The Perils of Protest


As American flags draped across rubble and debris at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, anti-globalization activists named a few things they now fear: a crackdown on dissent; the branding as a terrorist anyone who challenges U.S. foreign policy; world war.

Because of terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., activists’ plans to demonstrate en masse against the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank on September 29 and 30 are in flux. The World Bank and IMF have canceled the meetings, citing security concerns. Some activists groups, including the International Action Center, still plan to go to D.C. and march for peace, calling for justice not vengeance. Others have pulled out, like the Mobilization for Global Justice, an umbrella organization for 100-plus groups. They will proceed, however, with plans to cosponsor the People’s Summit, an educational forum, scheduled for September 26-28.

“This event changes everything in terms of police response and how the public will receive the idea of large demonstrations,” says Stephen Duncombe, an organizer with Reclaim the Streets and a professor at New York University. “The D.C. police’s plan to erect a huge nine-foot fence was great PR for us because it showed them literally walling off democracy. Now in light of the events at the World Trade Center, it may seem like nine feet is not high enough.”

Before the September 11 attack, estimates of how many protesters would show up in D.C. ranged from 25,000 to 100,000. More important than numbers, however, was the sense among activists that their movement against corporate globalization was gaining legitimacy as more organizations pledged to hit the streets—from the National Action Network to the AFL-CIO and UNITE. Moral high ground was being steadily won as people grasped the message that World Bank and IMF policies, designed to eradicate poverty, have, in many cases, worsened it.

Then came the attacks.

Although their convictions haven’t been changed by the events of the past week, activists are carefully evaluating their next steps and reassessing their priorities. Thorny questions are being raised: Is it wise to say you are disturbed by the U.S. government’s promotion of IMF and World Bank policies when the nation has been attacked? Is it a duty or an impertinence to claim that these global financial institutions’ policies are killing people through exploitation and neglect when several thousand people (not all of them Americans) lay dead beneath the rubble of the twin towers? Is it possible to mourn and to feel loyalty to one’s country and at the same time question why America was the target—why the American government might have engendered such rage?

Meredith Kolodner, an activist with the Committee for Global Justice, thinks it’s not only legitimate but necessary to raise questions if there’s to be real dialogue. “This event,” she says, “can be used by the Bush administration and the media to stoke up a nationalistic ‘Let’s not be divided’ mentality to support George Bush as he goes off to find enemies and blow them up,” she says.

Kolodner was riding a subway train on the Manhattan Bridge when she saw the burning towers. A woman beside her said, “The U.S. has made too many enemies. If you bomb little people enough, they eventually bomb back.” Kolodner says the woman was referring, in part, to the U.S. and Britain’s perpetual bombing campaign against Iraq, which, along with economic sanctions, has made Baghdad a war zone and devastated the lives of thousands of civilians. “There is no justification for what happened [at the World Trade Center],” says Kolodner, “but if government policies create poverty throughout the world, you put your own people in danger. The U.S. is the biggest funder of IMF and World Bank programs, which put countries into debt and can cause environmental destruction, all in the name of U.S. profit.” The suicide bombers appear to be middle-class men, not the stereotypical poor, angry youths. But anti-American sentiment runs broad and deep, and no one yet knows if we are dealing with Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, or something larger, perhaps the government of Iraq.

A month ago, the ability to mobilize tens of thousands of disparate people against corporate globalization seemed impressive. Today, it may be seen as a threat to public safety. “People will think twice about going to large demonstrations because of fear about being outside in a crowd,” says Julie Carlson, codirector of the human rights project at the Urban Justice Center.

The Mobilization for Global Justice is meeting to talk about what’s next, but says it’s too soon to offer a specific plan. Neil Watkins, an organizer of their World Bank Bonds Boycott, points out, “Mass demonstrations are just one way that those of us in the global-justice movement are working for a more equitable and sustainable global economy. We will continue to educate people in the U.S. about the effects of globalization and work within the Congress to get changes in the harmful policies promoted by the IMF and World Bank.” The New York Times reported that in return for his nation’s support, Pakistan’s General Musharraf’s demands included that Washington “encourage generous treatment by the IMF and World Bank.”

Kolodner helped organize IMF and World Bank teach-ins scheduled to take place last week on 14 college campuses and community centers throughout New York City. Most were either canceled or morphed into peace vigils. At Columbia University last Wednesday evening, Laura Durkey, a 19-year-old sophomore from Baltimore, said she’d been scrambling since the start of the semester to get the word out about the teach-in. But when five or six campus progressive groups met the night of the attack, they decided a vigil for the dead and missing would be more appropriate.

Since the World Trade Center attack, there is a lot of pressure, activists say, to avoid criticizing the U.S. government or the global financial institutions it supports. Some argue that now is not the time to protest structural adjustment programs. Rather, it’s the time to urge the president not to wage war on innocent people.

“It’s important to remember that our movement is a movement against violence,” says Durkey. “We don’t want the U.S. government to exploit this situation by increasing military spending and cracking down on our movement because they think we’re terrorists or something. I don’t want to be paranoid, but I want to take this seriously.”

As the daylight dimmed and the acrid fumes from downtown roused coughs from throats of onlookers, more than 100 students gathered around the sundial in the center of Columbia’s campus. Some stood alert; others slouched against its steps. Durkey climbed up onto the center of the dial and invited each person to speak about ways to move forward with the movement or about their feelings after the attack.

Many of the students were terrified about the prospect of war and about further loss of innocent life—some defined themselves as activists, others did not. Someone called for forgiveness and peace rather than retaliation (“There are ways to bring people to justice without violence. We have an international court and we can use it”). Others debated the meaning of freedom: “People want to live as free human beings, but I don’t hear that in the rhetoric of ‘hunt and destroy.’ ” Another student countered that American freedom has always been secured by force: “We have our freedom because a certain amount of necessary violence has taken place. The Revolutionary War was not about tea.”

An Arab American activist recalled living through the 1979 Iran-hostage crisis in New York, when she was three years old: “Our car was vandalized and I cried to my mother to put the car in a garage. Today my cousin was attacked with pepper spray in his grocery store. We fear we may never be able to stand up for justice in the American streets because we are the enemy.”

A balding man stepped forward and announced that he’d protested the Vietnam War at that very sundial 30 years ago. He warned the students to learn from his generation’s mistakes: “Stop trying to find the enemy. Assert pride in being American, but offer a different definition of being American. Recognize that there’s been progress. You live better than your grandparents.”

Issues surrounding the IMF and World Bank retreated from the conversation, which seemed appropriate for the moment. Nonetheless, activists realize that the “attack on America” was also an attack on global capitalism in the most symbolic and literal ways, with the wealth represented by jumbo jets slicing through the towers that hosted hundreds of international trade companies, from Morgan Stanley to Cantor Fitzgerald. Not one activist argued that this act was justified, but there was a sense among them that American arrogance and hubris had come home to roost.

“Nobody deserves this type of violence,” says Carlson, “but it didn’t happen in a vacuum. There is a lot of history that led up to this moment. This is an attack on U.S. foreign policy and to see it any other way is myopic. Violence begets violence and we need to find a peaceable solution.”