TORONTO (Reuters) - Burning police cars. Protesters emerging from sewers. Smashed windows, black-clad anarchists and tear gas: a global economic summit came to Toronto, bringing TV images of mayhem in its wake.
Despite the clashes and arrests, the anti-Group of 20 protests in Toronto this weekend were smaller and more peaceful than the giant riots of years past — a sign, say activists and analysts, of a changing dynamic between civil society groups and the world’s economic leaders.
“We see protest as an important part of the mix, but it certainly isn’t the only way we are mobilizing people,” said Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada, noting Internet “e-activism” was an increasingly important force.
“These days, there is a much broader range of ways to reach out and communicate with people.”
Anti-G20 groups made their presence felt in Toronto during the summit of rich and emerging economies, which followed a smaller meeting of Group of Eight industrial nations at a resort north of the city.
Canada spent about $1 billion on security and the protests were largely peaceful, drawing several thousand activists pressing an anti-poverty agenda and demanding action on labor and women’s rights.
Violence was sporadic. Police arrested about 500 people, among them four who climbed through sewers to emerge near the locked summit site. Authorities also used tear gas on the public for the first time ever in Toronto to disperse violent protesters such as the masked anarchists who have become a regular feature at such global meetings.
While Toronto was unnerved and images of the violence were broadcast widely, the scuffles paled in comparison to huge demonstrations that marked earlier summits, including the “Battle of Seattle” at a World Trade Organization meeting in 1999 and the 2001 G8 meeting in Genoa, Italy, where one protester was shot to death.
“This isn’t even a sideshow. This is a Sunday picnic with a few bad elements,” said John Kirton, director of the G20 Research Group at the University of Toronto. “Even in a Canadian context, this is no big deal.”
The decline of the street protest is due partly to the media’s focus on violence, which can discourage those who hope to express themselves peacefully, analysts say.
“These protests are sometimes called ‘uncivil society,’” said Peter Hajnal, a research fellow at the University of Toronto who studies the interaction of civic groups and global organizations.
“People still care about these things, but they are expressing themselves differently.”
The target has also shifted. Early fury focused on the original Group of Seven industrialized democracies — often depicted as a rich man’s club bent on world domination — but summits have expanded to include 20 big and emerging powers from across the globe.
“Brazil is there and South Africa is there and Mexico is there, so it doesn’t have the same face,” said Fox of Oxfam. “The G20 doesn’t lend itself to caricature in quite the same as the old G7 did.”
Activists say they still care deeply about global inequities, and are fighting for improvements in healthcare, climate policy and anti-poverty initiatives.
But they are increasingly lobbying their own elected officials, and have had regular consultations since the early 2000s with key world governments, a direct way of putting their priorities on the G8/G20 agenda.
“It was very candid and open, and a good way to spread the message,” said Dennis Howlett, coordinator of Make Poverty History, a Canadian activist group that participated in one such meeting with G8 policy officials in April.
For some, declining mass participation in global economic summitry is a disappointment.
Historians say public pressure was key to important shifts by the G7/G8 countries: the 2000 Jubilee debt relief campaign, launched at the 1998 G8 summit in Birmingham, England, and the pledge by countries at the 2005 Gleneagles summit in Scotland, to double overseas aid to $50 billion by 2010.
That promise has come up short, with donors delivering only about $18 billion in additional money.
With the public pressure off this year, G8 leaders pledged even less: just $5 billion over five years to promote maternal health in Africa — compared with the trillions spent to rescue economies and bail out banks following the financial crisis.
“I’m personally disappointed,” said Kirton of the G20 Research Group. “I would have wanted 100,000 people out there saying: ‘G20 do more on fossil fuels! Do more for climate change!’ But I don’t think they’re out there.”
Editing by Peter Cooney