I’ve never… been a protester

I had just taken my exit off the 401 on my way out of Toronto when I heard about the downtown madness on CBC. I had been in Toronto since Wednesday, participating in G20 events with World Vision. We called them “family-friendly events” in an effort to convey the idea of a peaceful demonstration. Even so, I got a few passerbys ask me what was going on and after attempting to explain the nature of our “family-friendly events”, the response was typically, “Oh, it’s a protest.”

Sure. Fine.

Our “protests” went very well. We had stilt-walkers wearing G8 leader masks and big pregnant bellies with the words “Pregnant with promises” written across them. The message was simple: G8 leaders are pregnant with promises on child and maternal health. Will they “deliver” or will they continue to be “overdue”. Flogging the pregnancy metaphor a bit? Maybe, but I thought it was clever.

My job was to run around carrying baby stuff (toys, high chairs, strollers, etc) and shake it in front of the stilted leaders, reminding them of the 8.8 million children who die every year from mostly preventable causes. I was dressed in black and had my face painted that added to the artistic/carnival atmosphere. I looked like I was going to a KISS concert. My biggest fear was tripping and killing one of the stilt-walkers. That would have gotten good media coverage I’m sure.

Does this look like the face of a security threat? OK, maybe a bit.

We had solid media coverage and the few police officers we encountered were absolutely wonderful and commended us for our demonstration/event/protest/whatever.

The result? Stephen Harper stepped up and committed 1.1 billion dollars in new spending for child and maternal health. The other G8 leaders did not deliver at all. Overall I was pleased to see some progress made in this area, but very disappointed at how little was committed.

When you consider Harper was willing to spend a billion dollars (probably much more) on security for a summit that lasts a few days, promising $1.1 billion for child and maternal health interventions can hardly be considered generous.

And what’s worse, the violence on that happened on the streets of Toronto this past weekend by “protesters” only serves to justify Harper’s billion dollar spending on security; only serves to bolster the argument that bringing in 20,000 police officers and turning Toronto into a police state complete with temporary detention centres and attacks to our civil liberties was necessary.

I had the chance to wander around the near-deserted streets of downtown Toronto on Thursday and Saturday, away from the marches and demonstrations. It was incredibly unnerving walking by cluster after cluster of six or seven police officers with their riot gear strapped to their belts and vests, helmets bouncing awkwardly off their hips. I’m just glad I washed my KISS concert makeup off before wandering about, although being clad from head to toe in black may not have been a wise outfit choice.

The tension was palpable and although I had only friendly encounters with them, I couldn’t help but feel like a criminal at times. And I’ve seen enough footage and heard enough stories from this G20 of police using excessive and unjustified force to feel uneasy around them. Like this…

 From the police perspective everybody was to be treated with suspicion and a potential threat. It was a powder keg.

And boy howdy, did things blow up. Here’s a video someone from ground level shot:

I was just glad to be driving out of the city when it did happen. I had originally planned on participating in the Labour march that afternoon. Doing so may have put me in the thick of things as the so-called Black Bloc separated from this larger group to start their smashy smashy tactics throughout downtown Toronto. Thankfully the rain and needing to take my dog for a walk drove me home (although I’d be lying if part of me didn’t want to be one of those gawkers).

What followed from the media is what I hate most about these summits. So many important global issues—international development, the economy, the environment, security—are forefront on the summit and protesters’ agendas; an amazing opportunity to really open peoples’ eyes about these issues and have a great dialogue. But the bulk of what we hear about in the media and talk about at the water cooler is Fortress Toronto, Fake Lakes, and violent protesters. For hours on Saturday I listened to the radio and watched burning cop cars on TV without a single real issue being discussed. Here’s what mainstream media ignored for the most part:

These confrontations are such distractions. From the summit issues being discussed and the important messages the protesters are trying to communicate. Hosting events like this in downtown Toronto is a mistake. The debate becomes about security versus civil liberties. This is an important debate but the inevitable violent clashes eat up the majority of our media and mind space, distracting us from the actual point of the summits themselves.

As someone I was with this weekend wryly suggested as an alternative to having the G20 in a major city, “Haven’t these people heard of Skype?” Not a bad question.

Be a (peaceful) protester? Check.

Duane Elgin, author of “Voluntary Simplicity”, talked about the “invisible wealth of experiential riches.” My “I’ve Never Club” is inspired by this idea and chronicles my reflections on the novel things I’ve done recently.

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Funny stories. Good advice. Josh Martin is author of the book “Simple(ton) Living: Lessons in balance from life’s absurd moments.” Click here to purchase a copy.

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