First Tear Gas, Now Bullets

Activists Weigh the Cost of Confrontation

The new buzz is about "diversity of tactics"—delineating zones of protest for different levels of confrontation with police. This anything-goes approach fits with the ideal of maintaining an openly democratic, nonhierarchical movement. But in practice, such an open-ended strategy can easily allow for more aggressive tendencies to hold sway.

Organizers in Quebec tried to set aside green zones for festive, nonviolent protest, a yellow zone for "defensive" nonviolence, and a red zone for "high risk" actions. But they quickly changed color with the level of police response. By the end of the first night, the streets were a surreal collage of heated battles interspersed with throbbing techno jams, street fires, and om-ing peace circles, all enveloped in clouds of noxious gas. In fact, the protests in Quebec were as militant as they were because more peaceful groups ceded turf, rather than try to carry out nonviolent civil disobedience within the diversity of tactics model. Quebec union leaders chose to direct the massive "People's March" of up to 50,000 people to a coliseum parking lot miles away to avoid mixing it up with anti-capitalists who were intent on tearing down the fence erected to seal off the summit in the upper portion of town. That decision frustrated many rank-and-file members, who later donned scarves to brave the gas-soaked bluffs.

"A lot of our members were appalled by what the police were doing, and wanted to show their opposition in a more meaningful way," says Catherine Louli, a media rep for the Canadian Union of Public Employees. "But the question is, If we were to stake out a piece of that fence for a nonviolent direct action, would we have been able to carry it through? How would other groups react if in our action, peace officers will subdue someone who throws rocks at police? I'm all for 'diversity of tactics,' but it has to be a two-way street."

For some, the whole concept is just too freewheeling. "If a movement is going to win over a majority of the population, it's got to show that it has responsibility," says George Lakey of the Quaker-based group Training for Change. "These global collisions are vague because there are no precise goals. There's hardly a framework for even thinking about long-term strategy and building allies amid all the focus on tactics and police violence."

Lakey has a point. Rather than debating whether property damage is "violent," activists need to focus on whether it supports their larger aims. The problem has been how to formulate clear goals in such a sprawling movement, with some groups seeking to reform institutions like the IMF, and others looking to abolish them altogether. But points of consensus are emerging. In D.C. this fall, instead of focusing so much on shutting down the IMF and World Bank meetings, activists with Mobilization for Global Justice (an umbrella group that spans labor, environmental, student, religious and direct-action groups) are uniting around central demands such as debt cancellation for impoverished countries and opening these private meetings to public scrutiny.

"The shutdown calls worked to bring people together for the earlier mobilizations, and to draw attention to these global institutions, which weren't really on the radar screens of most Americans," says organizer Nadine Bloch. "But now we want to be clear on what we're asking for, and focus on alternatives to show that we're not anti-globalization, but anti-corporatization."

Despite the tension between confrontational and nonviolent factions, demonstrators have managed to shift the terms of discussion for economic liberalization. In the U.S. Congress, there's far more consensus, particularly among Democrats, that new trade agreements must have stricter labor and environmental standards than were included in NAFTA. The credibility of the World Bank and IMF is on the brink as a growing host of critics—including a Nobel Prize-winning economist—question the ability of these institutions to alleviate poverty. Pressured by environmentalists, the bank recently announced it would consider no longer funding oil, gas, and mining projects.

More importantly, the general public has begun to agree with the demonstrators' politics. According to a recent survey by the University of Maryland, most Americans think U.S. trade policy favors multinational corporations over the concerns of U.S. workers, and 74 percent said the U.S. has a moral obligation to ensure that foreign laborers don't have to work in harsh and unsafe conditions.


Faced with an escalating tide of mass arrests, border closures, and the likelihood of getting seriously maimed by the expanding arsenal of "non-lethal" police weaponry, protesters have begun to question whether mobilizing large-scale demos is, in the long run, sustainable. Summit hopping remains a rather privileged exercise, and there's a limit to the number of people eager to endure tear gas for causes that may seem divorced from their everyday lives.

That's why more activists are choosing to focus on the local impacts of globalization. "One of the problems of these summit protests is they've been showcases for young white activists, and not those who are most affected by the policies they're demonstrating against," says Jia Ching Chen, of the San Francisco group JustAct, which organizes youth activists of color. "We can't change the system unless (we find) ways to involve the people who are actually feeling the impacts of globalization—poor people and people of color who don't have the resources and can't take the risk of going to some big protest where they might get arrested."

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