As I write, downtown Toronto is occupied territory, off-limits to the citizens who actually own the streets and public spaces ringed by a modern-day Great Wall of chain-link fences, video surveillance and phalanxes of heavily armoured security personnel.
As a billion-dollar show of force, it’s impressive. Conceptually, it’s not far removed from the towering concrete walls that protect the American command compound in Baghdad, Iraq, or the one that surrounds the vast gulag of occupied Palestine. And that, essentially, is the unacknowledged goal of all this armed excess. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s G-8, G-20, Gee-whiz-ain’t-I-important summit series is a classic exhibition of political machismo.
Steve’s the boss. And to prove it, we must be spied on, fenced off, gassed, beaten or simply hauled away for no other reason that, as a simple citizen, you and your views are not welcome in or even near the councils of power. The symbolism is not an accident; it’s intentional. Never mind that we have all paid for those fenced-off streets – and the fences, for that matter.
In some ways, I am still surprised that Harper can get away with it. After all the tear gas, rubber bullets and bad press of the Summit of the Americas fiasco in Quebec City nine years ago, I would have thought that this authoritarian privatization of public space would be viewed as terrible PR for an elected leader of a democratic state. I stand corrected.
As an accredited journalist who could freely cross the security barrier in Quebec City, I had a front-row vantage point for that high point of citizen activism against these anti-democratic summits. My first observation was that tear gas didn’t need a hologram-embossed photo pass to go wherever the wind blew. Meaning that everyone in Old Quebec that weekend, be they activist, quiet homebody, civil servant, president or prime minister, were all eventually overcome by that metallic and omnipresent taste of state repression.
By then, the jgig was up for the people who previously had had carte blanche to negotiate away our democratic rights for corporate control of national economies. This process misleadingly labelled as “free trade” had been exposed as a simple surrender of publicly owned goods and services – forests, minerals, water, health care or education – to private interests.
The prohibition on public participation had become the most important element of these international summits. From Seattle to Quebec City, however, too many people had come to realize that our common good had been taken hostage by private greed.
Thus, the public reaction to these grand power summits in that era (and it does seem like another era, already) demonstrated that citizen power does matter. That’s why the goal of the Quebec City summit – the Free Trade Area of the Americas, from the North Pole to the Tierra del Fuego – is now all but forgotten. It’s not possible any more to sell power grabbing swindles as manna from heaven that will make everyone rich, reverse global warming and solve cancer.
This has largely survived the event that came only four months after the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, when boxcutter–wielding fanatics turned the world upside down on September 11, 2001. Even the most cynical among us have since become accustomed to the security-state mindset that resulted from that terrorist attack.
In 2010, the security overkill is nothing new. After years of forcing doddering 90-year-old grandmothers to take off their shoes before they could board an airplane, we have become accustomed to the absurd.
Nonetheless, we haven’t forgotten how the grand snake oil sale actually works. That’s why our government is now doing smaller, bilateral free trade deals that for the most part fly under the media radar, such as the one about to be ratified between Colombia and Canada.
These don’t get the same number of headlines and demonstrators even though they can be much, much dirtier. Colombia’s government, which relies on death squads and billions in US military subsidies to keep its own citizens at bay, hopes the deal with Canada can help hide this ugly underbelly and gain its government international respect… even as Colombia’s union leaders continue to turn up dead with two holes in the back of their heads.
That essentially, is what the fence in downtown Toronto is all about. It shows that our government is scared of citizens, suspicious of democracy, and much more comfortable hiding in a militarized and fortified Green Zone, whether it’s in Baghdad, Quebec City or, now, Toronto.