Some thoughts on the occasion of the G20 summit in Toronto.
The police presence and violent protest were both of a scale unprecedented for this city. The security cost, at over $1 billion, was also unprecedented in the history of the G-summits and is unlikely to ever be equalled.
Much ink will be shed on the taxonomy of protesters (a term which, apparently, also now includes opportunist vandals with no policy demands), the validity of their various motives and the contemptible nature of their actions. Equally, the actions of individuals among the tens of thousands of police involved will be put under the microscope.
Both those debates will prove fruitless. To me, it is more important to see the three outsized aspects of the event—police presence, violence and cost—as foreseeable consequences of the unnecessary and astoundingly poor choice of a venue for the summit.
I have heard two believable theories about how the choice was made: ignorance and spite.
The 'ignorance' theory was advanced on CBC's The Current by Deborah Cowen of the University of Toronto. She noted that the Conservative government, with almost no seats in Toronto, Montréal or Vancouver, has an essentially rural background on which it draws and little firsthand knowledge about how large cities actually are. The implication is that they might have honestly but falsely believed that the effect of promoting Toronto, Ontario and/or Canada would outweigh any disruption caused by security measures and protests.
The 'spite' theory (of my more cynical friends) holds that the disruption was expected and anticipated by the government. In this view, the decision was to be seen—and appreciated—by the Conservatives' rural base as a giant middle finger raised towards Toronto and its citizens.
The first explanation wins by Ockham's Razor, at least; but whichever is more accurate, it is certain the decision was made for political, not economical (read: cost-saving) reasons.
To explain a bit more why I think the choice was 'astoundingly poor,' and the consequences 'predictable' I will channel Jane Jacobs, late Torontonian, whose The Death and Life of Great American Cities I recently read and enjoyed. Any errors in my paraphrase of her writings are, of course, my own.
One of Jacobs' criteria for distinguishing Great (very big, large scale; important) Cities is diversity of use. On a summer weekend in Toronto, the downtown streets might be used by shoppers, baseball fans, theatregoers, businesspeople, diners, marketers, people-watchers, store clerks, deliverymen, walkers, those passing through to the lake or parts west, east or north, local residents, café patrons, cyclists, taxi drivers, buskers, runners, transit staff, and a whole cast of others my imagination is too weak to summon. The vast majority of these people are strangers to one another, but their mere presence civilizes the streets, so that events like the 2005 Boxing Day shooting of Jane Creba are truly rare, unexpected and shocking.
Jacobs contrasts diverse use with the atmosphere in single-use residential projects, where the same advantages (many eyes at all hours) are not enjoyed and, not coincidentally, comparatively more gang-related violence occurs.
During an event like the current summit, normal usage is suppressed. Within the security perimeter, there is no use at all by locals. Security measures impede normal use in surrounding areas, so that the Blue Jays and theatres take their business elsewhere or cancel whole performances (even at large cost). People who would have attended these larger events have no reason to be in the same areas for meals and other secondary activities. The secondary businesses they would have frequented, always sensitive to demand, run reduced staffs, further depleting the stock of people on the streets. And so on. In the current, extraordinary situation, even residents flee who are able to stay with friends in the suburbs or out of town.
Note that at no point is a collective decision made along the lines of, "Let's turn over the streets to rioters!"; instead, the deadening is an aggregate result of reasonable responses by normal individuals.
The few uses that remain can be numbered on one hand: peaceful protesting, spectating (both amateur and professional), policing and violence. The dead streets are a boon only to those engaged in the latter two activities, who find it easier to identify members of the other groups without actual citizens around.
Without any hysterics about professional anarchists or police agents provocateurs, then, it is easy to see why emptying the city invites situations that would be impossible under everyday circumstances. That this conclusion can be reached on the basis of accessible, popular writing from the 1960s makes me doubt that no one in government raised an objection to the choice of location. Mayor David Miller and other representatives of the city claim openly that they put forward the Exhibition grounds (which, note, are already largely empty) as an alternative.
Those voices were obviously disregarded when the decision was made, and that disregard is the root cause of everything we have witnessed.