Global Policy Forum

Lockdown on Sea Island


June 8, 2004

Beside a framed text of the Ten Commandments in Dressner's Family Restaurant on St Simons Island, there is a picture of a small boy cuddling the American flag. Dressner's serves a breakfast fit for patriots - eggs, bacon, grits and Coke - and three markedly patriotic-looking chaps in pressed white shirts, hunting vests and the kind of wraparound shades a Federal Agent's granny might buy him for a passing-out present are doing their damnedest to "blend in" with the locals. Should President Bush and his foreign chums drop in for the $5 special, a table would quickly be found - a Xeroxed poster in the window offers a "Warm Southern Welcome to Members of the G8 Summit". But this is unlikely. Bush, Blair et al are safely corralled in the gated Sea Island complex some four miles away from St Simons Village. And out there in the community, the Warm Southern Welcome is wearing paper-thin.

When it was announced a year ago that President Bush would be hosting the 2004 G8 Summit on Sea Island (Sea Island as in cotton, as in slaves), the upscale resort where George Bush Snr and Barbara spent their honeymoon, there was a surge of civic pride in this sleepy corner of coastal Georgia. The summit, locals confidently predicted, would put the Golden Isles (so called for the region's spectacular sunsets) on the world map. Millions of government dollars would pour into local coffers. There would be untold improvements to the islands' infrastructure; holiday rentals - on which the seasonal economy substantially rests - would go through the roof; local shops and restaurants would see an unprecedented boom. In short, the Golden Isles would enjoy their very own Klondike.

It didn't work out. As the summit opens today, the atmosphere on St Simons is more ghost town than gold-rush. In the days before an earthquake, it's said to be the cats who leave first. The cats of St Simons appear unfazed - it's the eerie absence of automobiles that tells you something is about to blow. In a community where four- or five-car families are not unusual, driveways stand deserted. For days, the Humvees streaming across the slender causeway that is the islands' only link to the mainland have been met with nose-to-tail traffic streaming in the opposite direction; around half the islands' residents have evacuated, scared silly by the double, and largely undifferentiated, threats of international terrorism and violent protest.

"How did this happen?" asks local teacher David Ray Dockery ("Hairy Dave" to his friends), hurling industrial quantities of organic cereal and dog food into his pick-up in preparation for the exodus to the mainland. "We're just a little-bitty island. No one ever thought we'd be put in a position where we'd have a bullseye on our back."

Paranoia, perhaps. But there's nothing like the chunter of helicopters to put the wind up a generation raised on M*A*S*H. The skies along the coast, normally the arena for spectacular aeronautics by brown pelicans, are black with military aircraft, swooping low over the houses on endless security sorties. Roadside checkpoints, manned by cheery grunts cradling machine-guns, are scarcely more reassuring.

"This is real scary shit," says Jay Thompson, a Delta flight attendant, who has decided to sit out the siege at home. "We never had a war here. We're not used to seeing tanks and guns on American soil. This is stuff you see in movies."

It's not hard to see why the security services plumped for this location. An island off the end of an island, it is eminently defensible. The romantic history of the presidential honeymoon was just the icing on the cake. Less romantic souls have suggested that Sea Island was selected because Martha's Vineyard and other, groovier East Coast islands refused point-blank to host the summit and only Bill Jones, the third-generation owner of the Sea Island Company, and the area's biggest employer, was snobbish and greedy enough to say "Yes".

Cheri Leavy, editor of Coastal Illustrated, an organ devoted to reports of bridal showers and the charitable doings of the Colonial Dames of America, flaps her fan in the face of cynics. "What an amazing honour that President Bush and the G8 Summit Committee chose Sea Island, Georgia, as their meeting spot to discuss matters of international significance!" she breathes. "To picture the world leaders travelling our streets through the lazy moss-draped oaks gives me a sense of peace as they will leave their hurried paces at home."

St Simons, however, has also traditionally attracted a Bohemian fringe of artists and writers. At Beachview Books, a gathering place for embattled, vociferous liberals, attitudes are is less gung-ho. Larry, editor of The Great Speckled Seagull, a "semi-underground" periodical, is a gentle radical who wears a cowboy hat with a feather in it and carves weirdly beautiful faces in the island's trees. He has just heard a rumour that 2,000 body bags have been delivered to the clapboard Chamber of Commerce across the road from the bookstore. This intelligence is passed around like a joint at a fortysomething party, a delicious whiff of recreational danger. Five minutes later, one of the island's fire chiefs drops by, fresh from a briefing. It's not a rumour. The body bags are here, together with a refrigerated lorry to take away the corpses. "I liked it better when it was a rumour," says Larry.

