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The Boston Phoenix IMF Protests Prove Seattle Wasn't A Fluke

We haven't seen the last of those papier-mâché sea turtles

By Ben Geman

APRIL 24, 2000:  Of all the chants heard throughout the nation's capital last week, certainly the simplest and most elegant was: "Whose streets? Our streets!"

It was also true. The streets of Washington, D.C., belonged to the thousands of demonstrators who converged on the city to confront the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank on the policies that activists decry as "corporate globalization" -- the increased concentration of political and corporate wealth that critics say has created widespread social injustice. Although activists failed to shut down the IMF and World Bank meetings, they succeeded in raising public awareness about both organizations.

Those who took to the streets included anarchists, human-rights advocates, environmentalists, and people just trying to satisfy their curiosity about all this global-capitalism fuss. The belief they expressed -- that the global marketplace is out of control -- has for several years fueled smaller, lower-profile battles, such as the one that arose when the president tried to expand his power to negotiate trade deals. But it found its first large-scale American expression in Seattle last year.

Anyone still wondering whether Seattle was a fluke should stop wondering. If the Washington protests taught us anything, they taught us that something new is going on, something that's drawing a lot of young people together -- with plenty of help from the Internet and the Web, which played a crucial role in organizing both protests. And this movement isn't going anywhere.

In Seattle, the sight of protesters facing police in gas masks and riot gear was startling and new. The same sight, repeated in DC just five months later, was expected. It's hard to imagine that we've seen the last of the clashes between young activists and police. "This," chanted the protesters, "is what democracy looks like." And if they can sustain some momentum and keep the public watching, maybe it will look this way for a while.


Friday, April 14, noon

I'm in the offices of Essential Action, a progressive corporate-watchdog group founded by Ralph Nader. Robert Weissman, the nonprofit organization's 34-year-old co-director, is spinning me. And I'm buying it. Weissman, who's thin and looks a tad glum (as does Nader), is persuasive.

Here's what he says: the International Monetary Fund offers or approves loans to poor and developing countries that aren't in a position to refuse. The loans come with strings attached: to get the money, countries must promise to liberalize trade, cut social spending, privatize businesses, remove tariffs, and orient their economies toward exports. All of which can enrich the corporations investing in these countries, but not the people living there.

Haiti, for instance, saw its domestic rice industry collapse when import restrictions were dropped. "The result has been massive disruption of the rural sector," Weissman says. "It has contributed in a massive way to poverty and misery in Haiti."

The World Bank frequently bankrolls projects that uproot communities and put the environment at risk, he says. These projects, too, can benefit investors at the expense of local populations.

Weissman's progressive critique isn't actually that far from the spin put on the World Bank and the IMF by the mainstream media (with the notable exception of the Wall Street Journal) in their coverage of the IMF protests. Indeed, many newspapers seem to have adopted the protesters' bottom line that the international agencies need to change.


Friday, 4 p.m.

The Foundry United Methodist Church is home to an all-day marathon of discussions on corporate globalization. I'm outside with Kevin Danaher, a 49-year-old activist from Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based group that fights for human and economic rights. He's borrowed my reporter's notebook to sketch out a couple of pyramids connected by a series of arrows. The diagram, which takes shape quickly under his fingers, is meant to illustrate methods of grassroots development beyond those promoted by the IMF and World Bank. "Here's the first thing," says Danaher, who sports a colorful cap over his bald head and a white goatee on his chin. "You generate a lot of media attention, and the public mind gets exposed to the facts about these institutions. That's a victory right there. We've smoked 'em out to the public. These people are like Dracula. They do not like the sunshine."


Saturday, April 15, 9:30 a.m.

I am at a Starbucks in a Maryland shopping mall, just across the DC border, talking with Isabel Guerrero, the World Bank's country director for Peru, Bolivia, and Paraguay. She is drinking corporate coffee; I am eating a corporate scone. Guerrero recalls that her friends didn't like the decision she made, 18 years ago, to work for the World Bank. "When I took a job at the Bank, most of my friends were very critical of me," she says. "They said, 'How can you take a job for this organization that's imperialist?' "

Well, here's how: when Guerrero's family moved to Peru from Chile about 30 years ago, when she was 13, she was taken aback by the conditions, which were "much worse" than what she'd been used to. The desire to do something about it stuck with her. The World Bank, she says, is an agent for change in developing countries that are struggling with brutal poverty. Guerrero readily admits that the institution is not perfect. But she says that the activists' rhetoric -- neatly summed up as "more world, less bank" -- is outdated.

