Toronto G20: Remembering Politics, Celebrating Activism

As news of the G20’s Toronto Summit recedes from the headlines, which memories shall prevail?  The answer to this question will not only shape official decisions, such as whether allegations of police brutality are seriously investigated, but may also have a profound impact on the political sensibilities of a generation of Canadians.  Given the constant deluge of upsetting imagery and negative reportage, many seem ready to dismiss the masses of people who protested the summit as troublemakers who achieved nothing, and because of the likes of whom, such events should never be held in Toronto again.

A potential shift, and not only among Canadians, is deeper cynicism about the value of activism, an exaggerated view of its dangers, and much greater faith in the strong arm of the state.  Such disturbing forms of memorialising are already underway, and must be resisted.  In what follows, I try to highlight the significance of what the G20 protesters accomplished, despite the millions of dollars spent on security, a metres-high concrete and metal fence that closed off parts of the city, and a set of special powers that were arbitrarily granted to the police.  I also suggest that the perils of marching the streets in protest were greatly overstated.

G20’s Politics Out in the Open . . .


At its Pittsburgh summit in 2009, the G20 announced that it would replace the more elite and First World-centric G8 as the new permanent council for international economic cooperation.  The decision, backed by the Obama administration, seemed a landmark in terms of meaningfully enlarging the voice of developing countries on the global stage.

This gain in representation did not, however, translate into a diversification of policy options.  The G20’s response to the crisis was narrow and technocratic, invested in prescriptions that had arguably precipitated the crisis in the first place — free capital mobility and an unwavering faith in unfettered markets.  Recovery hinged on debt-socialization schemes and stimulus packages that were obviously designed to benefit the financial and corporate sectors rather than small business, workers and marginalized communities.  At Pittsburgh it was clear that the same old hat-tricks were being performed beneath a façade of expanded representation, and that the G20 was yet another arena for the celebration of state power, capitalism and nationalism, not of genuinely inclusive people-centred alternatives.  This is perhaps sufficient reason to oppose the G20, and indeed, a rallying point for protesters.  There is, however, a larger concern.

Forums like the G20 — which pretend to represent voices from the Global South — are particularly treacherous because they depict the sort of neoliberal, corporate-dominated globalization prevalent today as a natural and open process, and one on which there is a broad, global consensus.  What it is, of course, is a very deliberate process, driven by political deals worked out behind closed doors (or, as in Toronto’s case, an impenetrable fence).  An important challenge, in the face of such obfuscation, is to confront and resist the G20’s efforts to depoliticize and normalize highly political decisions, which are made by a very narrow circle of global powerbrokers.

Given this, the dozens of rallies, marches and demonstrations that marked the ‘Days of Action’ achieved a hugely important objective: they forced the politics of the G20 to the forefront.  Despite the differences in their specific agendas, the labour unions, feminists, environmentalists, disability rights advocates, and other activists that came together at the Toronto People’s Summit — held in the weekend prior to the G20 summit — sent a signal to the world that something questionable was afoot at this benign-looking meeting, and that people know and are prepared to demand answers.  In fact, one could argue that the generally liberal city of Toronto facilitated the effective articulation of this message and was, in this sense, a far better space to hold the summit than a more routinely securitized site such as Doha or Singapore.  If the G20 must exist, along with its dreadful summits, open cities such as Toronto are perhaps the best bets for venue.

Nose-to-Gas Masks: Protesting without Fear

The media’s reports of Toronto’s descent into a ‘war zone’ over the summit weekend were ridiculously inflated.  I walked around the city for more than six hours on June 26th (the main day of protest), and saw people milling around, eating ice cream, strumming guitars, and photographing everything in sight, especially smashed-in shop windows.  Throngs of Ghana soccer fans hooted past every now and then (Ghana’s victory against the US in the World Cup was the other big news of the day).  I came across several barricades of police and RCMP too — decked out in gas masks and riot suits — but even here, there was often a surprising calm.  Dressed in T-shirts and sandals, groups of protesters napped, prayed, smoked and chatted at the cops’ feet.

I am not trying to minimize what happened in other parts of the city (several police cruisers were set on fire: the police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets).  But given the alarmist tenor of virtually every newsflash and sound-bite, the point that the vast majority of protests were peaceful, even serene, cannot be emphasized strongly enough.

It must also be stressed that everyone who smashed shop windows was not a ‘criminal,’ especially because of what the label implies — that this person’s actions are random, senseless and purely for self-gain, and that we, as citizens and protesters, are possible targets.  The protesters who adopted ‘Black Bloc’ tactics were not, of course, devoid of rationality or guiding ideology (though they were clumsily branded ‘anarchist’).  While I personally do not subscribe to the argument — which I feel is meant to punish, not change — the breaking of shop windows may be regarded a reasonable response to the violence inflicted by capitalism and authoritarian states.  In fact, the former is obscenely dwarfed by the latter.

It is also dwarfed by the well-documented excesses of the police, which have included beatings, taunting, indiscriminate arrests, and detention for hours in cramped and inhumane conditions (hundreds of bloggers and independent journalists poured in with evidence, including a fairly mainstream TV personality, Steve Paikin).  These reports suggest that the police were a greater danger to the city during the summit than the small, youthful minority who selected vandalism as a means of protest.  This is crucial to remembering that turbulent weekend truthfully.  Even more important, however, is to stay focused on the tens of thousands who walked the streets of Toronto freely and without fear, registering their opposition to the states and governments that consistently place profits before people and, when in trouble, hide behind fences and convenient political rhetoric.

Mitu Sengupta is Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University.  Her academic publications include: (Forthcoming) “Making the State Change Its Mind: The IMF, the World Bank, and the Politics of India’s Market Reforms,” New Political Economy 14:4 (June 2009) and “Labour Power and India’s Market Reforms: The Politics of Decline and the Politics of Survival,” Indian Journal of Labour Economics 51:4 (October-December 2008).  She has also published in India’s Economic and Political Weekly and Frontline, as well as CounterPunch, AlterNet, and The Toronto Star.

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