The fire chief is glad to take the weight off his feet and shoot the breeze. All leave at the island's 13 fire stations has been cancelled for the last three weeks. Firefighters, who double on St Simons as the ambulance service, have received intensive training in dealing with "biological, chemical and explosive emergencies". Public and official nervousness was not helped by the announcement, last week, of a planned al-Qa'ida attack on "significant events in the US", but the fire chief considers they've got things taped. He reckons you'd need a crop duster to deliver significant amounts of chemical/biological weapons and all air traffic, apart from government aircraft and the three daily commercial flights from Atlanta, has been suspended for the duration of the summit. Just in case, there are Patriot missiles parked on the beach, ready to shoot suspects out of the sky. The fire chief is someone you'd want around in a crisis, a big, comfortable man who manages to make Patriot missiles sound kinda friendly, but not all his inside information is so reassuring. The firefighters, he confides, will be issued with a biological antidote for their personal use. There won't be any antidote for members of the public, but at least the firemen will be around to shovel up the remains and stop disease spreading in the 90-degree heat.

For many islanders, the massive security operation unfolding on their doorstep is too much, too late. And certainly there seems to be something a little skewed about this Soviet-style display of hardware in a community where nobody bothers to lock their door. In a flurry of public officiousness, 17 Czech house framers whose visas had expired were taken off the island in handcuffs and deported; the fact that they had been working here a year before the location of the summit was announced did little to mute the trumpeting of this national security coup.

The biggest threat to public safety, in the fire chief's opinion, is confrontation between anti-G8 protesters and the island's massively beefed-up police force. "The Feds are taking into consideration that this is south-east Georgia, where a lot of people carry guns," he says, with something like pride. And for local authorities, mindful of violent clashes at previous summits in Genoa and Seattle, it's protesters rather than terrorists who are the real bogeymen. In the spirit of Christian reconciliation, the First Presbyterian Church ran a "Meet the Protesters" evening of food and fellowship with a "fun program" of games such as "What's My Issue?" and "Who Wants to Be An Activist?". Kathy, who runs the Nature's Gifts store on St Simons' main drag, has stockpiled 1,000 bottles of mineral water among the sun-catchers and ceramic frogs. The water is to hand out to protesters. "I figured that as long as everybody keeps cool, it'll be all right," she says.

Not everyone takes this hospitable stance. A State of Emergency granting extra powers to local law enforcement was announced by the State Governor on 7 May, and while nowhere has yet been "set aside" for the protesters to protest (a quaint notion in itself), a playing-field over on the mainland has been fenced for use as a detention centre. On the island, a rash of fly-posted "WE HATE G8" bumper-stickers and neatly stencilled pictures of George Bush, swinging a missile like a baseball bat with the legend "Let's Play Ball" had given cause for concern. "There was a bunch of people in real nice cars singing peace songs down by Gould's Inlet," offers Mimi Skelton, a St Simons lawyer. "They didn't look too frightening."

Mimi, like many St Simons residents who go to work on the mainland, has had to suspend business while the island is in security lockdown. "A week's enforced vacation is all right if you can afford it," she points out. "But it's those on the lowest incomes who suffer most." The local shrimp-fishing industry, falling foul of the the three-mile exclusion zone around Sea Island, is also out of action for the duration of the summit, with no hope of government compensation. It's no wonder that patriotic fervour is fading.

"This time George Bush really has shit and fell back in it," says Wanda Bullard, who teaches children with learning difficulties in Brunswick. Wanda's school runs a holiday lunch programme, offering underprivileged (mainly black) children a hot midday meal. This too has been cancelled because the school has been commandeered as an emergency centre by government agents. "It's plain disgusting," Wanda fumes. "Bush and his cronies are going to be sittin' around Sea Island discussing world hunger, as it affects, say, children in Africa, while African-American kids are going hungry right here because of them."

There are no children, either, on St Simons. Normally the first week of the school holiday marks the start of the "season", with holiday-makers arriving to take advantage of the spectacular World Heritage beaches. Today the beaches, patrolled by sharky, high-speed gunboats, are empty and shorn of the sea broom and bramble that provided much-needed shade for humans and wildlife (terrorists who make it past the tanks and missiles might hide there). Much has been made of President Bush's personal fondness for the loggerhead turtles who nest along the shoreline. He gave his personal assurance that no turtle would be disturbed by the world leaders. In fact, dead turtles have been washing ashore at a rate of 40 a week because the Department of Natural Resources, which monitors the toxic effluent of the shipping injury, has been suspended for the summit. On the bright side, a sophisticated electronic tag-and-track device has been made available, at the government's expense, to all remaining turtles. People round here say the turtles are working for the CIA.

And what of the fabled bonanza for local business? Some of the shops on St Simons are boarded up against protesters. Others are open, but empty. Last week shopkeepers took out an advertisement begging for local custom to make up for the lack of profitable visitors. (Feds aren't big on buying knick-knacks). The hotel and rental industry, with the notable exception of The Sea Island Company, has suffered a massive loss. One hotel was block-booked by government agencies, presumably to queer the pitch for the more affluent protester, and last week, the bookings were cancelled. No apology, no explanation, and, crucially, no compensation.

So there won't be too many people on St Simons waving the G8 flags today. "No matter which way you look at it, you're polishing a turd," says Hairy Dave. "You can polish it up as much as you want, dress it up in pretty pink ribbons, and what have you got at the end? A shiny turd."

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