Question Looms Over This Year’s Group of 7: Where Are All the Protesters?
It’s challenging it is to be an activist this year, what with the pandemic, a hermetically sealed summit and a new American president who is hard to get too worked up over.,
FALMOUTH, England — It was no diaper-clad Donald J. Trump, but this year’s Group of 7 meeting got its own inflatable mascot on Friday: a floating blimp that caricatures President Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, holding hands and waving, each wearing swim trunks in the design of their national flags.
A coalition of advocacy groups behind the blimp took reporters and photographers out on a morning cruise in the mist and drizzle — known in Cornwall as “mizzle” — to see its launch off the coast of a Cornish fishing port where the world’s news media is encamped to cover the summit.
For all the atmosphere, the stark contrast between the two inflatables underscored just how challenging it is to be an activist at the Group of 7 this year, what with the pandemic, a hermetically sealed summit, and a new American president who is hard to get too worked up over.
While the photographers bobbed in the waves, snapping pictures of Biden and Boris, representatives of the groups laid out their agenda for world leaders. They urged them to speed up donations of coronavirus vaccines, enact tougher measures to curb climate change and tackle income and gender inequality — all issues that, to one degree or another, are already on the leaders’ agendas.
As the activists spoke, a few rays of sunshine pierced the fog. That prompted an outburst of hokey metaphors — maybe the “the mist would lift” from the deliberations of the leaders, one said — as the hosts did their best to entertain their news-starved guests.
“We try to organize optimism to have impact,” said Jamie Drummond, a spokesman for Crack the Crises, a group of 70 advocacy groups that has organized a series of events linked to the Group of 7 meeting. “But there are many reasons to be very angry as well. Not enough is being done.”
Mustering anger is not easy when Covid restrictions make it difficult to mobilize large crowds, security cordons keep protesters miles away from where the leaders are staying, and one of the prime antagonists at such gatherings, Mr. Trump, has been replaced by the more emollient Mr. Biden.
When the Trump baby balloon first took flight in July 2018 over London, during a visit by Mr. Trump, more than 100,000 demonstrators were on hand to watch. It became such a celebrated image that the Museum of London acquired it this year to display in a collection about protests.
Somewhat smaller, less openly derisive and locally produced, the Biden-Boris blimp will float in Falmouth’s harbor, where it can be viewed by journalists and the scattered tourists left in an otherwise locked-down port.
Just as Mr. Biden has been an elusive target for Republicans back home, he is proving difficult to vilify abroad. So far, he has gushed to Mr. Johnson about his new wife, Carrie Johnson, telling him they both “married above their station,” and gone on cheerful walkabouts with the first lady, Dr. Jill Biden, who wore a black jacket with the word “LOVE” emblazoned on the back.
At his first Group of 7, Mr. Trump followed in a golf cart when the other leaders went for a walk in the streets of Taormina, Sicily. On another trip, his wife wore a jacket with the phrase, “I really don’t care, do u?” scrawled on the back.
Even apart from Mr. Biden and the Covid effect, which restricts travel into Britain, these meetings no longer draw the throngs of protesters they once did. In 1998, 70,000 people formed a human chain that ringed the city center of Birmingham, England, where President Bill Clinton and other leaders were meeting.
In 2001 in Italy, more than 200,000 demonstrators massed at the Group of 7 in Genoa, setting off clashes with the police that ended in dozens of injuries and arrests. So great were the fears of a terrorist attack that the Italian authorities imposed an air exclusion zone around Genoa and stationed antiaircraft missile batteries.
In 2007 in Germany, a more sedate affair, protesters still played cat-and-mouse with the police, leaping out of the woods in black hoods and bandannas to hurl tree limbs across road to block access to the Baltic Sea resort of Heiligendamm.
Since then, Group of 7 organizers have become much more effective at putting distance between activists and the leaders. On Friday, about 70 climate-change protesters marched through Falmouth, chanting, “No justice, no peace.” Falmouth is an hourlong drive from Carbis Bay, where the leaders are staying.
The airtight security presence has not deterred activists from creatively dramatizing their causes. Among the most striking examples is “Mount Recyclemore,” a homage to the carved granite heads of Mount Rushmore composed of discarded circuit boards, laptop covers and castoff cellphone pieces.
In this installation, which overlooks sand dunes not far from Carbis Bay, the heads are those of the Group of 7 leaders, and the message is the environmental damage caused by the disposal of electronic waste.
For all his appeal as a target, some argue that Mr. Trump was not good for protesters because his disregard for rules and norms called into question the whole rationale for the Group of 7.
“What’s the point of leaving your home and traveling hundreds of miles, if it’s not going to make any difference?” said Denisse Rudich, director of the G7 Research Group in London. “It raised questions about the relevance of the meeting.”
As the activists mingled on the deck of their rented boat, reminiscing about past Group of 7 meetings, some expressed regret that the virus had kept people away. “This one would have been massive, but for the pandemic,” said Mr. Drummond, who is a seasoned veteran of these gatherings, having founded the advocacy group, One, with Bono, the lead singer of U2.
He insisted that the new American president had not taken the wind out of the advocacy efforts. There was no in-person Group of 7 last year, he said, and the combination of a health and climate crisis lent this gathering as much urgency as any previous summit.
“There are hard facts and data — about Covid, about climate, about ecology, and about injustice — which are not being paid attention to,” Mr. Drummond said. “And the response from leaders is not commensurate with these crises.”
Still, the image of Mr. Biden and Mr. Johnson waving jauntily to those on shore felt less like a cry for help than a reminder of the extravagant display of unity by the two leaders when they first met the previous day.
Megan Specia contributed reporting from London.