It is true that the World Bank has a history of imperiousness -- "having the attitude of going into a development situation and saying we know the answer," she says. It "was a very arrogant, closed institution." But under current World Bank head James Wolfensohn's leadership, much of that has changed. Shortly after his arrival at the Bank, Guerrero says, Wolfensohn came into a meeting toting a huge stack of literature critical of the organization. "He told us, 'You know what? They have a lot of good points,' " she recalls.

Evidence of the Bank's new policies, Guerrero says, is work it's doing in Peru, where bank lending will "finance the types of things that indigenous people say they want" -- such as training in eco-tourism. It all sounds worthy. But who knows how Guerrero's defense would fly with the anti-globalization crowd? She delivered it, after all, in Starbucks.


Saturday, 11:30 a.m.

A line of police in orange raincoats is blocking entrance to Florida Avenue. A few activists are milling about, some carrying hastily scribbled signs: EXCUSE THE DELAY -- STATE REPRESSION IN PROGRESS. At around 8:30 this morning, fire marshals and police raided a warehouse on the block -- a building that had been occupied by activists the previous week. Dubbed the "convergence space," the building had been used for making signs, planning strategy, training demonstrators in civil disobedience -- and building the enormous puppets that have become popular at demonstrations of this sort.

The fire department had declared the space a fire hazard -- activists were cooking with propane -- and shut the space down, trapping the puppets inside but kicking the people out. (Some, but not all, of the props were returned later). Police had also charged that materials for building Molotov cocktails were stored in the building. But these supplies -- plastic bottles and rags -- are just the sorts of things you'd expect to find among a group of people painting signs and making puppets.

At the other end of Florida Avenue, attorneys for the activists are staging an impromptu press conference to charge police with harassing the protesters. "It's a little hard to see it any other way," says Osha Neumann, one of the many attorneys working with the Mobilization for Global Justice, the coalition that organized the week of protests and educational forums. "It's an effort to prevent the exercise of symbolic speech in Washington by taking preventative action to deter and disrupt the organizing." It's hard not to agree with him. The convergence space has been occupied by activists for the past week. Are we supposed to believe it's mere coincidence that police raided the space on the eve of the weekend's protests, just when large numbers of people were starting to arrive? This doesn't even pass a laugh test.

Worse, activist Nadine Bloch says she and others recognized among the police conducting the raid "a bunch of people who had been around all week."


Saturday, 3 p.m.

Metal barricades erected by Washington police have kept protesters from the IMF and World Bank offices for the past week. But activists are finally coming face to face with IMF and World Bank personnel -- at a Jewish Community Center auditorium, where a staged debate has drawn overflow crowds. The throng trying to get in is largely young, fresh-faced, and earnest -- who but the earnest, after all, would be so frustrated by not getting to watch a showdown on international lending and development policy in person?

Which raises a question: where are all the apathetic dot-com millionaires and dot-com-millionaire wanna-bes that supposedly define this generation?


Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

On K Street, police in riot gear are keeping the public at a distance as about 600 protesters, some bystanders, and at least one Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post photographer are arrested for, um, parading without a permit. There's quite a buzz about how the police handle the arrests. Some activists wonder aloud whether the cops are trying to thin the numbers of protesters available for tomorrow, when the real action is scheduled to begin. "They are trying to get people off the street so they won't be here tomorrow," says Mike, an anarchist from Chicago, who's dressed in a black sweatshirt, with a bandanna over his face.

