The Group of Eight Summit was held July 7-9 on the island of Hokkaido in Japan. I have had some time to reflect on the protest that took place July 5, organized by Japanese NGOs, and how it reflects the wider context of the meetings. Last week, having traveled to Thailand, I sat in front of one of the world’s biggest malls, in downtown Bangkok, in an eerily representative space of the struggle we are all confronting.
There, a photographic essay of the state of the world from above (all aerial photographs), documenting different human and natural ecosystems and their general state of decline, stood in sharp contrast to this megalithic shopping centre, where young Thais now flock to be seen and to see what the world has to offer them.
Of course, in a ritualistic greenwashing campaign, the mall had draped itself in the new green theme, urging passers-by to save the planet, to recycle, to reduce energy, everything they could, except, of course, examining and changing their consumption pattern. Is this the legacy of free-market democracy trumpeted by the G8 leaders we should be so proud of?
Getting back to the day of protest. The protest, actually termed the “G8 March for Peace,” started off pacifically enough. Marchers gathered early in the afternoon to listen to speeches from the likes of Indigenous representatives from the Philippines, farm movement leaders from small-scale Japanese farms and Via Campesina, and Walden Bello, author and director of Focus on the Global South.
Speeches and translations exhausted, marchers gathered in a very organized Japanese manner, all protest groups separated by flags, colours, and often by nationality. The usual suspects were there, from Oxfam to Jubilee South, masked as the G8 leaders, as well as some anarchists who seemed to emerge from nowhere.
Right away, the march through downtown Sapporo was a bit of a parody, only enhanced by a group of protesters dressed as clowns and faeries. The Japanese police only wanted marchers to take up one lane of traffic, and they became exasperated when nobody seemed to want to follow this demeaning law. It seemed that police outnumbered protesters all throughout the day as well, encircling us on all sides, and sticking cameras in our faces. A few scuffles emerged, but the protest carried along generally peacefully.
That is, until the police decided to arrest the DJ.
As the marchers had become generally separated by affiliation, most of the peaceful demonstrators kept to the front, and were left alone by the police. But towards the back, many of the more confrontational protestors, some dressed in black, converged around a truck completely outfitted with speakers and a DJ system.
For want of a real reason for arrest, we can only surmise the police had a particular distaste for the lively rock music blaring through the speakers, and rushed to arrest the DJ. This was not received well by the masses.
Immediately, marchers gathered to try and free their comrade, to little avail. Police in full riot gear surrounded the truck from behind, where the majority of demonstrators were gathered. After minutes of back and forth between the police and demonstrators, it seems the driver started to move the truck.
This was the final straw for police. They rushed to the driver’s window, and proceeded to smash it with their clubs. Opening the door, they struggled to first disconnect the driver’s seatbelt and tried to remove him forcefully, one officer’s elbow around the man’s neck. This neglected that his foot was now lodged in the steering wheel, and he wasn’t going anywhere.
By now, the crowd was in full fury, as extra riot police were called in to keep demonstrators away. At this point I had managed to find a prime location to document everything from the passenger’s window. Quickly though, a policeman came at me from the crowd, and forced me from the door, knocking me into the rearview mirror, and smashing it. I was rescued from his grip by other protesters, who were unable to keep him from later stationing himself in front of the door, stopping myself and another photojournalist from Spain from getting any more good shots, though we could see at this point about a dozen police pulling him by his neck and cheeks, an extreme display of force. Eventually they wrested him from the steering wheel and pulled him away from the crowd.
At this point, the protest was effectively over. Police cordoned off the truck completely with more riot troops, and started cordoning off the march from behind, forcing all marchers to move forward. This led to a few more scuffles, but it was nearly the end of the route anyway.
At this point, many of the anarchists headed to the police station to learn the fate of those arrested.
After being threatened with arrest for convening in front of the police station, protesters moved across the road, where again they were threatened with arrest for blocking civilian traffic. It was getting pretty ridiculous at this point, but protesters moved again to a park down the road.
There, they were confronted by a fascist Japanese political group who arrived in a van shouting at protesters, who reacted by pulling down one of the banners on the van, at which point those inside got violent. They hit a few protesters before being restrained, and the police arrived âe” to keep protesters away, even though it was these older gentlemen who were violent. Eventually police calmed down these men, and they drove away, screaming slogans as they left. The following day they would hold their own counter-rally.
So in the end, the whole show was a bit of a farce. It was nothing like G8 protests of the past, with only perhaps a thousand showing up, partly because of the remoteness, partly because of strict immigration controls, partly because of disinterest.
The G8 protest resembled the results of the G8 Summit itself, not producing many significant results, besides letting the leaders know they were still not out of public eyes a few hours away in their private resort.
It also highlighted the direction being pursued by G8 leaders, as extreme security measures were introduced âe” Japan spent almost $100 million more than Germany on summit security, despite a dearth of protesters. Japan was forcefully intolerant of dissent, and seemed bent on not allowing any embarrassments.
Although small, the protest did highlight the necessary role of civil society to continue to challenge the authority and control of the G8.
I hope this experience help spur us in Canada to consider how we will react and organize when the G8 comes to Hunstville, Ontario in 2010.
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