Violence obscured an important message

Peter
Peter Jackson
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Whenever I watch the riots that accompany international summits these days, I think back to a scenario I came across in my university years.

In Renaissance Europe, monarchs were very competitive about the lavishness of pageantry displayed during state visits and summits. Such events were enjoined with great celebrations rife with music and festivity. No expense was spared.

Whenever I watch the riots that accompany international summits these days, I think back to a scenario I came across in my university years.

In Renaissance Europe, monarchs were very competitive about the lavishness of pageantry displayed during state visits and summits. Such events were enjoined with great celebrations rife with music and festivity. No expense was spared.

These days, summits also come with enormous price tags - not for pageantry, but for wire fences, security personnel and other accoutrements of a siege mentality.

Of course, these are much different times. There was no large middle class in Renaissance Europe, and I doubt the average peasant knew or cared much about royal affairs.

In the film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," a mud-soaked serf states the obvious to King Arthur: "Well, I didn't vote for you."

This past weekend, on cue, the mayhem brigade was out in full force at the G8 and G20 summits. A hard core fringe of anarchists burned police cars and vandalized property in downtown Toronto. By Sunday, police had arrested more than 600 people, a number boosted by the fact that authorities had special powers to detain people without due process.

Most of the rampagers were cross-border mercenaries, a loose coalition of extremists bent on destroying property while the rest of the crowd were busy chanting slogans. Their actions are meant to disrupt and draw attention away from the summit itself. And they certainly did that, as they have at similar summits across the globe in the past few years.

But their message is a non-starter. They are nothing more than vandals, the most base, brainless element of street politics. More importantly, they alienate the very movement they aim to support by sabotaging and invalidating the message brought by peaceful protesters.

With that message obscured, most citizens are left wondering what the fuss was about. What do these protesters want? Do they just want leaders to stop meeting? What is the point?

The point has become somewhat mercurial, as various groups join the bandwagon. Some attack various aspects of global economic policy. Some demand more specific action, such as increased aid for Africa. Others make vague demands to stop poverty, with few realistic suggestions as to how to do it.

But the most broad and salient message is perhaps that expressed by author-activist Naomi Klein in her 2007 book "Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism." (Klein made an appearance during the weekend protest, but received scant media coverage.)

Klein's book contains exhaustive research, but her premise is simple: the U.S., harnessing extreme free-market ideology and sinister behavioral research, has conducted or led a campaign of converting whole countries into corporatist states in the wake of natural or manmade disasters. The trend began in the 1960s and '70s with military coups in South American countries, then moved on to Russia, tsunami-drenched Asian regions, England, Iraq and even the U.S. itself.

The key principle, confessed by key players at the time, is that a population traumatized by catastrophe is too weak and distracted to resist radical restructuring of the country's economic structure. In many cases, the new reality must be maintained by a system of torture and intimidation. And in most cases, the invasive economic surgery caused great pain and misery and left the patients no better off than they were before.

Klein's thesis may seem preposterous and even paranoid on its face, but her research is solid. She does not posit a grand conspiracy as much as an ideological machine that has swept up modern leaders in

its wake. And she is not, as many suggest, a pure socialist, but rather

advocates the sort of mixed bag en-joyed by Europe, Canada and other progressive nations - open markets checked by an effective regulatory regime and social safety nets.

In short, there is a point to these protests, and that point should be taken seriously. The riotous actions of a few rogues should not rob honest protesters of a voice. And global leaders should not pretend a violent fringe has rendered their critics mute.

If there's any redemption to be salvaged from this weekend's melée, it's that the thugs primarily targeted inanimate objects - police cars and bank windows.

For victims of forced corporatism, the thugs are government-sponsored - and their targets are innocent civilians.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram's commentary editor. He can be contacted by e-mail at pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Klein's

Geographic location: Europe, Toronto, U.S. Africa Russia England Iraq Canada

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  • member of the 20%
    July 20, 2010 - 13:03

    Geez, Bay and Bloor looked more like Sherbrooke and St. Catherine's after a Habs game!

  • Jacob
    July 20, 2010 - 13:02

    Great article. Well said. The summits were a chance to gain global media attention for protesters, violent and non-violent alike. And what was their message? I'm not exactly sure; end poverty, war, and capitalism, I suppose. Either way, the effect of any relevant protests is marred by the violence, as suggested in the article.

    The point about security costs is worth noting. If there was no threat of violence the cost of the summit would be greatly reduced. So, nice job by the violent protesters to make it even more costly in the end!