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The Summit of All Fears
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One minute you’re in Savannah, Georgia, sitting forty feet away from the President of the United States.

Two hours later you’re watching Brokaw in your living room and there’s the president again, in a live shot from the Capitol Rotunda, paying his respects to Ronald Reagan.

It was as if he couldn’t get away from Savannah fast enough.

Then again, last week had an unreal quality all around. From the ghost town of a historic district, to the paramilitary that outnumbered everyone except journalists, to the anemic protests and equally anemic business impact on local merchants, the Sea Island Summit was one long, surreal dream state -- as much a meditation on the power of nothingness as the quietly focused Falun Dafa practitioners in Reynolds Square.

Nothing happened, but nothing went as planned. No one was hurt, but everyone was scared. Everyone got along, but no one agreed.

Not even the president was immune. Even as Bush tried his best to make this Summit about freedom and democracy in the Middle East, a memo surfaced detailing the official White House position on torture: They think it’s legal and the president can’t be prosecuted for it.

At his press conference on the Summit’s final day, Bush only made matters worse. When the White House press corps -- arriving diva-style at the last minute to take their reserved seats up front -- pressed Bush on the memo, he resorted to the same canned response several times: “What I've authorized is that we stay within U.S. law.”

This of course only egged on the reporters, because his answer left open the possibility that our president considers it within U.S. law to torture people.

Seemingly compelled to dig himself deeper into the hole, Bush went on:

“And, by the way, let me remind everybody about Saddam Hussein, just in case we all forget. There were mass graves under his leadership. There were torture... (long pause)... chambers.”

The official transcript conveniently leaves out the pregnant pause. But the look on Bush’s face showed he regretted the statement the second he said it.

It was a week of such grim irony, beginning with Reagan’s death and subsequent wall-to-wall media coverage, which blocked out much of the positive spin coming out of Sea Island.

But if events conspired to suck the wind out of Bush’s agenda, they also did the same to G8 protestors. Whether from poor organization, lack of motivation or a younger generation more interested in internet activism than the in-person kind, the turnout was far below expectations.

Also, all the wartime posturing by law enforcement clearly led to an atmosphere so ripe with potential violence that many activists stayed away simply to protect themselves from harm.

An impromptu, unpermitted march down Abercorn Street Wednesday brought horse patrols and riot cops with shields and batons ready to bear down on the couple dozen bored college-age protestors. An official news release from Savannah Police later described the kids as “activists known to have a propensity for violence and inciting civil unrest,” which seems such an over-the-top description that it might be defamatory.

On the Summit's final day the apocalyptic scene repeated itself, when a larger crowd of protestors made its way from Forsyth Park to River Street about ten minutes after Marine One left Savannah.

Again the riot cops were out in full gear, charging from their staging area on River Street up the Factor’s Walk steps to Bay Street. A police chopper hovered over the Hyatt, like a scene out of a bad action movie set in some nameless, troubled future time.

Get used to what you saw last week in Savannah. It’s a glimpse of the world the G8 would like to have in store for you.

One briefing we attended was on a new peacekeeping force that would move to world trouble spots faster and with less messy debate than the U.N.

While the senior administration official giving the briefing insisted “This is not a new paradigm here,” he painted a picture that was alarmingly similar to the “trouble spot” that was downtown Savannah last week:

“Very often in a peace support operation, what you need in addition to the cop on the beat and the soldier in the Humvee is a so-called heavy policeman or gendarme who can do crowd control

and arrest the high-value prisoners,” the official said, in an eerily exact description of the heavily-equipped soldiers and cops swarming all around us.

Indeed, behind all the promises, spin, pomp and circumstance of the G8 lies that overriding image of domination.

The world’s elite leaders -- all Christian white males with the exception of the Japanese president -- met on Sea Island, which fittingly was once a rice plantation completely dependent on slave labor. The G8 planners seem either unaware or heedless of the irony.

Conspicuous by their absence were other countries that would seem to have some claim to join the club. The list reminds one of the old Red Skelton roast routine, whereupon the comedian would list stars who “never got a dinner.”

