that means.

This past week the G8/G20 summit meeting of the world's leaders was held in my hometown of Toronto. Over a billion dollars was spent on security, tax money collected from hard working Canadians, because a meeting of the world's leaders automatically means a protest, and further, hooliganism and rioting. They haven't always been linked, but these days most protests are accompanied by violence, with rare exception. However, despite the past history of violence and mischief that has consistently tagged the G8/G20, the Canadian government decided to hold the meeting in the heart of Canada's most populated city. Businesses were shut down. The vibrant downtown core became a ghost town in the days leading up to the summit, because we all knew what was coming. Another protest. More rioting. Unlike the examples mentioned above however, this was not an organized protest for something monumental. No, it was the "traditional" protest. People walking in large groups, singing and laughing and getting their pictures taken in front of grim faced police officers forced to wear riot gear. The riot gear was necessary because coming in after these mild mannered, if slightly deluded protesters, were the hooligans. These "Black Box" anarchists have been in business since the early 1980's, and they didn't disappoint us this time either, setting fires to police vehicles and shattering windows and destroying businesses. All of it done behind their black hoods before dispersing into the crowd and mingling a la the Taliban. The next day brought mass arrests as the police tried to find those who had broken the law. Most people were detained for a few hours and released. At the time, I couldn't help but wonder what people were still doing downtown. Why hadn't the 'protesters' left when the police asked them to disperse? And what were they protesting again? The pictures online seemed only to reveal a motley if disparate sort of celebration.

Sunday brought us some answers however, as stories began to flow about police "brutality". That all of it was unsubstantiated and seemed to consist mostly of people complaining that they were cold and wet did little to deter them. They expounded on the need for an official inquiry. On Facebook and Twitter and blogs the stories circulated and then expanded. These 'brave' protesters spun tales of courage and strength in the face of the "armoured" security forces. If you listened closely enough, you could hear the rhythm of their own heroic deeds rising like a Greek tragedy within their minds. Spin and spin, their tales reached our civil liberties association, who cried on national radio about the police "brutality", though its representative could not illustrate a single case of it. And so it now continues, the dogma of protesting so ingrained that shortly there will be an inquiry into these so-called tales of abuse. It will happen partly because we're Canadian, and we love our inquiries, and partly because there is no other choice. How else can we quiet the voices ("We will be Heard!") of these desperate attention seekers? Or are they more than that?

It is odd to pen a position that inherently seems so merciless, so against my natural position of empathy for those who have no voice. The G8/G20 protest however, was inauthentic in every way. From its unspecified positions (What are you protesting?) to the deportment of the protesters (Getting your picture taken in front of a police officer who has to wear riot gear is shameful and disgusting. They are not there for your amusement or your homemade festival. They have lives and families, too.) to the bitter complaining and storytelling that followed it.


The G20 has become a staged event, and because of that, degrades real protests made by people people committed to a cause for the cause's sake, not their own. There hasn't been this much self-congratulation in the blogosphere since Mariah Carey last interviewed Donald Trump. Many of them I consider friends, but their position baffles me. Smart, intelligent people who seem stuck in this mode that the right to protest is a reason to protest.

Saddest of all and completely lost in the hyper magnified gaze of the protesters who insisted on putting themselves in harm's way were the truly forgotten ones. People like the elderly and disabled who make their homes downtown. Or the terrified business owners hiding behind their counters and tables as the hooligans smashed and burned their life's work, all while the protesters watched. Always watching. (Not a single report of a protester who tried to stop an anarchist from an act of hooliganism, although there were reports of protesters who blocked the police from stopping the anarchists.)

These days, a peaceful protest is an oxymoron. It does happen on occasion, but only when the protest is AUTHENTIC. For example, over ten thousand people came together in Ottawa a few months ago to protest abortion. (It was not a protest I supported, because as long as we treat women as breeders, abortion should be legal.) Ten thousand people marching peacefully. No riot police were needed. No hooligans. People weren't partying through the streets getting their pictures taken. They believed something passionately, and the protest was about something outside of themselves. It was an authentic protest. But protests like this last one (and any protest at these G8 summits) cheapen and tarnish the ideals set by Martin Luther King and Ghandi and others.

The question I have yet to answer is perhaps the most important one. If they have no cause, why do so many people show up to protest? Perhaps it is because there are so many of us who desperately want our voices to be heard, so many who suffer and walk in loneliness. Perhaps people feel like they are making a difference, and can do so without having to commit to a long-term project that would require more than a simple walk downtown. What it seems, at least to me, is that there are a number of people who want the good feelings that helping others produces, without having to do the hard work of actually helping or volunteering somewhere. And while I can empathize with such feelings, at some point we must understand that it doesn't work. That the mere appearance of caring doesn't make us feel better in the long run.

It isn't the loudness of our voice or the brashness of our act that will fill that void, because in the end, it's still about us. What gives our life meaning is the quiet sojourn that seeks to listen, not be heard, the one that is willing to walk beneath the shadow, not create its own, and the selfless example set before us by those desperate to see humanity united. People like Dr. Martin Luther King, who when he died at 39, was said to have the heart of a 60-year-old. We dishonour his memory and the memory of those like him when we stage these phony protests. Their greatness was found not only in their their absolute vision for affecting real change, but in their tendency towards self-sacrfice. I wonder what they would say when looking at the results and accusations of the protesters at this latest event.

The results are certainly clear enough. These G8/G20 protesters have not pointed the world's gaze to the needy. The world's ears are not more attuned to those in need of fresh water or medicines or civil rights. Instead, they have served as an annoying clatter piece to the real work being done quietly by so many around the world. If anything, they have turned away the gaze of potential helpers into one of disgust.

Why do we march in protest, and for whom do we do it? Is it for us, so we can be seen and post pictures of our own "courage" and talk about ourselves? Or is it about those who are actually suffering, those whose lives reflect real tragedy and desperation? Perhaps if we answered those questions first, we would be better served towards doing the real work of helping those in need and avoid the shallow tendency towards creating our own celebrity. And then perhaps, we truly would see change.