G20 and the meaning of democracy

The stories that are emerging from the G20, like the stories that tend to emerge from any summit of this scale, are mainly about the police and the protesters. Which makes sense, not only because they dominate the view from the ground, but because they make for great news copy. But are they really the heart of the story?

After all, the notion of “the police versus the people” is a false one. Any fool who thinks that throwing a brick at a cop is going to strike a blow against the powers that be can do us all a favour and stay home – and anyone in the service who thinks the object of the game is to take the protesters down is going to cause problems in the field. But so far, I think we’ve seen that both of those people are in the extreme minority; accounts of yesterday’s demonstrations from people on the scene suggest they were largely an example of the police and the protesters working together to ensure their mutual safety.

Call me an optimist, but I think that’s exactly what most people were hoping for, if not expecting. People in Toronto value the right we all share to protest peacefully, but they also value public safety and recognize that the police are there to preserve it. Maybe I’m naïve, but I think if you have a broad enough perspective about the G20, then you recognize that they’re both in this together.

Antonia Zerbisias of the Toronto Star certainly gets it. “We’re all victims here,” she said yesterday. “Citizens, police, we have little say over our future, even if we do ‘elect’ our PM, which we didn’t really.” She correctly identifies the G20 as a summit that came to town, locked us out of the proceedings, and sent us the bill. It’s a summit that has thrust the police and the public together, as these summits do, and it ought to raise some very legitimate concerns.

Which brings me to the introduction of an excellent book called The No-Nonsense Guide to Democracy, written by one Richard Swift and published in 2002:

“The recent confrontations over free trade have yielded some interesting juxtapositions over the meaning of democracy.

“The irony of these juxtapositions came home to me amid the clouds of tear gas during the massive demonstrations against the extension of the current North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to include all 34 countries of the Americas but excluding Cuba. The Canadian government decided to expropriate the center of Quebec City by slapping up a 4-kilometer fence to create a ‘no-go’ area to protect ‘our’ leaders from an unruly public. Over 6,000 police were marshalled from across the country to defend the fence against the thousands who gathered to protest the set of secret negotiations. The proposed Free Trade Zone of the Americas (FTAA) was designed around the notion of open markets and the rights of corporate investors. It assumed a particular mode of ‘let-the-market-decide’ economic development. This model would squeeze out certain political and economic options – everything from a vibrant public sector to controls of speculative capital would in effect be ruled out. It thus significantly narrowed the democratic policy choices available to people throughout the hemisphere.

“The conference agenda is by now a familiar one – deregulation, privatization, freedom for foreign investors, downsizing government. The ‘free’ in free trade is the tricky part. Free means democratic doesn’t it? Not really. In effect our environmental and social rights were being traded away. No matter what we wanted as democratic citizens, corporate-inspired globalization is what we were going to get.

“The battle of Quebec raged for three days. Tens of thousands rallied to say no to corporate globalization and put forward the idea that ‘other Americas were possible’. The forces of order filled the old town with tear gas at a rate that peaked at 30 canisters a minute. Many Quebecois couldn’t even stay in their own apartments. Hundreds were injured. Hundreds more were arrested, often on the most trivial of pretexts. The high point of the proceedings from an official point of view was the signing of a ‘democracy clause’ that committed all the leaders to maintaining elected civilian rule. It also achieved the US aim of isolating Cuba from the proceedings.

“But this seemed to those of us on the other side of the fence a rather hollow definition of democracy. How could our leaders be meeting in secret to develop a program that would restrict our democratic rights and possibilities and still call it democracy? Did the word mean anything at all?

“Is it enough, as the authorities claim, that politicians have democratic credentials (ie they were all in some way elected) to allow them to behave in an undemocratic manner? Is it the case, as many politicians believe, that once elected they can act as they choose as long as they aren’t caught breaking any laws? Few of them had been elected on a mandate of trading away the rights of their citizens. Trade deals are for the most part not debated at election time. Instead, election campaigns mostly involve the usual set of vague commitments to good government and public order. Some even promised social justice and a narrowing of the gap between the rich and the poor. Many promised (although in fairness not George W. Bush) a cleaner environment. Yet here they all were taking actions that would make these promises difficult if not impossible to keep. Was this democracy?

“On the other side of the fence were the protesters. The corporate media was by-and-large hostile to this ‘unallocated mob’. But in a democracy isn’t it the role of citizens to take a vigilant interest in public affairs? When people see their rights stunted and diminished (indeed privatized) isn’t it their democratic duty to rally to defend them? It felt like what the conference organizers really wanted was not active citizens at all. What they wanted felt more like consumers of ‘good news’ who would sit in front of their TV sets and nod enthusiastically at all the limos, photo ops and final communiqués.

“The events in Quebec City raised for me questions about whether democracy is just about elections and voting every few years for someone who will then tell you what it best for you. Or does it have a wider definition? Is there buried in the history of democracy a more radical sense of citizens ruling themselves? If so, how have we managed to get so far away from that? And is it possible to get back?”

I was at university during the Quebec Summit, although I didn’t attend. This was just a couple of years after Seattle, and a lot of my friends headed up there just because they wanted to be a part of what might be Canada’s version of it. But there were also plenty of people, even then, who saw the summit as anti-democratic and wanted to speak out about it.

No disrespect to Andrew Coyne, previously mentioned here, but when he says that the protesters are “not protesting anything, any of them, including the ‘peaceful’ ones,” he’s wrong. I mean, I appreciate him commending the police on their professionalism, but on this point he’s just plain wrong. A lot of them are protesting what they feel, with no small amount of justification, is a threat to our democracy.

You probably won’t read a lot about that in the paper, and I’m sure you won’t see much of it on television. “The police and the public versus the G20 leaders” just isn’t as sexy a story as “the police versus the public.” But it’s a more accurate story, and a much more important one.

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