G20 preview: What to watch for in Toronto

TORONTO, Canada — If you want to see more police officers than you’ve probably ever seen in your life, come to Toronto this weekend.

Downtown, particularly in the area around the iconic CN Tower, they’re everywhere. They hang out like gangs on practically every street corner. You might think they’re just loafing about, calculating their overtime. But you’d be wrong. They’re looking for trouble.

Their job is to protect leaders attending unprecedented, back-to-back economic summits: On Friday and Saturday morning, the G8 meets in the cottage town of Huntsville, 140 miles north of Toronto; Saturday afternoon and Sunday, the expanded G8 — the G20 — wrestles with the world’s economic troubles in Toronto.

It was revealed Friday that Toronto’s chief of police, Bill Blair, requested and secretly received from the provincial government extraordinary new powers for the G20. They allow his officers to arrest anyone who comes within five yards of the security fence and refuses to identify themselves or agree to a police search.

“We have heard from a number of individuals who have frankly said they're going to come here and wreck the place,” Blair told reporters Friday. “We need to make sure we have the proper authority to deal with those threats.”

A university student has already been arrested under that law, widely denounced by critics as an outrageous abuse of power.

By now, any Canadian who hasn’t been living in a cave knows taxpayers are on the hook for the whopping $1.2 billion cost of the summits — $1 billion of that for security alone. (Security for the G20 summit in Pittsburg last year reportedly cost $18 million.) Part of the cost is a $5.5 million concrete and steal mesh fence that snakes for about 4 miles around the area where the leaders will be meeting and sleeping.

The Toronto Star newspaper has calculated that the total amount of time the world leaders will meet during the three-day economic jamboree is 24 hours. The bill for the twin summits, in other words, works out to about $50 million an hour, or $833,000 a minute.

The real costs are higher. Fearing the sometimes violent protests that accompany international summits, many downtown stores and companies will be closed. And many employees are forced to stay home without pay.

It would be all worth it, of course, if the most powerful men and women in the world took serious steps to eliminate poverty, tackle climate change and rein in Wall Street’s greedy gamblers. But what are the chances of that?

The most obvious result so far is that downtown Toronto and idyllic Huntsville have been locked down like armed camps. It’s a sign of the times, Canadian government officials insist. Yet Canada’s spy chief says terrorists are not targeting the summits.

“I think [there is] surprisingly little on the terrorism front,” Richard Fadden, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told CBC TV. “We don't think there is anyone who is really interested in doing any harm from that perspective.”

The arrest tally so far has not made for shocking reading.

On Wednesday, a 37-year-old Toronto man was charged with possessing explosive material. He’s a computer security consultant who for months told friends, and posted online, that he was preparing a “stunt” to “test” G20 security.

Thursday afternoon, a 53-year-old man was arrested near the restricted area. Police confiscated from his car a chainsaw, a sledgehammer, four baseball bats and a crossbow. They didn’t explain the bizarre collection of potential weapons, more suitable to a slasher film than a terrorist attack. But they described the man as “disoriented.”

Police have also been questioning people taking pictures of the security fence, and even insisted some be deleted. One officer expressed concern the fence pictures would be posted online and somehow help protesters who are bent on storming it.

Fadden has said that police are mainly concerned with what he called “Anarchist groups,” and “multi-issue extremists.” Citing the potential for violent protest, the U.S. State Department has advised U.S. citizens to stay clear of the city center.

For their part, representatives of some groups planning to protest have pointedly refused to denounce violence. Police will see “different people taking different actions in the ways that they see fit,” said Syed Hussan, of the Toronto Community Mobilization Network, when reporters asked about rejecting violence.

Protesters instead describe the massive show of police strength as an attempt to discourage legitimate protest, one so provocative that it invites violence.

Those who opt for violent protest are a minority. Still, the situation seems to be this: Police use protesters to justify the clampdown, and protesters use the clampdown to justify any violence that breaks out.

What if the equation suddenly changed? What if protesters spent the weekend peacefully denouncing greed and environmental pillaging?

How would the Canadian government look if, after spending $1 billion on security, no one smashed a window or threw a rock? How would U.S. President Barack Obama and the others look if, to peaceful demands for political accountability, they wined and dined and cut deals behind a level of security normally associated with police states? Who would look more credible and reasonable?

Editor's note: This article was updated with latest security information.