Letter: Idealism battered at G-20 summit protest
Between September 24th and 26th I was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania covering the G-20 Summit resistance movement as an independent journalist. I’m still trying to fully grasp what transpired during those days. Shortly after my arrival, I was swept into a mess of defiant energy, tension, fear, and violence.
Nearly a week after the events, I’m still having vivid nightmares about the experience. I will try to keep this straight to the point.
Several thousand people from all over the world gathered in Pittsburgh to protest the G-20 Summit. Why?
The G-20 is a group of finance-ministers, bank governors, and heads of state from the world economies that make up 85 percent of global gross national product and roughly two-thirds of the world’s population: 19 countries, plus the European Union. Generally speaking, protesters gathered to express discontent over the G-20 group’s historical and ongoing furtherance of capitalist – and more specifically, neoliberal – economic policies.
By neoliberal, I mean policies that prioritize market deregulation, encourage privatization of state industries and services, and promote trade liberalization—usually at the expense of funding for social programs and respect for human rights. While such “free-market” policies do often benefit large market actors (corporations) and some governments, people across the globe (especially in the developing world) have been subject to notable declines in living standards as a result of their implementation.
Staggering wealth disparity, shrinking access to social programs and basic resources (such as drinking water), environmental degradation, and widespread human rights violations have all grown from the neoliberal agenda which unabashedly places profit over human well being.
One black-masked G-20 protester, affiliated with an anarchist group calling itself Team Spacebag said, “We’re resisting a system that is pushing 100 people into poverty every minute…it’s not like all that wealth is magically disappearing, it’s just further shifting from the hands of the poor into the hands of the rich because of standards set by world leaders.”
Indeed, roughly 2 percent of the world’s population owns about 50 percent of the world’s wealth and according to Oxfam, the anonymous protester’s numbers concerning the present spread of poverty are spot-on. Many economists such as Nobel Prize-winning Joseph Stiglitz argue the current global economic crisis has roots in neoliberal policy pursuits.
Many protesters also expressed a desire for greater democratic influence over policy makers.
In the words of one anonymous protester wearing a red bandana over her face and sporting a sickle and hammer shirt, “Most major decisions concerning national and international economic policy take place behind closed doors, without public input or consent…and the public is those most affected by them. I can’t think of anything less democratic than that. It’s a load of shit.”
Some of the people around her seemed to concur, adding that various money and power interests keep world leaders from taking the actual needs of people into consideration when crafting policies.
With all of this in mind, the G-20 resistance movement could be described as generally anti-capitalist, pro-democracy, and pro-human well-being. However, these terms miss the diversity and nuance of the convergence. Among the protesters were people who identified as anarchists, socialists, environmentalists, anti-war activists, feminists, immigrant rights activists, union organizers, etc. Ultimately, I came to see it as a unification of groups and individuals that viewed their specific concerns as being interconnected and rising from the spread of global capitalism.
During the days of the summit I witnessed several demonstrations—some authorized and some unauthorized. However, all of them were peaceful until police initiated violence. In one situation riot control police fired tear gas at me and other journalists who were walking about 50 yards ahead of a march.
A few minutes after exposure, my eyes started burning. My chest tensed and I began coughing as if I was going to vomit. The tear gas had gotten to me and I had to leave the area shortly after a violent conflict broke out between police and protesters due to the gassing. I got off easy though.
By the end of the G-20 Summit, roughly 200 people had been arrested. Among them were not only peaceful protesters and some vandals, but also many University of Pittsburgh students and other bystanders who simply wanted to see what was going on.
On the nights of the 24th and 25th, police invaded the University of Pittsburgh’s campus and attacked people indiscriminately. I saw tear gas and pepper rounds being used on innocent onlookers. Some were maced, assaulted and taken to jail. It was truly unnerving.
The whole experience left me confused and alienated. At the beginning of the summit, I think I saw what many people consider to be the American dream—hopeful individuals uniting and organizing to voice their opinions about matters of democracy, human equality, and social justice. However, this gave way to the state’s brutal and excessive response actions.
On my last night in Pittsburgh, I could literally see the collective idealism of the G-20 resistance movement being battered under black batons and hauled off in squad cars to be locked up indefinitely. Except innocent bystanders were standing in as proxies for that idealism. I can’t imagine that would fit very well into any person’s conceptualization of the American dream because 100 people are still being forced into poverty with each passing minute.
EMU Alum, Political Science