Featured Content, Report on Civil Society Presence at 2004 G8 Summit
Thursday, June 10, 2004
On Tuesday, June 8th the G8 Summit began, marked by both the arrival of the G8 leaders in Sea Island, Georgia, and by a protest march. on Tuesday June 8th. International Festival for Peace and Civil Liberties‚ the main protest organization, was organized by Kellie Gasink, a Savannah resident. Its purpose, according to her, was to oppose both the preemptive war in Iraq and the Patriot Act. Although expectations that the protest would be lively were high, the outcome was relatively dismal in comparison to past G8 summit protests. In May 2004, reports estimated that 5,000 protestors were expected to participate in the three-day demonstrations at the Sea Island summit (Locals 'apprehensive' about G-8 Summit, May 29, 2004, http://edition.cnn.com/2004/US/South/05/29/summit.georgia.ap/). Only a small fraction of that number showed up. Ms Gasink estimated 500 protestors in attendance in Savannah; AP reported Russ Bynum put that number at closer to 100.
Affecting attendance was a law passed by Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue that permitted protestors to be arbitrarily halted without any permit giving discretionary control to the police or National Guard. In interviewing two policemen from Georgia, it was obvious their approach was to arrest any protesters who did not comply with the laws enacted by the governor. The atmosphere is relaxed enough that the National Guard were able to joke about the consequences of any uprisings. So far there have been a minimal number of protesters who actually oppose any G8-related issues such as globalization or trade and those that did attend the Tuesday protest remained peaceful.
In preparation for the expected high number of protestors at the summit, combined with the tense environment created by fears of a possible terrorist attack, twenty thousand police, federal agents and members of the National Guard were called in to maintain safety and security in Sea Island, Savannah and Brunswick ("High Security Fazes Few as Crime Drops," The Atlanta Journal Constitution, June 8, 2004). However, on Tuesday morning, it became evident that while some residents of Savannah claimed to have never felt more secure surrounded by heavily armed officers, the question remained as to whether the cost of this safety had come at the expense of upholding certain civil rights and liberties.
Civil liberties have been compromised by the pre-emptive state of emergency declared until June 20th. In the document, signed on May 7th by Governor Perdue, the assemblage of more than six people in the streets of Georgia requires a state-issued permit. In the view of many Savannah residents, the onset of protests is so rare that any march or organized protest is viewed as an aberration. However, according to one of the protest organizers, the declaration of a state of emergency will not change their agenda. "I don't care if it goes to martial law; this is still a constitutional democracy. My friends and I will write and speak and perform." Despite his optimism, the sad reality remained that according to the Atlanta Constitutional Journal, the ratio of protesters to police or military was 1:66.
Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, conveyed his belief in the necessity of a show of strength and force by US Security officials at the Summit when he stated "I think a visible presence is important to deter aggression." ("On Downtown Streets A Show of Force," Savannah Morning News, June 8, 2004). In the end, however, one is left to wonder whether this show of force in the form of twenty thousand security forces has deterred would-be protestors through indirect and direct intimidation by Security forces and the government which controls them.
Despite the highly disputable nature of such claims, almost all the protestors at Forsyth Park expressed a fear of violent response by security forces, similar to that which occurred at a Regional free trade meeting in Miami in November 2003 ("Amnesty International Calls for Probe of Miami Protest Policing", Reuters, November 26, 2003, http://www.commondreams.org/headlines03/1126-12.htm). The intimidation factor of the state of emergency law in Savannah is another primary reason organizers believe is behind the low turnout of demonstrators.
Ms Gasink took issue with the state's reluctance to issue her organization a march permit until the day before the event, when she had applied for it eight months earlier. In a statement, she said, "it was just straight up violation of civil liberties. Every other organization like the Savannah College of Art and Design and the American Heart Association got their permits the moment they applied, we had to wait eight months. Coupled with the presence of the National Guard on the streets of Savannah and the isolation created between the media, civil society, and the actual Sea Island summit, it is very clear that freedom of expression and communication between these different sectors of society is being tightly controlled."
Moreover, the conspicuous lack of access to the summit of internationally recognized non-governmental organizations (NGOs) raises concerns over the accountability of any commitments reached at the summit. Although specific countries, such as Algeria and Senegal have been invited to participate in the summit, the inclusion of NGOs in the expanded dialogue is essential for enhancing the legitimacy, accountability and likelihood of the implementation of any long-term initiatives.
When asked about the absence of (NGOs) such as Greenpeace and OXFAM, who although often present in the media centres during past summits have been denied accreditation in 2004 by the US government, Ms Gasink expresses her extreme worry about the lack of dialogue between civil society, the media, and government representatives. "Every NGO has the right to be in the media centre but the media has been isolated on Hutchison island to keep them away from the town and the events going on here."
Organizations of the Sea Island G8 Summit have gone to even further extremes to block NGO access to the media including blocking their ability to hand out flyers to the media. ("G-8 Summit: Critical Test of Global Will to Halt Nuclear Proliferation," "Greenpeace Protests Erection of Riverfront Fence to Block Access to Media," Greenpeace International, 8 June 2004).
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