Forget about art. Can we talk about the streets?
by Gita Hashemi
Tell me what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like!
Although events are still unfolding as I write these words, not yet three weeks after the massive crackdown on anti-G8/20 protests in Toronto, the immediate and most visible signs of the confrontation have disappeared from view. Erected to barricade the heads of G20 states against grassroots displays of discontent, the 3.5-kilometer chain-link “security fence” with concrete base that cut through downtown was taken down overnight as soon as the VIPs left town. The next day the financial district returned to business as usual, and within a day the anti-riot police squad was taken off the streets and the borrowed storm troopers were returned to their lender cities. In contrast to the literally in-your-face policing during the summit, the police presence on the downtown streets has become almost invisible this past week — except in poor areas such as pre-gentrified Regent Park or St. James Town, where heavy policing has been a daily fact of life, before, during and after the Summit. Yet, even for the condo-dwellers and hipsters who now make up the majority of the city’s downtown residents, police presence remains keenly perceptible if not immediately visible. Memories of checkpoints, arbitrary searches, kettling and mass detentions in trendy neighbourhoods still hover on the surface of awareness for those who were on the streets and those who witnessed the goings-on in live broadcasts on a local channel (CP24) or followed the tweets and blog posts of a few mild-mannered, polite Canadian reporters during the Summit weekend, 26 – 27 June, 2010.
G8, G20. They’re few, we’re many.
Arriving in Huntsville by special delivery, the G8 state heads stepped on fake grass, grinned for photos, and delivered, as they had done before, empty promises and banal feel-good words for the global public’s stupefaction. Then the G20 state heads cavalcaded into Toronto, posed for a larger group photo and agreed to respond to the global economic crisis by continuing the policy of “fiscal sustainability” through “delivering existing stimulus plans, while working to create the conditions for robust private demand” and taking “actions to boost national savings while maintaining open markets.”  In plain words, they agreed to continue bailing out big business and letting the rich make astronomical profits while imposing further austerity measures on the working class and the poor. Canada’s Conservative Government played its role as a globally gracious and “fiscally responsible” host with an unprecedented security expenditure of over one billion dollars. But, although even the tame Liberals and the right wing media questioned the merits and mechanics of such expenditures, in all too familiar Canadian fashion nobody was too rude and persistent when the agencies that were handed the cash failed to provide adequate answers, and in the case of RCMP, which got the biggest cash prize, any answer at all.  It was business as usual in the globalized world and in our domesticated public sphere.
Whose streets? Our streets! Whose city? Our city!
The more than 10 thousand government and NGO delegates and mainstream and alternative reporters who poured into the city have long since left. And so have many of the people who converged here from across municipal, provincial and national borders to stage the resistance to the G8/20, starting with the People’s Summit a week earlier. The convergence built up through a range of panels, screenings, meetings and themed rallies came to a pinnacle with the headiest of the street protests” the mass demonstrations of Saturday June 26th. That demonstration brought some 30 thousand people from diverse communities and vastly different ideological and topical interests to a march led by the labour unions. There are now far fewer briefcases, cameras, voice recorders, big bright official name-tags, bandanas, banners, flags, picket signs, megaphones, pink tutus and black backpacks on the streets. These days, the non-residents who walk the streets of downtown are once again innocuous summer tourists, carrying cameras and souvenir bags, posing for photos in front of monuments and landmarks, apparently oblivious to the CCTV cameras that were installed at many major intersections as part of the security measures for the Summit, and seem to have become permanent fixtures. In the upheaval caused by the empire striking back, nobody in the official “public sphere” is asking when these cameras will be uninstalled. That doesn’t seem to be at the top of the civil liberty advocates’ demands either, although there are many who have vowed to protest until their demand for a public inquiry into G20 security operations is meaningfully met.
One, two, three, four: We won’t take this shit no more!
For some their dream of democracy has been deeply disturbed. They were whiplashed at the corner of Queen and Spadina — where a few people burned a police car on Saturday afternoon, and on Sunday evening, in plain view of live television cameras, some 150 people, most of them accidental passers-by or residents of the neighbourhood, met with Israeli military style collective punishment (no accidental resemblance here), encircled and outnumbered by riot cops in full gear, held without explanation for hours under torrential rain. They were “released” only after several among them who were profiled or self-identified as activists were snatched by the cops or voluntarily submitted to arrest.  On that Sunday, many people who were not protesters before saw their own powerlessness in the face of arbitrary power.
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Gita Hashemi is an artist, writer and activist and a contributing editor to Fuse. She is based in Toronto. http://gitaha.net