First Tear Gas, Now Bullets
Hannes Westberg, 19, has spent the past few weeks in a hospital bed in Gothenburg, Sweden, the victim of panicked cops who fired live ammunition into a crowd of anti-globalization protesters during the June European Union summit. The son of a renowned Swedish physician and anti-nuclear activist, Westberg was one of three youths hit; he lost his spleen and a kidney.
That same month, police in Papua New Guinea shot 17 university studentskilling threewho were peacefully dispersing a demonstration against the World Bank and IMF. These shootings have significantly upped the ante in the escalating war between police and protesters at global summits. "It's definitely a wake-up call," says Eric Laursen of the New York City Direct Action Network, which has been staging weekly vigils outside the Swedish and Papua New Guinea consulates. "People have to realize that these are international protests, and that there were Americans in Gothenburg who could have been shot, too."
While many activists feel galvanized by the repressive policing, others question whether the level of street combat at recent events has gone too far. They fear the violence from small factions of militantsgreatly amplified by the mediaplays to police efforts to demonize the movement, while obscuring its pro-democracy aims.
In Genoa this week, authorities have responded with near hysteria to the 100,000 demonstrators expected to descend on the ancient Italian port city during the meeting of the G8the seven richest nations plus Russia. A missile defense system has been installed to guard against airborne attacks (there've been rumors of an assassination plot on President Bush by Osama bin Laden), and more than 18,000 police and paramilitary troops have been mobilized in one of the biggest security buildups in the country's postwar history. The airport, train stations, and access roads will be shut down and the center city blockaded with armored trucks. That hasn't daunted the militant anarchists of Italy's Tute Bianche (White Overalls) movement, whose members are plotting a mixture of seaborne assaults and medieval-style attacks using battering rams and catapults to launch dead fish and paint bombs at police.
The mere threat of mass demonstrations has succeeded in putting the global elites on the run. Last month the World Bank decided to hold its June meeting over the Internet rather than risk a tear-gas-soaked riot in Barcelona. (Thousands turned out anyway, resulting in violent clashes when police stormed the crowd.) And with few places willing to endure another "Battle of Seattle," the World Trade Organization is hosting its November ministerial in Qatara repressive monarchy where street protest is illegal.
But disrupting the pageantry of trade summits is one thing; building a broad-based, enduring campaign against global inequity and the abuses of corporate power is another. Though the vast majority of protesters remain nonviolent, in Europe at least, the violence of a few threatens to alienate the public at large. Covering Sweden, the press was more outraged by the rowdy "mobs" who tore up cobblestones and set café chairs ablaze than by the cops who lost control. Mainstream groups like the U.K.'s Drop the Debt considered pulling out of this week's actions in Genoa because of the prospect of further violence between police and protesters there.
"All this whiz-bang of tear gas and rubber bullets diverts the public's mind from what's at stake," says Kevin Danaher of Global Exchange. "We're losing the substance of our critique. If anything, we need to be superdisciplined. The movement is still trying to work out how we police ourselves."
With confrontations ranging from dangerous to comic, imposing order may be impossible. In Prague, during the IMF and World Bank meeting last fall, police were set aflame with molotovs. This spring in Quebec City, the violence at the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas summit was more a defensive, even sardonic, measure. Cops were hammered with everything from snowballs and teddy bears to chunks of concrete, pool cues, slingshot marbles, and a couple of flaming Christmas trees.
Carolyn Bninski, 51, of the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center in Boulder, watched from a hotel room as riot police advanced on a crowd gathered round a bonfire in the middle of a downtown Quebec City thoroughfare. "I'm fully committed to overturning the FTAA and the economic oppression that lies behind it, but I want to do it nonviolently," said Bninski, as skirmishes broke out below. "To me, nonviolence is not a strategy or a tactic; it's a philosophy. It's about being willing to take on suffering so that people will be won over to the righteousness of your cause."
At the word suffering, Blackstar, an 18-year-old anarchist from Denver, grimaced. "People between 16 and 22 years old are pissed off as hell because in 15 to 20 years, the planet is going to be a fucking wasteland," he said. "So we don't want to be passive anymore. Those are old tactics for older times."
Their late-night exchange shows the difficulty this still congealing movement has in forging a coherent strategy of mass protest. At one pole are pacifists like Bninski, veterans of the anti-nuke and Central America solidarity efforts, who take their model from Gandhi and Martin Luther King. At the other are a small but increasingly visible group of radicals who believe that militant confrontationseverything from smashing Starbucks to chucking rocks at police lineswork.
Like Blackstar many come from a generation that has never seen nonviolent protest achieve real change. "Fear is a very important thing," says Rockstar, a 22-year-old anarchist from New York. "It's all we have in terms of power leverage. We don't have money to buy our politicians. If you don't have money, that's all you have."
Veteran activists argue fear alone can't sustain a causeor even get a message across. "The militant fringe of the movement that's willing to engage in public acts of vandalism or scrap in the streets has done an amazing PR job," says John Sellers of the Ruckus Society, a direct-action training group. "It's one of the most dynamic in growth because it's so emotionally charged.
