Thursday, June 24, 2010

The World Cup and the G-20

The Streets of downtown Toronto have become a kind of creepy dreamscape. It’s all connected to the G-20, which begins tomorrow. A meeting of the leaders of 20 of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nations suggests all sorts of possibilities…or fantasies.

One might hope that there was something celebratory about such a gathering. Mightn’t there be exuberant displays of national pride in this most multi-cultural of cities, with the singing of anthems and the waving of flags? It turns out that there is just such an expression taking place on this city’s streets. But these are related to the World Cup Tournament, taking place a good turn of the globe away, in South Africa of all places, a country that for decades was the poster child for the police state.

Here, in Toronto, in neighbourhoods away from the downtown core, a different sort of dream is being lived out. The World Cup is being celebrated with smiles and toasts and cheers, even by the daughters and sons of those countries (like Poland, China and yes, Canada) that have no teams in these games. To accommodate the followers of the world’s most popular sporting event, all sorts of limits are being relaxed. In offices and malls, in shops and bars, people take time from their work to follow the live broadcasts. Pubs and restaurants are permitted to serve alcohol an hour earlier than usual – to coordinate with the 10am start time of many matches. And police officers stand by and watch street demonstrations in which countless traffic control laws are violated, and take no action.

These joyous, sometimes raucous celebrations, though in content boastful and competitive, have the feel of inclusion and welcome about them. On the day that both Portugal and Brazil entered the tourney, the celebrants of those two nations spilled over into Little Italy, but seemed not to faze or agitate the Azzurri loyalists at all.

By contrast, it is the Downtown core that has come to resemble the other sort of dream. Intimidating metal and concrete barriers have been erected to protect the Convention Centre and the surrounding streets and hotels. Garbage containers and other street furniture has been removed from public spaces, to prevent them from being weaponized by "anarchists". Thousands upon thousands of office workers have been told, or invited, to remain home, and the street congestion lessens daily. Shops and eateries aren’t so busy, and many have closed altogether.

Most eerie are the thousands of police and security guards that are populating the streets, in numbers that swell daily. These officers of the law congregate and move about in groups – six, eight, often a dozen or more – on foot, on bicycles, motorcycles and horses, in cars and vans and buses. There aren’t only the local police, but groups from Peel Region, from Calgary, from the OPP and the Mounties, and who knows where else. We are told that each national delegation will bring its own security force, to remain always in close proximity to the head of state.

The security forces are watching everything, stopping and questioning those who fit whatever criteria have been determined to merit inspection, checking identification, granting and sometimes denying access to streets and buildings. Some are inspecting alleyways, and the dirt around potted plants, and peering into dumpsters. But mostly they are standing about, preparing, waiting, and looking Together, these elements combine to create a sense of dis-ease and forboding. We’ve been told to keep away unless we have pressing business, and while these are in fact our neighbourhoods and places of business and entertainment – our streets – there’s the sense that, perhaps one ought not be there.

It’s all being done in the name of preventative security, of course, to keep from happening what we all know has happened in so many of the other cities that have hosted a G-8 or G-20 summit in recent years: an explosion of Angry Protest.

I won’t attempt to sketch out the issues or the political lines here. What’s wrong with the G-20, if anything? What are they doing here? What do the protestors want? What’s all this hoopla about ‘football’ anyway? I leave all that sort of analysis to others. Well, not entirely so. It’s just that there are questions and answers I will work through in my own life, in my work, with my families, and in my communities. And I will try and live my answers there, and hope that they are a part of leading us to a saner place.

But even so, sometimes there’s an awful lot to be gained from a study on the most superficial level. And visually, experientially, this coming together of World Cup fever and G-20 urgency presents a most interesting contrast. In preparation for the playing of a huge, global sporting event, in which every partisan bleeds for his or her country to emerge alone and victorious, the liquor laws are relaxed. And in preparation for the coming together of the World’s Leaders, for the alleged purpose of collectively and cooperatively addressing the world’s most pressing problems, cadres of police are brought in.

The soccer matches are thousands of miles and an ocean away, but can be seen anywhere and everywhere. While Harper, Obama, Merkel, Hu, Medvedev, et al will be right here, but will be seen and heard by very few.

At the end of the World Cup, when there’s only one team left standing, there will be no tangible benefit to anyone, except for a few bettors and pub owners. Even the loyal followers of the victors will gain nothing but bragging rights. Yet, the mood on that day will surely be buoyant and celebratory, and even the losers will find occasion to smile or sing.

And when the G-20 has concluded, there will doubtless be lots of hand-shaking, congratulating and soaring oratory about what has been accomplished on behalf of the world. But what will the mood be among the people? And will there be a victory in which we can all share?

A final note. I chanced upon the First Nations protest march this afternoon. It was coming south on University as I was going North. I stopped and watched for awhile, then found myself turning about, at first just walking alongside. But I couldn’t help but join in. The march was many hundreds strong, with marchers of many nations, carrying banners and placards and handouts and drums. I ran into colleagues from a partner agency, and a short while later, into a former client, then a current one, whom I’d been on the lookout for. Over the next half hour, as the march reached and turned east on Queen Street, then north again on Bay, I encountered several more colleagues, clients, acquaintances, and even a long-lost friend. Dozens of police officers stood lining the route on either side, but I detected no sense of threat or animosity. For the moment, they seemed merely a disinterested escort. The power lie in the community of marchers, for the moment claiming the street and the city for itself, and inviting any who wanted to join in, much like the World Cup celebrants in Little Italy a week ago.

When the march reached Bay and Dundas, I broke away, needing to return to my work and the activities I’d planned for the day. I stood on the sidewalk now, an on-looker again, part of the crowd of pedestrians that had been held up, along with a street full of cars, trucks, buses, bikes and cabs. The last of the marchers cleared the intersection, followed by several emergency and police vehicles, and then the traffic signals resumed their control and allowed the waiting throngs to pass through, to shopping or work, or wherever their individual lives took them. Less than five minutes later, I watched about a dozen officers load themselves into vans and drive off. Moments later, the regular rhythm of the city had resumed. It was almost possible to imagine that the march had never taken place...almost.

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