Fool's Day Riots: In Europe, it's cool to be mad about the economy

Today, as London prepares to host the G-20 summit, thousands of anarchists, environmentalists, homeless advocates, and assorted rabble-rousers took to the streets in a coordinated mass protest. Some banks preemptively closed and others reported vandalism and looting, as police shut down a section of London's financial district.

Today's protest, dubbed "Financial Fools' Day," was organized by a group calling itself "G-20 Meltdown." It featured four separate marches, nicknamed the "four horsemen of the apocalypse," which focused on climate change, war, homelessness, and the economy. The groups converged in the financial district, where they hung bankers in effigy.

G-20 Meltdown's preparations for today's protest were surprisingly thorough. Over the last few weeks, they have offered seminars on legal advice for protesters, addressing topics like the emotional trauma of being jostled and the best methods for keeping demonstrations from turning violent. In spite of this, so-called "outside agitators" have apparently been pushing group members to attack the police.

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It doesn't help that some of the group's leaders have been somewhat unrestrained in their statements. According to The Telegraph, a right-leaning British newspaper, one protest leader stated that "real bankers" may end up "hanging from lamposts" and hailed the protests as the first step in a Velvet Revolution that would ultimately put him at the helm of the Labour Party. Another leader supposedly wants to use the protests to prosecute capitalism for crimes against the planet.

While the protesters were preparing for their big day, the police were getting ready as well. Following weeks of observation and intelligence-gathering, they deployed 2,500 officers clad in bright yellow jackets and riot gear. Helicopters hovered over the city, providing tactical support.

In scenes that were oddly reminiscent of the bank run in Mary Poppins, some protesters smashed windows, pelted police with eggs and fruit, and burned bankers in effigy. A few banks closed, and others encouraged their employees to leave the traditional pinstripe suits at home, suggesting instead that they come to work in more inconspicuous attire.

While most clashes between the police and protesters were nonviolent, others seem to have devolved into frenzied melees, with the police employing tear gas and batons to restrain crowds. Just as spray-painted walls and broken windows provided great copy for the media, images of bloodied protesters have already caught the world's attention.

Unlike the demonstrations of the 1960's and 1970's, which largely focused on troop deployment, civil rights, and other traditionally political issues, 21st century protests seem to have moved into the realm of economics. In the United States, the 1999 riots at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle made it clear that the battle lines had been redrawn, and the fights of the future would be over the flow of money, goods and services between countries.

While not as violent as the 1968 riots in Paris and Chicago or the 1970 demonstration at Kent State, the new breed of protests has its fair share of violence, with protesters targeting financial institutions and self-proclaimed anarchists trying to provoke aggressive police responses.

At its heart, the shift from the 1960's to the 2000's seems to lie in a perception that the worldwide locus of power has moved from governments to private business. As a result, many protesters are arguing that global trade, not local politics, now dictates international policies. As President Obama pushes his G-20 colleagues to organize a unified response to the current economic crisis, it might be worth noting that many of his constituents aren't convinced that saving international businesses is in their best interests.
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