"What do these people hope to accomplish?"
That question comes up almost any time you talk about plans to protest the upcoming G-20 summit, slated for the David L. Lawrence Convention Center on Sept. 24-25. What are these anarchist and hippie types trying to say? And do they really believe world leaders give a damn?
Well honestly, no. A lot of them don't think the world's financial leaders are listening. That's part of the point.
As Alan Hart, a member of the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers union, put it during an Aug. 20 press conference held by activist groups, too often the G-20 supports "economic policies that treat people as disposable." And when leaders don't need those people any more, they "just want them to get out of the way."
No wonder, then, that protesters feel cast aside, too. Many complain of difficulty obtaining permits to protest during the G-20, and by an amazing coincidence, Market Square -- a natural Downtown locale for a demonstration -- has just been closed down for renovations. While Mayor Luke Ravenstahl has shown more flexibility about approving permits lately, the ultimate decision lies with the Secret Service.
As for the protesters' message? There won't be just one. The demonstrators include environmentalists, labor activists, anti-war demonstrators and others. Their agenda will be sprawling and disparate ... just like the global economy itself.
In fact, if we're going to fault demonstrators for lacking a coherent, effective agenda, maybe we shouldn't be hosting the G-20 either. Previous summits in Washington and London have stressed the need to overhaul the global financial system. And how's that working out? Already, Goldman Sachs is paying million-dollar bonuses again, and the Obama administration seems only slightly more interested in cleaning up Wall Street than Bush's lackeys were.
Which makes you wonder: What do the summit planners hope to accomplish?
The G-20 Pittsburgh Partnership, a group of local civic leaders, is hoping that Pittsburgh, at least, can still cash in. Its Web site expresses the hope that having the convention will bring us to the attention of "business owners and industry leaders around the world who may expand or begin operating here and creating more jobs. When the Steelers play in a Super Bowl, the market value of that exposure is about one billion dollars."
Well, let's not get too carried away. This is only the global elite coming here to chart the planet's destiny. It's not like winning a Super Bowl, for chrissake. Still, I'm sure the summit will be good PR. It should improve our global profile at least as much as it enhanced that of Morelia, Mexico -- which, as every schoolkid knows, hosted the G-20 in 2003.
The problem is that too often when the world's eyes are on us, our leaders only want to tell half the story.
Pittsburgh, we're told, was selected to host the summit because it symbolizes post-industrial rebirth. But we're also the way it is because of struggle. We owe a lot to our big-shot capitalists and their brilliant innovations, but also to the people who sometimes took to the streets to challenge them. The resulting battle forged a city, and a way of life, that neither side could have created on its own. Seems to me that's a lesson our economic leaders could stand to learn.
The results may not be pretty. The city is calling for an additional 4,000 (?!?) police to help provide security, while militant activist groups are already planning "jail solidarity" events. About the only concrete thing we can expect to come from this summit, it seems, is some form of trouble.
But fears about what a handful of bad actors might do are no excuse for pushing the rest of us out of Downtown. And if all forms of protest are outlawed -- as the city has come perilously close to doing in recent days -- only outlaws will protest.
And let's look at the bright side. The G-20 summit will disturb our daily routine for a couple of days. For countless -- and largely uncounted -- people beyond the Golden Triangle, what happens here may disrupt their lives for a lot longer than that.