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The Globe and Mail

Under orders: L.B.J., mass protests and the G20 theatre

Roger Hallett / The Globe and Ma

Towards the end of his life, Lyndon Johnson let his hair grow, tumbling in white curls down the back of his neck. One of his several biographers, fellow Texan Ronnie Dugger, suggested that Johnson did so in an effort to identify with the hippy protesters who mocked him during his final days in office, chanting "Hey, hey L.B.J., how many kids did you kill today." Dugger mused, "Maybe he was trying to say to them 'hey I understand if I'd been young I might have done the same thing.'"

That said, Johnson would no doubt have a tough time identifying with idiots decked out in black outfits who pitch rocks through windows and torch police cars. Fair enough.

But here's the thing: the actions of the thousands and thousands of cops who descended on this city over the last several days weren't aimed primarily at the hoodlums. They were aimed at the scores and scores of mainstream media TV cameras and photographers who recorded the actions of ordinary protesters (i.e. non-anarchists), who in numbers were themselves dwarfed by those meant to be providing security.

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This was theater pure and simple. Some 19,000 cops played a sort of mass Greek chorus, pointing out to the masses watching on television, "in Sodom this is how we deal with the forces of urban disorder."

Late in the afternoon on Saturday, I wandered through the city's midtown to see what all the fuss was about. At one point, I walked into the University of Toronto making an inadvertent end-run around the police lines that had been set up in an effort to clear out the protesters. Having come upon the scene about halfway between Bloor and College streets, behind the legislature, I stood watching the hundreds and hundreds of cops marching in formation toward the protesters south of the legislature banging their shields with truncheons all under the watchful eyes of cameras and TV trucks parked behind the police barriers. After about five minutes of observing all this, I was escorted out through a police cordon set up across University Avenue about a block south of College Street. While the cops were perfectly polite, it was clear that at that stage I had no business being inside a cordon that had been set up all the way around Queen's Park.

I can assure you there wasn't an anarchist in sight. But what I did see were plenty of what I took to be plain-clothed undercover cops chit chatting behind the barricades with their uniformed brethren. The fact is the authorities treated the entire event as an excuse to sow order into the city whether it needed it or not.

Anarchists notwithstanding, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered regarding the scale of the police action. Wouldn't it be splendid if someone in authority took L.B.J.'s attitude toward these investigations and sought to identify with the vast majority of protesters whose intentions and actions were obviously benign?

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