Indeed, activists say this mass arrest and the raid on the convergence space are little more than pre-emptive strikes by the DC police force. Witnesses say that police never offered protesters the chance to leave, even though demonstrators said they were willing to disperse in small groups. A block away, a few DC residents watch as buses filled with arrested protesters depart. "I heard [a protester say] over a bullhorn, 'Who wants to go home?' All the protesters raised their hands," says local resident Steve Velasquez. "They [the police] could have just said to disperse." On Tuesday morning, National Public Radio interviews a former Washington police officer who witnessed the arrests. He says officers didn't follow normal procedure, which would have been to block off all but one exit for protesters and give them at least two arrest warnings before beginning to cuff people. Here, all exits were blocked off, and no arrest warnings were given.

Velasquez and his companions aren't thrilled by the police presence, which they feel is excessive. "This is where we live," says Rachel Reidner, another local resident. "We feel like we are being occupied by the police."


Sunday, April 16, 5:30 a.m.

"Remember, folks, you can take your helmets off and rest your necks," says an officer to about 10 colleagues lined up behind a metal barricade. Activists, who have begun massing at different intersections, have their own concerns about bodily comfort. They're carrying rags and bandannas soaked in vinegar -- which will help fight the effects of tear gas, if it's used. Some are wearing swim goggles.

The metal barricade is one of many set up around the roughly two- to three-block perimeter that baton-wielding police have established around the meeting space of the World Bank and the IMF. Protesters are gathering around the perimeter, hoping to block the delegates from coming through. They're organized into affinity groups, autonomous clusters of up to 20 people that work together to coordinate protest actions.

Around 6 a.m., at Pennsylvania Avenue and 22nd Street, hundreds of protesters converge on the intersection and chant. "Corporate greed, we say no. IMF has got to go!" "Whose streets? Our streets!" "They say pay back, we say fight back!" Some protesters, who've obviously been practicing, lock arms in a circle and sit down. They've covered their arms with tubes, possibly PVC piping, that they've wrapped in duct tape -- protection against police batons. By 6:10, protesters have moved down to 21st Street, and a squadron of police officers has zoomed in on motorcycles. A couple of cops circle the seated protesters, and two of them roll menacingly toward an activist who is lying in the street. They stop, back up, and roll even closer, seemingly threatening to run over his legs. After a few back-and-forths, they finally stop.

By 6:30, thousands of protesters have amassed at the intersections around the meeting area. Many of these intersections are now blocked with people wearing PVC pipes or linking hands. The corner of 19th and I Streets also boasts an enormous pig puppet with a globe in its mouth, along with a sizable contingent of black-clad anarchists marching under the banner of the Revolutionary Anti-Capitalist Bloc, or Black Bloc. They wear ski masks and bandannas over their faces.


Sunday, 9:30 a.m.

On New York Avenue, a few protesters are trying to block a shuttle bus. Police shove hard at the protesters, and then several officers on horseback ride in. A few of the demonstrators try to cut through the chaos: "Nonviolent protest!" they shout. But it's too late. Police come up behind a man who's raising his hands in the peace symbol and hit him with a baton. They don't swing it like a baseball bat, but grasp both ends of the baton and violently push it forward. Within a few seconds it's over. The police retreat behind the metal barricades, and the horsemen clomp away. A couple of people are left on the ground. One man gets up and runs away, yelling.

Later in the day, at another intersection where demonstrators clashed with police, I see blood on the ground. I didn't see what happened, but I'm told police whacked a news photographer with a baton. Later, when I watch television coverage of the protests, I learn that similar bursts of violence erupted at other intersections. Although police showed restraint in most cases, I'm surprised there isn't more talk about their violence. (By early this week, activists are reporting abuse of jailed protesters, as well as other injuries sustained by protesters in clashes with police.)


Sunday, 11 a.m.

A police-car window has been smashed, apparently by a crowd of anarchists. When I come upon the scene, Vince Hedger, an activist who's come to Washington to protest peacefully, is trying to stop a black-clad anarchist from trying to steal the car radio. "It's a fucking police car," someone says by way of justification. Later, Hedger says to a couple of reporters: "This is not anarchy . . . this is inarticulate rage." Activists, he adds, should stick to nonviolent tactics: "The solution is not to do the same shit we accuse the IMF and World Bank of doing."

A little while later, I fall in with the Black Bloc anarchists. One of them, a young woman named Jet, says they're there to "raise awareness." She explains: "I came to voice my opposition against global capitalism and corporate dominance." As we march, she helps others in the Black Bloc shred an American flag.


