Portrait of a Protest
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 passneither 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 swervingnot 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 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.
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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.
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 enemiesit'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."
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 enemiesit'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."
Resides New York University freshman
Raised a Methodist in a well-to-do suburb of San Francisco, Charlie Eaton "got indoctrinated" by a Marxist high-school history teacher, who explained how patterns of inequality have progressed over time. In those years, Eaton would ride his bike 15 minutes to impoverished East Oakland, where he could "relate the history of inequality throughout the world to where I live." He traveled twice to Chiapas, Mexico, to visit the Zapatista rebelsfirst to meet with sympathizers and to educate himself, then to do human rights observation work. "When the [Mexican] government makes incursions into the community, if a pasty white American like myself is there, it's less likely to conduct atrocities."
Arriving in New York for college, Eaton immediately began ratcheting up the level of campus activism around NYU's labor issues: He organized with the No Sweatshop coalition, which convinced NYU to join the Worker Rights Consortium, and helped graduate assistants in their quest to gain the right to elect a union next month. "This is radical campus democracy," says Eaton. "Instances of local empowerment like this, or like Seattle and D.C., bring more people into the movement."
Resides South Jamaica, Queens
Occupation student at Jamaica High School
Four weeks ago Paper Tiger Television, a volunteer video collective, put out a call for a teenage video producer, and Aaron Snaggs signed on. He had never heard of the IMF until someone there gave him a flier about the protests in D.C. "Then I tried to figure out what the I, the M, and the F means."
On Christmas Eve, 1995, Snaggs and his family came to the U.S. from Trinidad because his father believed there'd be more opportunities in New York, but as his interest in the issues surrounding the D.C. protest has deepened, Snaggs has concluded that "you have to learn your past to see where you're going." He recalls listening to his great-grandfather tell about the Yoruban tribe in Cameroon, where his ancestor, a king, sold slaves to the Brits and Scots. "He didn't know what he was sending them to, and when he found out he couldn't change what he had done."
Snaggs wants to return to Trinidad to film the famous carnival at Mardi Grasbut not until he's finished making a video documenting the protest in D.C. "You have to have proof to spread ideas," he says, "and this video will be the proof." Although at first he found it strange to see teenagers organizing"They usually think adults don't listen"Snaggs hopes that more will get involved, because "you never know who made the sneakers on your feet."
Occupation New School senior
She grew up with development issues "in her consciousness" but "my activism really began during the Asian economic crisis30 years of development collapsed in literally a few months," says Lilianne Heyzer-Fan. A native of Malaysia, Heyzer-Fan has lived in New York since 1995, when her mother, an executive director at the United Nations Development Fund for Women, brought her and her twin sister here for school. She still visits Malaysia, and she's now seen the instability and insecurity of an economic crisis firsthand. The government imposed sweeping austerity measures; where once she saw thriving local, independent industries, now there are "foreign corporations everywhere."
Heyzer-Fan didn't go to Seattle, but found it so inspiring that she joined in organizing Students for Solidarity and Empowerment, which now has representatives at half a dozen colleges. The group meets semiweekly to hash out their visions for a better world and to critique any demonstrations or direct action that they've been involved with. "This is such a learning experience for all of us," she says. "Whatever background you're coming from, you realize this movement is creating an alternative. For once you feel you're an agent of change." She plans to go to Malaysia this summer to figure out what kind of grassroots work needs to be done. "Development and economic growth are not the same as real human development," she says. "Human development means an expansion of choices, freedom of education, hunger, and the ability to shape one's own future."
Reverend Elizabeth Braddon
Occupation pastor, Park Slope United Methodist Church
Ever since she was ordained 25 years ago, Reverend Elizabeth Braddon has been involved in issues of peace, nuclear power, and social justice. Indeed, seeing church people playing key roles in the civil rights movement was crucial to her decision to become a minister. "I believe the combination of faith and urgency for justice keeps us moving along," the Long Island native sayswhether it comes from the Black church in the South or from Latin America's radical priests, who made the gospel a challenge to economic injustice.
What has changed most for her over the years, says Braddon, is that "I've become more global in my consciousness." Park Slope United Methodist now has a sister church in Managua, Nicaragua; Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua's former president, came to New York to speak with the congregation in 1986, and last October a few congregants went to visit his country. "We saw everything from the poorest of the poor sniffing glue to the well-stocked dinner tables of Nicaraguan assembly members."
In D.C. on April 9, several thousand people, many of them religious, formed a human chain around the Capitol building as part of Jubilee 2000's worldwide effort to convince wealthy governments to cancel the debt of impoverished nations. At the rally, Braddon, wearing a bicycle lock slung from her neck to symbolize the chains of debt, admitted that the "ignorance level" made it difficult to draw people to the protest, "but it was an important decision to come, particularly on a Sunday, a day of worship."
