26 September 2009

Reflections on G20 Protests

Perhaps it is a coincidence, but a book that I ordered some time ago ~ Joel Sternfeld's Treading on Kings: Protesting the G8 in Genoa (Steidl, 2002) ~ arrived late this week, just in time for the G20 meetings in Pittsburgh. Sternfeld's book consists in a set of portraits of people who came to protests in Genoa in July 2001. The captions for each portrait consist in the subject's reply to Sternfeld's query: 'Why did you come?' The young Italian woman who resolutely stares back from the cover said simply: "Because it's right."

The leaders who gathered in Pittsburgh for the G20 meetings this week have now dispersed triumphally. It is not at all clear that they accomplished much of substance. And, as I noted here, a massive number of police and military personnel protected them, at great expense, from anything resembling contact with dissenters. Next year, as I understand it, the Canadians will have a chance to place on display the sort of repressive apparatus that 'leaders' seem to demand these days. Of course, officials in Pittsburgh avoided the 'excesses' of Genoa - police rampages and dead protesters. But the sight of thousands of police decked out in high-tech riot gear in anticipation of violence makes the notion that we inhabit a democracy seem farcical. The task of the police apparently was to make sure that the protesters had no chance of getting anywhere near the leaders who were meeting to discuss political economic policy. According to a predictably gleeful report in The Daily News (New York) none of the protest marches got much closer than a half mile from where the summit was actually being held.* If the people attending the protests this week resemble at all the folks who Sternfeld depicts - and I suspect that they do - I wonder of what the summit leaders (and their militarized minions) are so petrified.

As a piece of photographic work, Sternfeld's portraits allow us to think through the media sterotypes, the ones that depict all protesters as darkly clad youth out to break windows and throw trash cans or of latter-day yippies engaged in "antics" or "stunts" of various sorts. He introduces you to some of the folks who are speaking out "because it is right."

On a side note, in an interview before the G20 meetings this week, President Obama offered a piece of especially patronizing advice to the protesters - stay home.
"I was always a big believer in - when I was doing organizing before I went to law school - that focusing on concrete, local, immediate issues that have an impact on people's lives is what really makes a difference and that having protests about abstractions [such] as global capitalism or something, generally, is not really going to make much of a difference."
Does our good president really think that all those folks who were marching in Pittsburgh just come out every so often for a good shout? Does he think that they are not already engaged at home? Does he think they are waiting on he and his cronies to do something politically or socially progressive? Has he considered that - just possibly - working in one's community might prompt one to go out and join political protests? That perhaps the two might be related, because seeing how "global capitalism" works close to home makes "community organizers" angry at all of the ways in which unfettered free markets play havoc with people's lives? Can the president really be that dim?
* P.S.: Added 27 September 09 ~ The Nation has published this report about the way 'security' officials managed to isolate any and all public display of dissent not only from the leaders gather for the summit but from residents of Pittsburgh too. This telling remark by one activist seems to capture the problem: "I'm afraid it seems that the police and the G-20 have learned everything since Seattle, and we've learned nothing . . . They have effectively made dissent impossible to be visible in this city, and they're willing to spend extraordinary amounts of money to do that." Seems to me like the proesters have some re-thinking to do.

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Blogger Mauro Thon Giudici said...

You are right on the stereotype. But stereotype have an other nasty effect they obfuscate the real (whatever it is).
Indeed the actual cohesion of the anti global movement has been diluted by the protest becoming global itself. I've heard some exponents of the Italian movement and clearly each of them knows that the recent economic downturn changed the way in which the global economy is seen. More the opponents to the globalization process are the ones that at the time of genoa where the main responsible for the blody repression of protests.

27 September, 2009 01:53  
Blogger someonewholovesyou said...

I found the President's 'advice' to be a shockingly honest revelation of his cynical view of democracy. He is essentially admitting that national and international affairs aren't a legitimate concern of protesters, and that if you want to affect how you're governed, your only hope is local politics. Nice. Of course, it's sad that he's largely correct.

28 September, 2009 09:22  

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