Portrait of a Protest

Taking globalization personally: Nine New Yorkers say what moved them to march on the IMF

 WASHINGTON, D.C.—They move in synchronized waves: Lines of protesters against the International Monetary Fund stride toward an appointed intersection, link arms, and allow no one to pass—neither IMF delegate nor passerby. Others tie colored string from lamppost to lamppost, spinning weblike barricades that hold back police cars and delegates' buses. Some roam on bike or foot, often with cell phones, deploying messages and news to each intersection: We need people at 18th and K streets; police are using pepper spray at 14th and I. Still more provide the good vibes: guerrilla theater, anarchist marching bands, capoeira dancers, radical cheerleaders, and the beloved puppet parades. Everything's a drum: No Parking signs, newpaper boxes, dumpsters. The sense is of bodies moving in lines and circles, atoms swerving—not randomly but guided by a collective conscience.

The protests began April 9 with Jubilee 2000's rally for debt cancellation for the most impoverished nations. By midweek, workers wearing baseball caps with their union logos had arrived to fight against permanent normal trade relations with China. Over the course of the week, demonstrators scrawled their nicknames for the IMF in colored chalk and black spray paint on Washington's walls and sidewalks: International Mother Fuckers, International Misery Feeder, International Mullet Frenzy, Imperial Manipulative Fund.

By the weekend there were 10,000 protesters, mostly young, in Washington, D.C. They were clad in cargo pants, rain slickers, and bandannas (some shielding their faces Zapatista-style); some wore dreadlocks or simple ponytails. Many had inked emergency phone numbers on their arms. They could choose to participate in either the legal anti-IMF rally at the Ellipse or in the illegal direct-action IMF shutdown on April 16. On Saturday the 15th the police and fire marshals raided and closed the "convergence center," a warehouse set up by activists to disseminate information and provide nonviolence, legal, and medical training. That afternoon as many as 600 people were arrested while peacefully demonstrating against the prison-industrial complex. On the 17th another 500 were arrested, piled onto schoolbuses, plastic handcuffs binding their wrists.

"The people united cannot be divided": D.C. protesters form a human chain.
"The people united cannot be divided": D.C. protesters form a human chain.

The direct action is mostly nonconfrontational, with the occasional exception: A few police on motorcycles encircle demonstrators, then grind their bikes' front wheels between the defiant protesters' legs when they refuse to move. Elsewhere, protesters pick up a fence from a construction site and charge the police; the response is some pepper spray, some bloodied heads. There is agitation and distress, but most continue to chant for nonviolence. Overhead the chop-chop of police helicopters melds with the chimes of Palm Sunday church bells.

By late Sunday afternoon the protesters chant "This is what victory looks like." The nonviolent occupation of the nation's capital gets their message out on every major news channel and newspaper: Reform or abolish the IMF and World Bank; people and earth first, profits later. Thousands of activists converged, and those from the illegal and the legal rallies blended into one long snake of a parade. Many said they were now convinced that Seattle had sparked "a values revolution," in which those who fight third-world poverty, those who work for the health of the planet, and those who see sweatshops as a menace to workers worldwide stand together. Although they were mostly white and young, other groups were there: "raging grannies from Seattle," Native Americans, Black farmers, Kurdish freedom fighters.

Before the rally, the Voice interviewed New Yorkers who were going to D.C. Here, nine of them explain how they got involved in these complicated issues, and why they care.

Thomas Barton
Age fiftysomething
Resides Manhattan
Occupation hospital worker

A member of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, and of the International Socialist Organization, Thomas Barton is a third-generation union activist: His grandfather belonged to the Industrial Workers of the World in Indiana, an uncle helped form a United Auto Workers local in Wisconsin, and another, called "Red," was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Barton himself has been involved in everything from publishing an anti-Vietnam War newspaper to arguing in D.C. this past week that Chinese sweatshop workers and prison inmates are not the enemies of organized labor, but rather its allies. As he puts it: "It's not the workers who are our enemies—it's the same class of rich people that run both the U.S. and China."

Barton sees the anti-IMF protests as a return, in part, to labor's roots. In its early days, organized labor challenged industrial kingpins like the Carnegies and Rockefellers for better wages, job security, and safer working conditions, but once labor had succeeded in becoming part of the system, it muted its criticism of the powers that be. Only in the last few years, as factories have moved abroad and the NAFTA treaty was signed, has labor revitalized itself and begun to challenge global capitalism run amok. "The market-economy-Thatcher-Reagan-piss-on-the-poor [attitude] isn't flying anymore," says Barton, who points to his own local union president, Helen Green, as an example. "She tells city workers that they have to fight instead of the old Stanley Hill [the disgraced president of the city workers' DC 37] line about how there's nothing we can do and how lucky you are to have a job."

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