A billion dollar barrier between protesters and politicians

Last we checked Canada was a free speech zone.

It just seems whenever an international gathering rolls into town, things change.

The Vancouver Olympics saw protesters encouraged to use "safe assembly zones." At the end of this month, the north lawn of Queen's Park in Toronto will transform into the G20 Summit's "designated protest area."

"Designated speech areas are open forums to give people a place to congregate safely and have access to media to share their message," said the G20 Integrated Security Unit. "It is our hope that people will take advantage of this area and express themselves in a peaceful, lawful way."

Crowd control through containment has been the norm since dispersal strategies proved disastrous. A grim reminder of this just passed as the Kent State shootings marked 40 years. On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard tried to break up a protest, lost control and opened fire on students leaving four dead.

While safer, free speech zones walk a fine line. The vast majority of protesters want peaceful demonstration. Just as important, they want their voices heard.

That could be a challenge. The G20 designated protest area is separated from the Metro Toronto Convention Centre - the leaders' gathering place - by 2.7 kilometres, three hospitals, two statues of the Fathers of Confederation and the Ontario Legislature.

Oh, and close to $1 billion in security.

"The police have been good in saying it's a free country and you can protest anywhere. In the same breathe, they are saying they will strongly encourage protesters to go to these areas," says Mark Calzavara, regional organizer for Ontario and Quebec with the Council of Canadians, one of the groups coordinating a protest of this month's summit. "But they have tear gas, batons. It's an intimidation tactic and coupled with $1 billion.

"You can't use the excuse that maybe something will happen to delegitimize protest."

Currently, there is a lot of concrete and money obstructing the world leaders' view of unions, human rights groups and environmental defenders - in other words, thousands of voices of dissent. That's disturbing to most protesters.

Canada has distinguished itself worldwide through its Charter of Rights and Freedoms and history of free and visible assembly. Our parliamentarians can't miss protests converging on the Centre Block's lawn. But, when it comes to global gatherings, we clear that lawn in the name of security.

"It's a political convenience much more than physical security for everyone," says Calzavara. "The Summit is really just an extended photo op."

Calzavara says it's this goal that makes keeping protesters at bay a preference. Last September, the American Civil Liberties Union even supported a lawsuit meant to force the city to change the locations of its free speech zones. Despite the challenge, a judge found that protesters should have no trouble getting their message out, even if leaders don't see them.

"Just as modern information technology has made it easier for the protesters' message to reach their intended audience, that technology also makes being in close proximity to the intended audience much less critical," ruled District Judge Gary L. Lancaster.

"There is a stage and a video link into the summits. But, it's the sort of thing that delegates can watch if they want to," says Calzavara. "But, to do it by video is ridiculous. We don't believe it comes close to fulfilling the legal need of being seen and heard."

It's highly doubtful world leaders will take time away from discussing the financial crisis or maternal health to check Twitter feeds. That makes the lack of protester visibility so concerning.

The Toronto G20 Summit is already becoming more about the security than the issues. We're already spending close to a billion dollars on crowd control strategies that keep protesters and politicians safe. Surely, we can allocate some of those dollars to ensuring our rights are protected as well.