A woman with long brown hair and a cigarette scratched voice has a question. "What does this place look like to you," she asks, with the help of an interpreter. "An ugly ghetto, or something maybe beautiful?"
It was a trick question. We were sitting in a ramshackle squat in one of the least picturesque suburbs of Rome. The walls of the stumpy building were covered in graffiti, the ground was muddy, and all around us were bulky, menacing housing projects. If any of the 20-million tourists who flocked to Rome last year had taken a wrong turn and ended up here, they would have immediately dived for their Fodor's and fled for somewhere with vaulted ceilings, fountains and frescoes.
But while the remains of one of the most powerful and centralised empires in history are impeccably preserved in downtown Rome, it is here, in the city's poor outskirts, where I caught a glimpse of a new, living politics. And it is as far away from Roman emperors and Caesar's armies as you can possibly get.
When I was 17, I worked after school at an Esprit clothing store in Montreal. It was a pleasant job, mostly involving folding cotton garments into little squares so sharp that their corners could take out your eye.
But, for some reason, corporate headquarters didn't consider our T-shirt origami to be sufficiently profitable. One day, our calm world was turned upside down by a regional supervisor who swooped in to indoctrinate us in the culture of the Esprit brand—and increase our productivity in the process. "Esprit," she told us, "is like a good friend."
I was skeptical, and I let it be known. Skepticism, I quickly learned, is not considered an asset in the low-wage service sector. Two weeks later, the supervisor fired me for being in possession of that most loathed workplace character trait: "bad attitude."
I guess that was one of my first lessons in why large multinational corporations are not "like a good friend," since good friends, while they may do many horrible and hurtful things, rarely fire you.
A little over a year ago, The New York Times Magazine ran a major feature about poverty in the United States headlined "The Invisible Poor." It was a well-reported piece, with beautiful photographs, but there was something strange about it. It was as if, at the height of the high-tech boom, in the richest country in the world, "the poor" inhabited an exotic foreign country, there for journalists to discover, but not to cover.
The official story for most of the decade, supported by record low unemployment rates in the U.S., was that poverty was yesterday's "old economy" problem. Sure, food bank use is up 75 per cent in some American cities, one in five U.S. children live in poverty and 44.3 million are uninsured, but you'd never know it as a casual media consumer. The occasional story may have appeared about the people prosperity "left behind" (as if by some cosmic typo), but in the major national media, there has been little very little appetite for these downer tales.
The idea of turning London into a life-sized Monopoly board on May Day sounded like a great idea.
The most familiar criticism lobbed at modern protesters is that they lack focus and clear goals such as "Save the trees" or "Drop the debt." And yet these protests are a response to the limitations of single-issue politics. Tired of treating the symptoms of an economic model—underfunded hospitals, homelessness, widening disparity, exploding prisons, climate change—there is now a clear attempt to "out" the system behind the symptoms. But how do you hold a protest against abstract economic ideas without sounding hideously strident or all over the map?
Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians, is condemned for not calling off Maude's Mob. Activist Jaggi Singh is in jail for allegedly possessing a weapon that he never owned or used—a theatrical catapult that shot stuffed animals over the infamous fence in Quebec City during last weekend's Summit of the Americas.
It's not just that the police didn't get the joke, it's that they don't get the new era of political protest, one adapted to our postmodern times. There was no one person, or group, who could call off "their people," because the tens of thousands who came out to protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas are part of a movement that doesn't have a leader, a centre, or even an agreed-on name. Yet it exists, undeniably, nonetheless.
"Where are you," I screamed from my cellphone into his. There was a pause and then, "A Green Zone—St. Jean and St. Claire."
Green Zone is protest speak for an area free of tear gas or police clashes. There are no fences to storm, only sanctioned marches. Green zones are safe, you're supposed to be able to bring your kids to them.
"Okay," I said. "See you in 15 minutes."
I had barely put on my coat when I got another call: "Jaggi's been arrested. Well, not exactly arrested. More like kidnapped." My first thought was that it was my fault: I had asked Mr. Singh to tell me his whereabouts over a cellphone. Our call must have been monitored, that's how they found him.
If that sounds paranoid, welcome to Summit City.
Less than an hour later, at the Comité Populaire St-Jean Baptiste community centre, a group of six swollen-eyed eyewitnesses read me their hand-written accounts of how the most visible organizer of Friday's direct action protest against the free-trade area of the Americas was snatched from under their noses.
Brian Mulroney thinks the numbers are his friends. He proudly points to the percentage of Canada's gross domestic product now made up by exports to the United States—40 per cent! The number of jobs created by trade—four in five! And Mexico's status as an important U.S. trading partner—second only to Canada! These numbers are a vindication, our former prime minister believes, for the free-trade deals he negotiated first with the United States, then with Mexico.
He still doesn't get it: Those numbers aren't his friends; they're his worst enemy. Opposition to free trade has grown, and grown more vocal, precisely because private wealth has soared without translating into anything that can be clearly identified as the public good. It's not that critics don't know how much money is being made under free trade—it's that we know all too well.
While there's no shortage of numbers pointing to increases in exports and investment, the trickle-down effects promised as the political incentive for deregulation—tougher environmental standards, higher wages, better working conditions, less poverty—have either been pitifully incremental or non-existent.
As soon as I wrote the sentence, I deleted it: "Is this really what we want—a movement of meeting stalkers, following the trade bureaucrats like they're the Grateful Dead?"
It could be taken out of context, I thought; better take it out. Then I put it back in: The context was clear, and I was being paranoid. If you let your critics steal your sense of humour, they have already won. Paranoia, I've since learned, can be a healthy impulse.
That sentence, which was first published almost a year ago in the U.S. magazine The Nation, has been following me around like . . . oh, forget it. In The Economist, on CBC Radio, in The Globe and Mail just last week, it has been used exactly as I'd feared: to paint anti-corporate protesters as a roving band of thrill-seekers, in it for the party, not the politics. (On the upside, Deadheads are now convinced that I alone understand them: "Duuude," they say to me. "It's so true what you wrote because Dead shows were all about community.")
Naomi Klein, actor Sarah Polley, and lawyer Clayton Ruby initiated this petition to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in anticipation of police violence during the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. The letter sought to galvanize public opinion, particularly in the arts community. Over six thousand Canadians signed: artists, academics, journalists, judges, lawyers and intellectuals. Among them were some of Canada's most prominent cultural figures, including Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Atom Egoyan, Michael Ignatieff, Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and the Barenaked Ladies.
"We are here to show the world that another world is possible!" the man on stage said, and a crowd of more than 10,000 roared its approval.
What was strange was that we weren't cheering for a specific other world, just the possibility of one. We were cheering for the idea that another world could, in theory, exist.
For the past thirty years, a select group of CEOs and world leaders have met during the last week in January on a mountaintop in Switzerland to do what they presumed they were the only ones capable of doing: determine how the global economy should be governed. We were cheering because it was, in fact, the last week of January, and this wasn't the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It was the first annual World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. And even though we weren't CEOs or world leaders, we were still going to spend the week talking about how the global economy should be governed.