Sunday, all day

There's a fluid and kaleidoscopic character to the protests -- each intersection is almost its own ecosystem. One might be the site of an ugly standoff between protesters and police. At another, it's a festival. Huge puppets -- grotesque caricatures of Bill Clinton and World Bank head James Wolfensohn -- exchange high-fives. Demonstrators drum, sing, and chant. There's also some absurdity: anyone who doesn't look like a protester is suspected of being a delegate and is not allowed through the human chains. I see two men get grilled about their intentions until they produce identification proving that they work for the Metro subway system.

Many of the activist-occupied intersections are part of the George Washington University campus, which lies a few blocks west of the World Bank and IMF offices. The campus location is appropriate: most of the activists with Mobilization for Global Justice seem to be of college age. Some young people I talk with are getting involved in political protest for the first time; some are veterans of other causes. Twenty-one-year-old Tina Yuen, for example, has worked on feminist issues. Student activism is growing, she says: "this whole mentality that we are a generation that does not care" is just wrong. Still, one house on campus sports a homemade sign whose sentiment is hardly political: [[Phi]][[Sigma]][[Kappa]] PRESENTS THE BEACH PARTY.


I can't quite tell how or when the finance ministers got in, but they did. Afterward, I learn that police bused them in around 5 a.m. Some, who didn't arrive until later, are blocked from entering the meetings.

Still, the activists have not shut the meeting down, as was their stated goal. There are a few reasons for that. Some people think the affinity groups were not as tightly coordinated as they could have been -- or, at least, not as tightly coordinated as they were in Seattle. And there aren't as many delegates meeting in DC as there were in Seattle, so the target was smaller -- and thus easier to miss. Late Monday afternoon, Adam Eidinger, one of the protest organizers, acknowledges that the raid on the convergence space messed things up a bit. It didn't help, either, that police seized civil-disobedience materials from a car that they stopped, and from a building that they raided earlier in the week. "You would have seen a better-organized protest on the ground if the police had not disrupted us," he says.

Still, he's satisfied that activists got their message out. So is Mike Dolan, who was one of the lead organizers of the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization. Dolan, who's with Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, another Ralph Nader-founded group, sums up the IMF protests neatly: "Big crowds, good energy, successful action." Yet Dolan acknowledges the obvious: it was a much smaller event. "It's a big success, but more symbolic than the WTO," he says. "The corporate lobbyists are not as vested in the success of this meeting as they were [with] the WTO."

Maybe not, but something crucial has been accomplished by the protests. A week ago, almost no one talked about the World Bank and the IMF. Fewer still could say what the organizations even did. That's changed. "We as organizers have an axiom: you educate people in order to organize them," Dolan says. "The larger stated objective, to educate the world about our critique of the institutions, was completely realized."


Sunday, noon

The early drizzle has given way to sunshine. I'm a few blocks from the World Bank and IMF offices; there's lots of chanting and drumming in the background. I bump into Kevin Danaher of Global Exchange. He's heading over to the legal rally on the Ellipse, where he is scheduled to make a speech. Michael Moore -- the lefty filmmaker and TV personality, not the World Trade Organization head -- is the MC.

Danaher is as energetic as he was when he sketched out the pyramids in my notebook a few days ago. I've found him to be one of the most enthusiastic and articulate of the organizers: he's so irrepressible that he can spin raps about the need to put the "life cycle" over the "money cycle" without sounding schlocky.

He's already looking beyond DC. "Now, it's Earth Day, May Day -- the carnival against capitalism. We're going to put a million into LA for the [Democratic] Convention," he says. Of course, you'd expect someone like Danaher to be pumped up after a demonstration. But after witnessing the events of the last week, I can't help thinking that even if the DC protests didn't match Seattle's in scale, they've proved that Seattle was just the beginning. I hear this sentiment expressed over and over again. Political events in America are likely to be changed for years to come by this new style of activism.

"People should come down to [the Republican] Convention and give George W. Bush a huge welcome," Danaher says. "[We're going to] tell him it's time for corporate rule to end. We've had enough."


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