I am a protester. I believe in the power of mass groups of people gathering to stand up for an issue that would otherwise be invisible. I was there in Seattle in 1999 in the rise-up against the World Trade Organization, and in Quebec City for the protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas in 2001.
Street protests have been my political coming of age. I remember being 23 in Edmonton at my first official job working for one of the political parties. We had just elected two members into Parliament and were flooded with calls from all over the province - single mothers unable to make welfare, students facing bankruptcy with ever-increasing tuition rates, recent immigrants with nowhere else to turn. As a young woman wanting to make the world a better place, I felt like I was drowning in a sea of pain.
Over lunch one day with a seasoned union activist, I heard for the first time the idea of global economic agreements, institutions and decisions having an effect on what was happening in our own backyard. It felt like a log was being thrown to me, and that rather than drown I could find a way to stay afloat.
I started to raise awareness of the major international trade agreement being negotiated at the time - the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. A small group of us stood outside the Edmonton farmers' market every Saturday, passing out flyers. We organized conferences, brought in speakers and co-ordinated rallies. I went on to do many of these same things at the national level, except that now there was a salary attached. Although we did defeat the MAI in 1998, the same rules favouring investors over issues such as climate change, poverty and human rights cropped up in other forms. As the years increased, my reserve of hope went in the opposite direction.
I began to question how much impact these mass protests were having on decisions being made. Should I just accept that inequity was the name of the global economic game and make peace with it? There were enough people encouraging me to move beyond my "rebel" phase and accept this truth about the world. Yet my heart wouldn't have it. Certain moments were locked away in that most irrational of organs that kept pulling me back when my head began to stray.
One of them occurred in 2000 when the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank held their meetings in Washington.
There was the usual mass march on the first day, and then most protesters left the city. The second day had seen a number of peaceful direct actions with young activists sitting, arms locked, blocking downtown intersections. When you feel powerless to influence unjust decisions made at levels way beyond your control, sometimes putting your own body on the line is the only tool left.
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Many arrests had already been made and people's spirits were starting to sink. The smell of tear gas hung over everything. That third day there were a few thousand of us left, and we met in a park to march back downtown to where the meetings were still taking place.
I was exhausted, yet I remember my first view as I came around the corner. It had been raining and for a few moments there was a break in the rain and the sun shone through. A rainbow arced over the motley crew in front of me. People were carrying massive handmade puppets - the face of the sun, a giant turtle - as well as signs and banners in countless languages, the colours above mirrored by those held in human hands below.
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Then a voice rose in song as I came up to the grass. It caught on. We lifted our faces to the sky, and in unison we sang. As the volume swelled, so did my heart. In this city of power, while these leaders met, here we were, a group of people from around the world who knew nothing of each other, only that it was important to have a presence here. I felt a deep sense of peace.
What I learned is that mass protests do something that few other strategies achieve. When groups of people gather with clear purpose, there is an intangible force created. It's the heart's cry, echoed through the ages, for freedom, truth and justice to have open space for expression.
I am a Torontonian. I live in this city that is to be host to the G20 this weekend. And I am planning to protest. I will bring my face paint, banners and signs down to Queen's Park. I will put my body on the line to march against this inequitable system where 20 nations make decisions affecting the whole world.
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Yet this time, instead of being supported in my right to protest, I find myself explaining why I am legitimate, why I am not engaged in a terrorist act, and how many of our treasured Canadian social programs and rights that we take for granted resulted from people fighting for a better world.
A billion dollars has been spent to supposedly stop people like me. Media coverage has mostly focused on disruption to businesses and traffic. Police have been harassing my friends already while they have been passing out flyers, riding bikes or just lying down in the park.
My head can't help but feel despair of ever reaching that world where decisions are truly democratic, where eradicating poverty is more important than furthering profit, and human rights matter more than the rights of capital. And yet my heart reminds me that magic is still possible. Even surrounded by fear and fences, hope and passion for an equitable and democratic world can yet be set free.
Annahid Dashtgard lives in Toronto.
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