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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

London battens down hatches in fear of violent G20 protests

March 31, 2009
JULIA BELLUZ, Special to The Globe and Mail

LONDON -- Turkish visitor Ozlem Bas reserved at The Ritz this week, expecting to luxuriate in one of London's poshest hotels.

Instead, she found the landmark in the British capital's tony Mayfair district turned into a bunker. Nearly all of the hotel's street-level windows and doors have been covered in protective blue panels for fear that the many protests planned for this week's summit of the Group of 20 could turn violent.

"It's not very nice at all," said Ms. Bas, an arts and culture producer in London for five days of business and pleasure. Every time she enters the hotel, staff members ask whether she is a guest, which has left her feeling "like a prostitute."

"No one," she said, "wants to feel like the youngest girl in the house."

Like every other visitor to London this week, Ms. Bas is having to deal with the threat of violence arising from the protests planned for the G20 meeting, and which seem likely to overshadow the summit itself.

Even before a group called Bank Bosses Are Criminals smashed several windows at the mansion of Sir Fred Goodwin, former chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland, and vandalized his Mercedes last week, authorities were warning of an ugly mood at the G20 protests, and financial institutions and businesses around London have been stepping up security.

Brace Yourselves, advised a headline in The Economist. Anarchy Back in the UK, declared the Daily Mirror.

Sir Paul Stephenson, head of London's Metropolitan Police Service, described preparations for the G20 as "probably as big a single operation as the Met has done." Sir Paul has ordered all police leave cancelled for the summit and deployed more than 10,000 officers - many armed with 50,000-volt taser stun guns - in the capital at an estimated cost of $13-million.

The demonstrations intended to bring London to a standstill this week will not overlook such tried-and-true issues as war, globalization and climate change. But with the global economy in recession and many people outraged at executive compensation that is perceived as being overly generous for the times, the main event will target the City, London's financial district, and the business leaders who work there. Anti-capitalist groups, which have mushroomed on the Internet, have proclaimed April 1 "Financial Fools' Day."

"We're a bit concerned that the banks are taking over the government, rather than the governments taking over the banks," said Mark Barrett, 39, an organizer of one such group, G20 Meltdown. The group has planned four parades, each led by one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, set to converge on the imposing porticoed headquarters of the Bank of England tomorrow. On Thursday, the day of the G20 meeting, "a giant Monopoly game" will occupy the space in front of the London Stock Exchange.

"We've got people who've lost their jobs, their homes," Mr. Barrett said. "People who have been fed up with the economic system for decades, people who have been involved in the environmental movement."

Of the concern over the possibility of violence, Mr. Barrett said, "It's a big joke. We're going to be hanging mannequins, not actual bankers."

The Metropolitan Police do not see the humour and have advised London's banks to increase security around their offices tomorrow and Thursday. Banks, including UBS, Citigroup and the Royal Bank of Scotland, told employees in London this week to cancel unnecessary meetings, work from home if possible, and, if they must come to work, to wear something less conspicuous than a pin-striped suit.

Spokespeople for the banks refused to comment on security preparations, and bankers have been instructed not to talk about how they will respond. But a finance worker outside the Bank of England was willing to share his game plan, even if he did decline to be named. "We're not going to wear our Rolexes next week," he said. "And we'll put on our 'Down with capitalism' T-shirts to fit in."

The protests are expected to cause losses worth millions of pounds as protesters block roadways and commuters find themselves unable to reach their offices because of train and Tube cancellations.

So far, though, demonstrations have been more creative than catastrophic.

On Saturday, 35,000 people took to the streets of London for the Put People First march, hailed as a peaceful revolution. Its theme was "jobs, justice and climate" and its vague message to world leaders: "Make the economy work for people and the planet."

More than 100 charities, environmental groups and trade unions - including ActionAid, Oxfam, Greenpeace and the Salvation Army - came together for the colourful, music-filled march though London. Only one arrest was reported.

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