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You Gotta Represent

Whether it's in Canada or Knoxville, the refrain is the same

by Jesse Fox Mayshark

QUEBEC CITY—Of course they tore down the fence. The question is, why was it there?

I was in Quebec City last week with some Knoxville activists who went to protest at the Summit of the Americas. It was a zoo, it was a carnival, it was a mess of contradictions and ironies and adrenaline. The part that made the news around here—protesters in black clothes and gas masks throwing rocks at police troops in riot gear—was the most visceral and dramatic of the week's events, but hardly the most significant. For one thing, there were between 30,000 and 60,000 protesters on hand (depending on whether you believe the police or the organizers, which means you can probably safely estimate the real number at 45,000), and most of them weren't throwing anything or tearing anything down.

But more to the point, this was essentially a clash of symbols, and those symbols transcend their particular place and context. Even as I limped around the city streets last Friday (or "Vendredi Noir" as the Quebec daily Le Soleil branded it—"Black Friday"), feet aching from tromping miles of Quebec's hilly pavement, stumbling through tear gas clouds and parades and vegetarian food kitchens and press conferences in three languages, in a Wonderland of crowd chants and banners and the incessant whup-whup-whup of police helicopters, I thought of Knoxville.

True, you can't make direct comparisons between the protests at the Summit and some of the things we've seen in local government during the past few years. We don't have any anarchist Black Bloc groups that I know of, nor (sadly) any Radical Cheerleaders, and the KPD usually keeps its riot gear stowed away. However much they might like the idea, our local officials have not yet surrounded the City County Building with a fence.

But if you've been paying attention to the simmering displeasure with city and county government, over things from police accountability to the Knox County justice center to the filling of Danny Mayfield's City Council seat, the tone of the Quebec demonstrations might sound familiar. Because at the root, underneath the specific concerns about labor and environmental protections in a global economy, behind the most radical anti-capitalist banners and the most peaceful protest posters ("Il faut etre polie dans la vie"—"It is necessary to be polite in life"), lay an overwhelming sense of exclusion—a sense that the world of the future is being shaped in locked chambers, by men and women whose agendas are driven by immediate political and financial interests.

That couldn't have been more literally true in Quebec. The 2.5-mile fence, almost 10 feet high and guarded by armed officers, marked a clear line between those with access and those without it. The fence was predicated on fears stemming from violence at past international economic meetings in Seattle, Washington, D.C., Prague, and elsewhere. And in a weird sort of circular reasoning, the fact that Quebec protesters tore down sections of the mesh wire and concrete became a confirmation of the need for it.

But those earlier protests arose from the same frustrations that fueled this one. Whether it's the World Trade Organization, the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund, major decisions about international policy—the kind of decisions that, in democracies, are supposed to be subject to debate and review—have been handed over to quasi-governmental bodies with limited visibility and vague accountability. One of the more surreal moments of the week was hearing Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien fret about the state of democracy in the Americas, citing declining voter turnout and so forth, even as he was spending millions of dollars to seal off portions of the regional capital from the general public.

In Knoxville, you can find the same troubling trends with the city's reliance on the non-elected Public Building Authority and its for-profit subcontractors to shape urban policy (or, in the case of County Commission and Universe Knoxville, bypassing PBA and going directly to the subcontractors). And you can hear local officials shed the same crocodile tears about low voter participation, even as they routinely skirt open meeting laws and treat public hearings as tedious chores.

Most of the protesters in Quebec were not the radicals who got all the attention. At the alternative People's Summit, which in a nice bit of symbolism was held at the base of the cliff, far below the protected towers of the official summit, no one was arguing against globalization—they were talking about what kind of globalization we should have, and who should set its terms.

Likewise, many of the admittedly less dramatic protests I've heard in Knoxville—which are usually waved off as "whining" and "NIMBYism" and "naysaying" by the cloistered leaders in our own towers—are not just the gripes of the perennially dissatisfied. They arise from a justified sense of exclusion from the core processes of democracy. These protesters are not trying to stop things from happening; they're asking for a way to participate in shaping their own futures. And when they run into fences instead, sometimes they get aggressive.

I don't know the legal or practical chances of success for the nascent KnoxRecall movement, which filed petitions this week to begin an effort to force Mayor Victor Ashe and three Council members from office. But I do recognize the frustration in the petitioners' voices. I heard it in Quebec. And I've heard it in the City County Building. And I don't think it's going away.

April 26, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 17
© 2001 Metro Pulse