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.