Occupation retired from Social Security Administration
Mace Anderson lives with his partner in his childhood home in the Wakefield section of the Bronx. They are an interracial couple, both HIV-positive, both volunteers at Riverside Church, which they joined in 1983 when the progressive firebrand William Sloane Coffin was the pastor. Anderson heard about Jubilee 2000 through Bread for the World, a lobbying organization for the poor and hungry. What disturbs him the most is that as an African American "you're at the top of the pyramid compared to my fellow Africans, who are considered the lowest of the low." Although he helped arrange for a busful of congregants from Riverside to go to D.C., he says he's had trouble getting more African Americans involved because so many other issues, like police brutality, claim their psychic energy and attention. "It's difficult to make that leap and say, 'Imagine, walking five miles for water.' People can't relate to that level of poverty."
Anderson brought his niece and brother to the Jubilee 2000 rally in D.C., which he says was "a wonderful day of community and solidarity. For the first time, I really feel part of a worldwide movement." But he grows impatient when he hears church people niggling over nuances and numbers related to world poverty. "Children are dying every day and half the GNP is paying off debt, and the other half is never making it to the people. Those are facts, so my solution is cancel the debt. Write a letter. Lobby your congressman. Pray. People take the power they have for granted."
Resides Corona, Queens
Occupation part-time student at Sarah Lawrence, part-time bookkeeper
Luna Villota says that at 14, she cried when the American flag was burned on TV. Although she was raised in Queens, her family is from Ecuador, and when she refused to speak Spanish, she was sent there for a summer to learn. "There was massive poverty and unemployment. Revolutionaries took me to the countryside and said, 'This is what the U.S. does.' " By the end of that summer, she identified herself as a communist. Her relatives have since sent her letters testifying to the skyrocketing prices and the difficulty of finding work. "My family there is affected by IMF and World Bank policies. This is what I'm fighting for," she says, although she now identifies more with Foucault and anarchism than communism.
Villota had stopped doing political work by the time Seattle happened. Emboldened by the unleashing of a global movement, however, she got in touch with Direct Action Network (DAN), one of the principal organizers for Seattle and D.C. DAN's structure is nonhierarchical, with decisions made by consensus and "not about power trips." Villota is one of the few people of color at the weekly meetings, and although the movement has been criticized for being too white, she is committed to "bringing all this knowledge that I get from DAN to people of color and teaching about the values of anarchismto not depend on the state to solve our problems. I think people of color settle for less because they've gotten so used to having so little." After D.C., she hopes DAN's focus will be directed toward police-brutality issues.
Resides Oakland, California
"I was raised by democratic socialists who believed in electoral politics," says Sascha Scatter, "but my political education happened amidst the Tompkins Square riots of the late '80s." After finding a community among anarchist squatters on the Lower East Side, Scatter decided to forgo college and became obsessed with riding freight trains. The details of his wanderings across the country and through Mexico often end up in one of his zines, which combine adventure-travel tales with thoughtful observations about the global economy. Now, after a life as a "mangled" New York City kid and hobo, he has learned how to farm organically and is starting up a community seed library for local gardeners in San Francisco's East Bay area.
Scatter organized "tactical communications" in Seattle for two weeks prior to the protests. He was tear-gassed seven times. His mission in D.C.: Guerrilla gardeningactivists planted trees, vegetables, and flowers on abandoned lots and lawns. His point: self-sufficiency. As Scatter sees it, there's plenty of foodit just doesn't get to the people who need it. Multinationals take over land and create a "monoculture of fields," like cities filled with corporate chain stores. "If you look at the history of agriculture and the World Bank, they continually try to give technological solutions to problems fundamentally political and sociological," Scatter says. "In this day and age, growing your own food and saving your own seeds has become a revolutionary act."
Resides Mount Vernon, New York
Occupation president of Local 5919, United Steelworkers of America
At Belmont Metal in Brooklyn, machinists like Petion Vertilus make parts for trains, warships, airplanes, and the like, which are shipped all over the world. Many of the workers are Haitian American, and they're concerned about seeing their jobs shipped abroad. Vertilus was never involved in anything political until 1991, when Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the popularly elected president of Haiti, was ousted by military coup and the U.S. government looked the other way. He joined the movement demanding U.S. support for Aristide's return to power. "America always tries to put Haiti down because it's poor," he contends. Recently he's been angered by police killings of unarmed Black men; he believes the acquittal of the officers who shot Amadou Diallo is unjust, and he attended the protests over the shooting death of Patrick Dorismond.
Vertilus went to D.C. to urge senators and representatives to vote against opening up trade relations with China. "We have enough people here to do the work," he says, and he's concerned about his and his children's futures. The labor rally on April 12 "was hot"the Teamsters had brought 10 to 15 trailer trucks with music, and Vertilus wasimpressed with how well organized everything was. He distributed fliers that read "Don't give China a blank check," and the next day he made the rounds to the offices of senators Schumer, Moynihan, Kennedy, and others to leave notes in their mes-sage books saying "vote no to trade with China." "Now, when I feel anything is an injustice and negative," says Vertilus, "I will be there until God will stop me."
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