[CUE AUDIO: “Street Fighting Man,” the Rolling Stones]
Today, the day before the start of the G-20 economic summit, amid a backdrop of the diplomacy and pageantry expected when world leaders meet, London is the scene of a broad range of spirited, sometimes bloody demonstrations that are sending an inescapable signal to those leaders. The have/have not dichotomies of the world’s economies have elicited an outrage on the streets of the city. Environmentalists, anarchists, anti-capitalists and others converged, expressing an anger whose breadth and scope you can fairly interpret to be a mirror of populist anger in any of the powerhouse economies represented in London.
“Abolish money!” some demonstrators chanted in marches and protests that led to fires being set at the Bank of England, and windows smashed at the Royal Bank of Scotland.
The ailing Scottish bank faced the vehement protests that stemmed from news reports that its former chief executive, Fred Goodwin, who received an annual pension payout of £700,000 ($1.01 million) when he left in disgrace in October, despite presiding over the bank’s record losses of about £20 billion pounds ($28.9 billion) — in this respect no different from any of its wounded American counterparts. (For the Brits, though, it’s getting personal: Goodwin’s home and car were targeted by vandals last week).
CNN reported that a flyer for the “G20 Meltdown” event, carries the slogan "Storm the Banks!" and features images of French revolutionaries storming the Bastille in 1789 and a mannequin of a banker hanging from a noose.
London and British authorities — no doubt dismayed at the idea of the phrase “Swinging London” taking on a new meaning; no doubt numbed by the prospect of banker effigies dangling from Blackfriars Bridge — put the financial district on alert for a week.
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You can’t help but think of the climactic scene in the film “V for Vendetta,” in which Big Ben explodes at the stroke of midnight, a pyrotechnic capstone event on a smoldering underground of protest that finally flowers in the destruction of the symbols, and the agents, of the old world order.
But for all the seeming randomness of the protesters' agendas, they collectively work to the advantage of French President Nicholas Sarkozy, already the shit disturber of the G-20 summit. Sarkozy has noisily threatened to walk out of the summit unless it produces tighter global regulations on the financial industry, including tighter policing of hedge funds and tax havens, and more controls over the high-compensation culture of big business.
Precisely the action items that many, if not all, of the demonstrators would surely endorse.
Sarkozy’s threat is a hollow one; it wouldn’t be good for Franco-American relations to walk out of the summit attended by the president of the United States, then host that same president when he comes to your country to make a major address a few days later. Sarkozy wants desperately for France to be perceived as a major international player, and the G-20 summit is an ideal pulpit from which to make that case. It stands to reason, you can't be a player at a summit if you don't show up.
But Sarkozy’s throwdown, and the vast protests in its wake, distill the issues at stake for the G-20; they call the question of how the world’s economic titans will begin to address a crisis that began in their houses and infected much of the developing world.
Image credits: Bloody protester: Still from MSNBC video. Big Ben blasted: Still image from "V for Vendetta," © Warner Bros./Silver Pictures/Vertigo-DC Comics. Sarkozy: Max Nash/The Associated Press.