There are a great many similarities between two US presidential trips to global meetings, overlapping with their first trips to Europe during their presidencies. In June of 2001, then President George W. Bush, arrived in the Swedish coastal city of Gothenburg, just prior to the EU meeting, and he somehow did not see the 500,000 protesters waiting for him. He did not see them as he was whisked away from the airport, not down the barricaded highway into the convention/hotel complex. Nor, for that matter, did any of the heads of state have to see the protesters, who were, for the most part, participating in a growing wave of anti-globalization events which had spread from Seattle, and ultimately to Genoa, where a young Italian man was killed by the police. These protests ended because of 9/11 and the crackdown and control of movement, organized demonstrations and general Big Brotherdom in the name of Homeland Security and the general feeling (for a time) that America had been attacked and thus was simply protecting its people.
That summer remains with me, as I was in Gothenburg during the EU meeting and attended après conference with then President Bush, when you could still actually sit a few rows away from him, and Colin Powell. But none of us could freely ask any questions at all. The very few questions had been hand-picked after being reviewed, several days in advance. The convention center and hotel structure were completely cut off from the areas where the protesters were, for the most part, organizing meetings, documentary screenings, information gathering and distributing events. A range of people from around the world had gathered, including: Christian youth groups, older people concerned about their retirement (I interviewed one elderly Swedish woman who told me that these months in 2001 reminded her of 1933, something similar was in the air...I heard the same thing repeated by both Swiss and Dutch older people who had lived through and participated in WWII), green groups, workers' rights groups, anti OGM leaders and, of course, those anarchists no one knew, who showed up one day to break some windows of banks and McDonalds. This was reminiscent of Seattle where I had lived, and where friends of mine also said no one knew who these anarchists were. Many said they had been infiltrated by the police and were causing damage to make the rest of the very civilized and concerned protesters look bad...And to allow for some serious control measures to be put in place.
Now, eight years later, Obama is arriving in Europe for the first time for the London G20 talks and the protesters are back, are also well-organized, including very reputable groups such as Oxfam and church groups . The police are ready with their riot gear, the CCTV cameras have been turned off (why would they do that except to make sure that the police are not caught on camera participating in abusive behavior). But this time a lot of angry citizens are going to join the protest groups and make their voices heard. The citizens have every right to be angry and they are hoping to hear not only some words of apology from the leaders, including Obama, but also some serious actions to be undertaken to stop this insanity of inequality and the mass of people paying to bail out the few.
Some say that this summer of 2008 will be one of rage. Perhaps we will see more and more protests, more citizens taking to the street, more homeless tent cities, more coming together of the liberal and patriot type movements, both of which are very concerned about freedom. One thing is for sure...this time the leaders need to listen. This time the financial powers that be will not be able to stop the snowball effect. I would not want to imagine what kind of tragedy it would take in order to quiet this building rage. Concrete steps and regulations need to be put in place. Peoples' jobs and their savings and homes need to be safe. We do not need tent cities growing up around the world (and perhaps it would help to remember that in many countries people have been living in this kind of poverty all their lives). We need to remember and act as a human race and not divided up into elites and the "masses" who will compete with one another for limited resources. We are either working all together for the future of this planet, for a new kind of financial structure which is more inclusive, or we are condemning much of the world to extreme suffering for even longer.
This is not 2001. But we are in a much more precarious situation than we were then. The Protesters ARE the People! The Leaders need not only to SEE them, they need to meet with and listen to them and ACT!
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