Explaining the G-20 Protests to a Preschooler

It’s been one week since Pittsburgh hosted the G-20 economic summit.  The demonstrations against it and the police reactions to those demonstrations were a lot milder than they have been at previous summits in other cities, but there was some violent conflict and questionable conduct on both sides–check out the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette or Pittsburgh City Paper for detailed coverage.

My son is 4 years 9 months old.  Upon hearing that he went to school and I went to work last Thursday–when violent clashes came within blocks of his school and my office–several people have asked me how I explained the situation to Nicholas.  It really wasn’t difficult! One of my favorite things about being a parent is getting to explain things to my child, figuring out what information he can handle and how to present it at his level.  I am blessed with a very perceptive child who has an excellent memory and readily makes connections between new and old information.  And as I’ve said before, I don’t think young children need to be sheltered from the difficult issues in society; I think that learning about many of these things when I was young was very good for me.

Nicholas came into this situation already knowing that people sometimes march to show support for an idea and that our government sometimes makes bad choices because of our discussion of the civil rights movement and our participation in a peace march when he was 3.  Daniel and I had told Nicholas about our disagreement with President Bush’s decision to start a war (fighting and hurting people instead of working out problems by talking), how we felt the money spent on the war could have been better used for other things, and how our country’s laws allow us to speak up for what we believe even if we disagree with the President.  I knew that Nicholas remembered the peace march because he mentioned it when we were talking about the G-20 preparations and the possibility that people would come in from out of town to join in really big marches.

There was a “People’s March” to the convention center during the G-20 meetings that had a permit and was intended to be peaceful.  We decided not to go because (a) we knew that the world leaders were coming into this meeting with their policies already decided, and all that was happening here was the hashing out of details of cooperation, so it wasn’t a particularly good opportunity for influencing their decisions, and (b) it was going to be a mishmash of people supporting a whole variety of causes–advocating economic policies that are better for the poor, anti-war, pro-environment, anti-abortion, free Tibet, abolish all government, etc.–which didn’t seem like an effective way of communicating what we believe.  Anyway, that march did go peacefully and didn’t much affect our family.  What affected us was last Thursday’s anarchist-organized march.

I don’t understand how anarchists can organize anything without violating their own opposition to structure, but whatever.  As best we can tell, they were marching not to encourage any particular decisions by the G-20 but to protest the fact that world leaders were having a meeting at all and even the fact that there are any leaders who make decisions that affect people.  I’m not sure what they think is the alternative.  One thing they’re missing is that there is progress in including 20 countries in these talks instead of just 7 or 8!   Anyway, it seems the hard-core anarchists were joined by some people who just wanted to get out in the streets and yell and smash.  In the end it seemed to have less to do with the G-20 than with anger at the police.  I agree that some of the police reaction was excessive: That march did not have a permit, but they could have directed traffic to let it go by anyway; they didn’t have to do the tear gas and smoke bombs, much less use that sonic weapon.  However, when the police chose to use force, that did not justify the protesters using force.  And there was no reason to smash windows, especially not to throw bricks into restaurants with people in them!!

The organized part of this march was in a different neighborhood, so although I was keeping tabs on the situation via radio and Web during my workday, I really thought it wasn’t going to affect our ability to get home safely by city bus.  But then, just before I left work to pick up Nicholas, I learned that some of the anarchists had regrouped only five blocks away from his school.

By the way, something else Nicholas already knew was that if you get in trouble with the police, you cooperate with them.  Fighting with police will get you hurt and get you in worse trouble.  If they are wrong about what you did, that will be straightened out later; fighting will not help. We had occasion to talk about this just a few weeks ago, when we were walking home past a restaurant outside which the police were assessing a drunk-and-disorderly fellow.  Nicholas was fascinated by the way this man seemed to be falling asleep while standing up and talking in a strange voice.  I said, “Tooo much beer!” and shook my head and tried to walk on, but Nicholas wanted to watch what happened.  I told him the police would just take the man home, or if he couldn’t tell them where he lived they’d take him to the police station overnight.  When the officers told the man to get into the police car, suddenly he flipped out and started hollering and struggling.  That’s when I explained about not resisting.

Anyway, as I approached the preschool last Thursday, I saw that the bank on that block had all its rear windows smashed (but none of the front ones–cowards!), and then I saw a crowd of protesters and police fighting one block to the north.  We would not need to go that way, but the struggle might move over to our bus stop, so we would need to be prepared.  What I do in this type of situation is to direct my wild imagination toward imagining my dramatically safe escape. On this occasion it worked extremely well.  I felt very calm.

In the school lobby, the assistant director (an excitable sort of person) was shrieking into her cell phone, but she paused to assure me the children knew nothing of what was unfolding.  The moment Nicholas and I left the building, he asked me, “What’s going on?”  I promised to explain in a moment, but first I had to tell him that it was possible we would get into an emergency.  “You know how in Little House on the Prairie, when they got into an emergency, Laura and Mary had to do exactly what Ma or Pa told them, right away, without asking questions.  That’s how it is in an emergency.  So if I say run, run.  If I say cover your head, cover your head.  I will tell you what to do to be safe. But I think we’ll be able to avoid getting tangled up in the emergency.”  Nicholas was pleased by the sense of adventure.

We got to the corner and could see the conflict a block away.  Nicholas shook his head and said, “Fighting with the police will just get them into worse trouble!  Why are they getting arrested?”  Here is how I explained it to him: “You know that presidents from around the world are having a meeting to agree on rules, particularly about money.  Some people have strong ideas about what rules should be made and are marching to show their ideas.  Some other people are mad about the whole idea of this meeting because they think presidents shouldn’t get to make rules that affect the whole world, and some of them think there just shouldn’t be any rules or any presidents at all.  Now, there is a rule that if you want to have a big march, you have to sign up with the city, so that the police know where you’ll be going and when and can stop the traffic for you.  These people wanted to show how mad they are about rules by not following that rule.  They want the traffic to stop for them, but they want the police to leave them alone no matter how many rules they break.  So when the police said, ‘Stop! You’re not allowed to march in this street!’ they wouldn’t leave, so after a while the police started hurting and scaring them to make them move.  That started a lot of fighting.”  I was saying all this at a bus stop, with about a dozen people in earshot and others (many dressed in black, grungy anarchist fashion) passing on the sidewalk . . . and those who reacted to my explanation did so by smiling or giving me a thumbs-up; apparently they felt I was explaining it correctly!

Our bus was delayed and then moved very slowly in heavy traffic, which probably had less to do with the protest than with traffic having been routed away from the G-20 dinner being held two blocks south of Schenley Plaza, where we normally change busses.  I began to have a bad feeling about going there and prayed for guidance.  I decided to change busses at Craig Street instead.

Meanwhile, Nicholas was having a great time looking out the window.  He doesn’t quite read yet, but I think he now recognizes the word POLICE after seeing it on so many riot suits.  He also figured out all by himself that the identical, unmarked, large white vans unusually prevalent in the streets must belong to the police, and he was quite pleased to be proved right by seeing a lot of officers climbing into one.

Our timing and route were perfect: We walked our 3 blocks down Craig Street in perfect safety before the window-smashing that happened later that night; we avoided Schenley Plaza, where I later heard the police threw a smoke bomb around that time (although other news reports said they didn’t start that until much later); and we caught our second bus very quickly.  Then that bus was delayed by something happening in the middle of the street–either someone had been hit by a car, or someone had tried to protest by lying down in the street to block traffic, or both; at any rate, some arrests and medical care were happening.  Nicholas grew bored with trying to figure it out and asked me to read to him.  We got home without further incident.

His school was closed the next day out of concern that families going to or from school would get tangled in rioting, an understandable concern given the location.  Nicholas came to work with me.  I could have taken a day off, but Daniel was working from home and needed to use my computer (which is more powerful, and which is in the dining room) so Nicholas and I needed to be out of his way, but going out anywhere would have raised the same concerns as going to work.  Anyway, I felt that if I let this disrupt my life, the terrorists had already won–I mean, the anarchists.  I felt pretty confident that we’d be safe, and we were.

There hasn’t been even one moment in the past week when my son seemed at all traumatized by either his own experiences or the knowledge of this conflict.  He just regards it as an adventure story, and he hasn’t even been retelling that story very much.  I guess I did something right!

4 thoughts on “Explaining the G-20 Protests to a Preschooler

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