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September 30, 2009

Our Man at the G20 (#3): The Show Remains All Too Familiar


(Click for larger size)

by contributor Robert Hariman

WTO, G8, G20, the Democratic National Convention, the Republican National Convention. These and other events provide ritual occasions for grassroots protests against the establishment. And we all know the script. Kids and cops, colorful street theater and uniformed violence, sensational coverage and claims of de facto censorship.

Last week it was the G20 in Pittsburgh: a massive police presence, storefronts boarded up along the route, not too many protesters, trouble anyway, and the usual photographs walking us through it all. The BAG’s photographer Jason Andrew was there as well, and his photos provide an opportunity to reflect on how such demonstrations are routinized, and how they are all the more revealing for that.

Many of Jason’s photographs show us what’s happening off stage. Above, three cops in full riot gear apparently are waiting to be deployed. One can see all the menace that is there, of course, but I also see three players sitting on the sidelines of a football game. Violence may be as American as cherry pie, but it also can be completely normalized, so much so that it’s hard to muster more than a feeble “go team” on either side. Or they could be workers on break (as they are) — and one is reminded how capital always turns working people against one another.

In any case, they sit in an empty, abstract space looking out of place and alienated, even there.

Jason’s photographs often have this alternative tonality from the visual cliches governing so much of the coverage. Instead of the usual street theater, you see what goes on but isn’t offered as part of the show: shopkeepers taking precautions, media personnel setting up and otherwise doing their jobs, people waiting for the next act. Instead of drama, routine; instead of politics becoming intensified, economic practices diffusing dissent; instead of the power of the people, it comes down to money and organization. Perhaps the protests are a lot like the establishment after all.

You can see that and more in this photo:


(Click for larger size)

This shot of other photographers is something you see in conventional coverage, but there you are not so likely to also see a sign of global capital. Thus, another disquieting element emerges: the photos each capture an imbalanced intersection of the local and the global. Cops pose as if football players at a Friday night game, but they’re decked out in the riot gear that is now used by police around the globe. Photographers gather on a spit of land by a roadway, but when they leave, the multinational company will still be broadcasting its message.

Such images capture the pathos–some would say the futility–of taking to the streets in part of one city when fighting against global actors.  But these images are not about action. Instead, the photos communicate a basic stillness, a sense of immobility. This may be thought of as another attempt to avoid the conventional focus on physical confrontation, but it also might be another way of suggesting that, at bottom, the whole show remains all-too-familiar and that nothing will really change.

My point is not to blame the protesters, other photographers, the papers, anyone. Rituals are used to maintain the established order, however, and so we’d do well to think about what these images reveal. And about how the arc of justice may need to move from the streets to the Web, and to boycotts, micro-loans, urban gardens, labor unions (dare we speak the name) and more.

And to photographs showing us what else might be possible once people stop following the old script.

Cross-posted at No Caption Needed.

(images: ©Jason Andrew/BAGnewsNotes. Pittsburgh, PA., September 25, 2009)

About the Photographer

Jason Andrew

Jason Andrew is an American photojournalist born in Alameda, CA. he graduated from San Diego State University in 2001 with a B.A. in History before teaching elementary school for a couple of years. In 2006, he moved to New York City to attend the International Center of Photography Documentary & Photojournalism program where he was the recipient of the Sandy Lugar Scholarship. In 2012 Jason was a finalist for the Leica Oskar Barnack Award and won 1st Place in the PGB photo Awards for his project Football's Lost Boys, documenting the lives of abandoned African footballers living in Turkey. This work was also screened at Les Recontres D'Arles. Jason is currently based in Brooklyn, New York. See more of Jason's work for BagNews here.

  • Karen H.

    I can’t yet articulate it well, but there’s a “while you were sleeping” aspect to this set…or “while you weren’t paying attention” …. local cops began to dress as Star Wars characters, to face protesters who’ve become irrelevant opposing issues we’ve long since lost the ability to affect. Maybe the message should be more focused on “you are irrelevant” but the side show is a little interesting.

  • gmoke

    THX 1138
    George Lucas creates the (fascist police state) future.

  • jtfromBC

    re,..urban gardens, labor unions (dare we speak the name) and more -
    Robert, you’ve summed up the G20 situation rather well, friends and acquaintances are not only social activists or protest but are involved in urban gardens, labor unions and more, I suspect they are not unique.
    I think you might enjoy the photos/prints and perhaps the info from a Vancouver B.C. site @
    Unions are a difficult proposition as Government Agencies contract work out, especially in the social service field as a way to go around them. Play the game and your contract will be renewed but offer valid or necessary criticism of policies or service delivery and your renewal contact will be often relabeled and the chances are excellent you will become over or under qualified next time around.
    And then there is
    ‘No union please, we’re Wal-Mart’
    “..A media capital Jonquière is not. And yet Wal-Mart’s abandonment of this north Quebec outpost in the spring of 2005 made news from Tokyo to São Paulo as an object lesson in the lengths to which America’s largest company will go to throttle the threat of unionization. Wal-Mart closed its store here a few months after it was certified by the Quebec government as the only unionized Wal-Mart in North America.
    Canada is important to Wal-Mart, which, with 260 stores here, is the country’s second-largest retail chain. Although the allure of “Every Day Low Prices” is as strong above the 49th parallel as below it, the Canadian shopper is far more likely than her U.S. counterpart to belong to a union. Nearly 29% of Canadian workers carry a union card, compared with 13% of American employees. Labor laws in Canada are more favorable to unionization and are more likely to be vigorously and expeditiously enforced — especially in Quebec, where the unionization rate is a robust 40%.
    With universal health care the Smiley face is not ripping off the health care system to the extent it does in your country. Protests against WM and other large Corporate entities are overcome as municipalities offer these Giants generous economic and tax incentives as they compeitite against each others in a race to the economic bottom.
    Unfortunately I fear communities will have to reach greater levels of poverty and destitution before qualitative change happens. I’m not optimistic that violence can be avoided.

  • yg

    everything old is new again.

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