China, most populous nation and by 2050 the world’s largest economy? Never got a dinner.

India, world’s largest democracy and very soon the world’s most populous country? Never got a dinner.

Brazil, Latin America’s largest democracy with 180 million people? Never got a dinner.

Canada, hardly a driver of the global economy, has its seat at the Summit. But South Korea? Never got a dinner.

Russia, democracy in name only, is there. But the Netherlands, with three times Russia’s gross domestic product? Never got a dinner.

The media? Oh boy, did we ever get a dinner.

Inside the Media Center on Hutchinson Island, it was free breakfast, lunch, dinner and Krispy Kremes 24 hours a day, just a short water taxi trip away.

Despite our privileged status as chroniclers of the new world order, journalists covering the G8 were also subject to its immutable gospel of privatization: Should we need a data port for our laptop, or even a plug to recharge its battery, we had to rent one. A minimal workspace cost $350 a day.

For days before the Summit we were besieged by e-mails, hawking the Summit’s services used-car salesman style: “Only two days left to reserve your space.” Luckily, Connect didn’t need any of that stuff, but the cry was loud and long from other national and global journalists.

The foreign press is a show unto itself. The French journalists have all their conversations at the top of their lungs, especially when a cellphone is involved. The British journalists display a heaping helping of cynicism to go with their hideous fashion sense. The Russian journalists are warm but brusque, with a deep suspicion of all official pronouncements.

Contrary to what the American media tells you, Arab journalists -- especially Al Jazeera’s -- generally display more professionalism than their Western counterparts, and ask by far the most probing and aggressive questions.

They have the air of someone carrying a unique burden -- part chip on the shoulder and part realization that the entire Summit is essentially about them. I felt sorry for them and happy for them at the same time.

The media’s objections to the high prices were for naught. Privatization is the air the Summit breathes. Its influence extends to all areas of the Summit’s business. It is so much a part and parcel of it that you must look for it in plain sight. But once you know where to look, it’s everywhere.

A briefing on entrepreneurial solutions to Third World poverty discussed “remittances,” i.e., the money that immigrants send back home from their jobs in the U.S. or some other rich country. The G8 wants to direct these remittances “into the formal financial sector,” a senior administration official said at a briefing we attended.

(Almost all the press briefings were “on background,” i.e., the senior administration official could not be quoted by name.)

“Obviously some, perhaps even a majority of any particular remittance flow will need to be spent,” the official said. “But for the excess that doesn't immediately need to be spent, if we had been creative in thinking of sort of financial instrument options, not grand ideas, but options for the recipients to invest that money and even for short periods of time, that can, as a cumulative matter, have a very significant effect.”

It left me with a feeling of sadness that we’d fallen this far -- the great nations of the earth reduced to shaking down housekeepers and sheet rock workers for a cut of their meager earnings.

The same kind of cheap corporate hustling reigned throughout the Summit, the most obvious being the constant presence of Krispy Kreme doughnuts throughout the Media Center.

At nearly every briefing, government officials felt the need to banter about Krispy Kreme. It was funny the first time, but by the tenth time it was a particularly obnoxious form of product placement.

Advocacy groups were barred from having booths in the press areas. No Greenpeace or National Rifle Association allowed, no Amnesty International or Veterans of Foreign Wars.

But Cingular Wireless was there, as was Verizon. UPS was there, as was the U.S. Post Office, selling cute teddy bears with stamps on their tummies. And needless to say, SCAD had a booth as well.

Yes, in the best capitalist tradition, dear reader, the Sea Island Summit sold us a bill of goods. Overall, it offered probably the worst return on our tax dollar than any other event in recent memory.

We were told that 3,000 journalists coming to town would be great for business. We weren’t told that they’d be fed 24/7 on the taxpayer’s dime and had no reason to leave Hutchinson Island.

We were assured that Savannah would be the focus of world attention. That honor went to Sea Island, where the actual Summit took place.

We were told that downtown would be a happening place to be. We weren’t told that it would only be happening for cops.

I’m sorry, but maybe we’ll know better next time. Anyway, thanks for all my free food you paid for. I really enjoyed it!

Jim is editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah.