TORONTO (Reuters) - Ten days before world leaders arrive for two international summits, a ring of steel and concrete is slowly sealing off the center of Toronto, offering a secure bubble in case peaceful protests get out of hand.
The fence, with tight links of hard steel atop heavy concrete barriers, is part of a $1 billion security plan to shield leaders from clashes like the 1999 “Battle of Seattle” that disrupted trade talks there, or tear gas heavy protests when Canada hosted the Summit of the Americas in 2001.
“All I know is that I am going to have to cross three security checkpoints to get to my job, and then there’s the protesters,” said Dave, a chef at a bar and bistro inside the Toronto security zone where leaders will meet.
“As soon as one of them (protesters) throws something at me or acts up, I‘m going home,” he said as he smoked a cigarette a few feet from the fence.
The first meeting, of the Group of Eight industrialized countries, starts outside Toronto on June 24. Toronto, Canada’s largest city, hosts a summit of the Group of 20 rich and developing countries from June 26-27, with finance ministers, central bankers and dozens of guests also invited.
But meetings like these are always controversial, and a host of groups argue that the leaders are trying to fix a broken financial system that already oppresses the poor.
Most groups say their protests will not be violent, but they admit anarchists often provoke clashes with police, and that’s the reason for the fence.
“Our goal is to ensure the summit is safe for the public and for the leaders,” Police Inspector Art Pittman told a recent news briefing. “I am confident that we will succeed.”
The fence and other security measures are expected to shut down a five-block by seven-block stretch of downtown Toronto for most of next week, diverting traffic for all but workers and residents from the area.
Banks with thousands of staff in the area are relocating most workers to contingency locations.
“Starting on Monday hundreds of my people will be working from other offices, including home,” said one bank executive, who asked not to be identified. “We’re in the hot zone and only a few select people have been given security passes.”
Wireless communications are expected to be interrupted sporadically due to a technology that creates bubbles of electronic silence around leaders’ motorcades.
Protesters see the summits as a way to drive anti-poverty campaigns, demand action to address global warming and fight for women’s reproductive rights. Estimates of numbers range from a few thousand to tens of thousands.
With hotels packed with press and delegates, one group has asked Torontonians to billet activists.
“Adopt-an-Activist,” the Toronto Community Mobilization Network Housing Committee says. “Rather than believing a caricature of ‘the demonstrator’ why not get to know some in a more personal way.”
Demonstrations start this week, when a group including Oxfam, Amnesty International and the World Wildlife Fund plans to march through the financial district with a “Big Head” model of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper tossing out cash.
The action aims to ask whether Canada is putting its money where it’s needed most, organizers say.
Anarchists have pledged to attend later demonstrations, and some organizations whisper about plans to breach the 10-foot security fences.
Inside the security zone, restaurants and bars say they will stay open, but say police have told them not to comment.
Editing by Janet Guttsman