"But since Seattle, we still have to slow down and talk about what we're fighting for, and what does our victory look like," Sellers adds. "That vision has to inform what we do. Do we want to build a movement that's about throwing chunks of cement and then celebrating when we take a cop out? Or a movement that has respect for life, and that represents a moral and ethical high ground to the violence perpetrated by the state?"
Such idealism is vulnerable on the street, where protesting has become a kind of extreme sport, requiring ever more elaborate uniforms of protective gear, training in tear-gas survival and scaling walls, cell-phone-wielding communication teams, and an army of street medics to treat the wounded. In Quebec, kids joked that instead of forming anarchist soccer leagues they ought to take up lacrosse to boost their skill in volleying back gas canisters at the next showdown. After the April summit, Sports Illustrated ran a photo of a protester whacking a gas canister with a hockey sticka rather worrisome editorial wink.
As a rite of passage, summit hopping has become chic. Trumping protesters' ire, the Gap has begun hawking its jeans in window displays that feature anarchist flags and slogans like "Freedom" and "We the People" in fake black spray paint. Similarly, Apple is using the image of young militants waving red flags in a new "Think Different" ad, and Lipton is running an iced-tea commercial that spoofs on activists getting blasted with water cannons.
You can't blame the corporations for seeking to co-opt anti-corporate rage. "The violence has become almost ritualized," says Mike Roselle, a forest advocate for Greenpeace who founded the Ruckus Society and helped start Earth First! "People aren't that freaked out by someone breaking a Gap window anymore. They're not blaming provocateurs. They know this is a serious grassroots uprising that spans leftists, environmentalists, labor, and students, and that people are not afraid to keep coming back for more."
Perhaps more surprising than the nearly 5000 tear gas canisters that police fired at demonstrators in Quebec was the willingness of the crowds to hold their ground. By the second day, it wasn't just black-clad anarchists and nihilist street kids dashing into the fray to hurl back the fuming, red-hot canisters, but ordinary college kids, angry locals, even a mother with a child on her back, incensed that the cops had fired into her group of peaceful demonstrators. The summit became a lesson in how indiscriminate force can radicalize a movement. "The cops basically just inoculated a whole new generation of kids who aren't afraid of tear gas anymore," says Danaher of Global Exchange.
Yet there's a danger in getting caught up in these protests as a form of abstract guerrilla theater, divorced from the real consequences of globalization. Or the consequences to yourself. Eric Laferriere, a protester in Quebec, was hit in the neck by a plastic bullet and underwent an emergency tracheotomy. He left the "Carnival Against Capitalism" with a six-inch metal tube in his throat. And with authorities now targeting activists as the new domestic "terrorists," protesters who engage in more militant actions could well get stiff jail terms. A judge in Eugene, Oregon, recently sentenced a young member of the Earth Liberation Front to more than 22 years for his role in setting fire to three SUVs and in the attempted arson of an oil truck.
The heightened level of street combat isn't likely to cool off any time soon. Some anarchists are looking to launch a campaign of chaos in Washington, D.C., during the September meeting of the IMF and World Bank. An Internet call for a militant Black Bloc action reads, in part: "We will not rest until every last bank has been burned, till the memory of banks has been erased from our world."
While it's hard to take such claims seriously, the old ground rules of protest are changing. Demonstrators are increasingly reluctant to denounce people who engage in vandalism or fight with cops, for fear of splitting the movement into "good" and "bad" protesters. And they share a creeping sense that the cops will behave violently no matter what activists do. "The police are leaving less and less room for nonviolent protesters to get their message across through traditional civil disobedience," says Laursen of the Direct Action Network.
"It's really hard to say all we're going to do is lock ourselves down in an intersection if the police are going to use a lot of violence against us."
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 criticsincluding a Nobel Prize-winning economistquestion 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 globalizationpoor 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."
During the FTAA protests in Quebec, there were over 80 rallies, marches, and direct actions across North America, including nonviolent blockades at the U.S.-Canadian border in northern Washington and Buffalo, New York. Activists also marched from San Ysidro to Tijuana in an effort to draw parallels between the job losses in the U.S. and the environmental and social squalor brought by the spread of maquiladoras in Mexico. While these demonstrations don't have the international splash of large summit protests, they put the injustices of globalization on people's doorsteps.
The protests surrounding the WTO's November meeting may present the first real test of whether the fervor of mass actions can be achieved on a local scale. Already, activists in New York are scheming to blockade the New York Stock Exchange as part of a global day of teach-ins and actions against corporations and financial institutions.
"I think Qatar will start to spell a different way of doing things," says Tony Clark of the Polaris Institute, a progressive think tank in Canada. "There's no opportunity for a mass demonstration. So that will compel people to decentralize and regionalize their actions. And I think that's better for the movement in the long run. Unless we do develop a broader, more decentralized movement, we won't be able to build the momentum to turn things like the FTAA and the WTO around."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.