Sunday, June 27, 2010

Us Versus Them

Watching the Ghana-USA soccer match on Saturday afternoon, a text crawled across the bottom of the screen saying that protesters had clashed with police in Toronto, the site of the G20 summit. How is this breaking news? I thought to myself. Since the 1999 WTO conference in Seattle, practically every multinational conference has drawn larger and increasingly more violent protests.

But at half-time they showed two police cruisers on fire, and I was shocked.

I understand the need some people have to protest. There are a lot of marginalized people and a lot of untabled ideas out there that really need to be heard, and our vaunted technological innovations do more to distract us from them than to engage them. I have nothing but respect for people who willingly give up their time, energy, and occasionally safety to publicly display their dissatisfaction with the status quo. I even understand the motivation behind civil disobedience; you don't get to be a fan of Martin Luther King Jr. without gaining an appreciation of what a struggle it can be to bridge the gap between legislation and justice.


Someone kindly explain to me how smashing a coffee shop window, throwing golf balls and stones at police and setting police cruisers ablaze is making the world a better place.

I do feel a portion of the blame lies with Stephen Harper. Holding the G20 in downtown Toronto not only paralyzed the entire city for days, with untold economic and safety repercussions (both Eaton Centre and Sick Kids Hospital had to go into lockdown mode), but in terms of security, this was like outlining the perimeter of your picnic area with sugar and then complaining about the ants. However, since the Prime Minister has been in full view almost the entire time that he has not been on camera, I am fairly confident that his weekend was arson-free.

Certainly I appreciate that the G20 provides an audience for protesters to air their grievances about a lot of things, from a lack of transparency in the proceedings themselves, to the increasing influence of multinationals like Monsanto on our courts and government. I even share some of these grievances, and even if I didn't, part of the price of living in a free society is that you have to listen to some ideas you mightn't agree with. Everybody should have a chance to be heard.


I just can't seem to make this leap from freedom of expression to a burning police car.

Here in Edmonton, our latest chief of police is slowing making some headway turning the Edmonton Police Service from an 'us versus them' culture with paramilitary overtones to something more community oriented. Growing up around police meant that I have always viewed them as people first and uniforms second, and I've never been afraid of them in a general sense, so I have never understood people who just don't like police on principle, who just find the very idea of police objectionable. If I were to talk to these people directly, I might ask them how they feel about traffic signals, and what they think might happen if we just abolished them some afternoon at rush hour, but I digress.

The police should be a means of maintaining order and protecting people and property. Your taxes go towards their upkeep. Instead of setting a police car on fire, why don't you take a bunch of your money, convert it to $5 bills, bale it, and burn it on Bay Street?

And aside from the police presence, what is your major objection to world leaders getting together? Would you rather they just insulated themselves from each other and refused to cooperate, they way they did a century ago? You know, like when they were so concerned with getting a leg up on each other that they allowed the first global war to break out, and in the course of sorting that out, set all the pieces in place for the most comprehensive and far-reaching acts of organized violence the world has ever seen? Did you forget that almost all of these people are elected leaders, and that one of them is representing you? Oh wait, with the federal voter turnout numbers now below 50% and shrinking, I guess that's outmoded thinking, huh? Time to write off democracy as one more failed social experiment and move on to the next phase, eh comrade?

And even if you have objections to the way the G20 goes about its business, how exactly are you improving things by actively seeking out unboarded windows and impacting some shopkeepers livelihood? Please don't tell me he's a pawn of the system, or a wage slave that you are trying to free, it just doesn't work that way Neo; you are not The One. Congratulations on instead becoming the oppressor, and giving the police in whatever city hosts the next G20 the authority to do pretty much whatever the hell they want, and the justification to spend more tax dollars securing an area from its own citizens, most of whom just want an opportunity to be heard.

Next go-around many people will be sympathetic to the cops when they outlaw masks at public demonstrations, and I'll reserve my sympathy for the poor lady in a burqa who gets hauled off just because she got off at the wrong bus stop that morning.

What do I want? Well, for openers, I would like it if legitimate protesters started condoning the anarchy and vandalism that has come to mark so many of these occasions, but while I'm at it, I might as well wish for pony. These demonstrations have become a magnet for all manner of shit-disturbers and common criminals. The recent fan-riots in Montreal that followed the Canadiens being eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs contained a number of people wearing masks and carrying backpacks full of tools that they could use to break windows and facilitate looting, and I will bet their hockey affiliation was irrelevant to their behaviour. You know for a cold hard natural fact that not every jackass with a bandana tied around his head at the G20 is there to expand the social consciousness, right? Unfortunately, a lot of organizers are in a situation where they have a tiger by the tail, and fear that 'telling others how to protest' will cost them credibility with their own supporters. Besides, who wants to come to a protest with no police crackdown or television cameras, right? That's hardly exciting! That's not romantic!

I would like it if the moment that other 'protesters' starting donning masks or stooping to pick up a stone, the real protesters just legged it in the opposite direction. I don't know how many videos I saw yesterday of masked individuals pushing away cameras. But wait, aren't you trying to promote your ideas? How are you going to do that behind a mask? Isn't it odd that the people who occupied Tiananmen Square didn't need to wear masks, when they probably had a legitimate reason to? If they end up banning masks, how on earth am I going to realize my dream of becoming a costumed crimefighter? Maybe I should be grateful; perhaps the mask can serve as a type of shibboleth the rest of us can use to separate actual demonstrators from anarchist shit-disturbers.

Maybe I'm wrong though; maybe we are already living in the dystopian future we read about in 1984 and saw in movies like Blade Runner. Maybe due process and discourse really have run their course, and it really is just a case of Us, the people, versus Them, the forces of oppression, and those of use still wasting our time with voting and polling and the herculean effort of wrapping our tiny heads around ginormous, multi-faceted and constantly mutating issues need to step aside and let these Nihilistic heroes push the reset button for us so that human society can get a 'do-over'.

But I have a hard time believing that, and it is mostly because of how far we've come. Two centuries ago, you could own other humans in most parts of the world. One century ago, women were practically property. Half a century ago, your ability to vote was affected by your colour and gender. A quarter century ago, half the planet wanted to eliminate the other half based largely on how they felt property issues should be dealt with. We are in the middle of making our minds up on how much we give a damn whether two guys or two gals can get married or not.

And every one of those steps was preceded by the realization that there is no 'them', and that we are all us.

To the people in black: please, take off the masks, and tell us who you are and what you want. Please put down the rocks and pick up the people hit by them. Stop fighting your leaders, and if persuasion fails, vote in new ones. These are your representatives, after all.

There is no them.

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