The cluster of young protesters pinned against the wall of an apartment building on Third Avenue and 12th Street by a line of riot police Sunday seemed more than ready to be arrested. They linked arms and broke into the activist standard “We Shall Overcome” as the cops began cuffing and hauling away their fellow activists who’d been ambushed during an impromptu “snake march” along the sidewalks and streets of the East Village. One woman defiantly whipped out a copy of the Bill of Rights and began reading it loudly to her arresting officers. But when asked what they were protesting, or whether the march had any actual point of destination, one guy shrugged: “I honestly don’t know.”
In fact, the goal of the protest, loosely orchestrated by members of the Anti-Capitalist Convergence, was simply to reassert the right to assemble on the streets. After being herded around like cattle at the close of Saturday’s permitted and highly policed march on the World Economic Forum, folks were itching for some direct action. What they got was a military-style rout by the cops, who swarmed the area in a show of force not seen since the Tompkins Square riots of the late ’80s.
All told, more than 87 were arrested in the East Village, some brutally, even though most of the group had merely been walking or running along the sidewalks. Sixty-seven more activists were arrested later that day during an animal rights march after a protester smashed the lobby window of an apartment building where activists said the CEO of Huntington Life, an animal testing firm, resides.
These sporadic street actions stood in sharp contrast to the peaceful march of 10,000 who challenged the corporate elites. Operating on the fly, without the help of organized labor and the environmental and anti-debt groups, activists in New York nevertheless drew a surprisingly large and diverse crowd. Many of the marchers said they felt compelled to come out to defy the perception that protesting in NYC was somehow unseemly or unpatriotic at this time. “We showed it’s OK to protest again in New York,” said Steve Duncombe of Reclaim the Streets, one of the organizing groups in Another World Is Possible, a coalition of largely local student, anarchist, and direct action groups. “After 9-11, everyone was saying that the anti-globalization protest movement was dead and buried. This proved that we’re not.”
It also proved that the movement doesn’t have to rely on high-visibility confrontation. Beyond the march, the weekend included rallies, teach-ins, and debates on issues. More than 1000 students attended workshops at Columbia on everything from biopiracy by multinational corporations in the third world to organizing people’s movements here at home. Hundreds more attended a counter-summit on globalization put on by Friends of the Earth and the Berne Declaration.
Still, organizers were frustrated by the intense policing of Saturday’s march, which they say derailed their effort to be heard. Although authorities did not fence off the hotel area as they have during past global confabs, the miles of steel barricades and thousands of riot police standing or walking shoulder to shoulder with the marchers created a kind of moving frozen zone. And thousands were prevented from entering the permitted protest zone outside the Waldorf, where organizers had planned to stage a closing rally and performances. Following their pledge of zero tolerance, police also used an obscure anti-mask law to plow into the crowd and arrest those who merely looked scary. Similar snatches of masked anarchists took place throughout the day.
“We were very disturbed by some of the arrests,” said Leslie Brody, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild. “Police preemptively targeted people dressed in a manner they felt looked like they would make trouble.”
That wasn’t enough to kill off direct action. On Monday, over 200 activists gathered in front of the Sixth Avenue offices of Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm implicated in the Enron scandal. Chanting “We are Argentina—they are all Enrons,” they targeted the bankrupt energy firm and its deposed CEO Kenneth Lay as a poster boy for corporate greed.
Outnumbered by cops three to one, the activists ditched plans for nonviolent civil disobedience. “We don’t feel we have to fight the cops every time to be effective,” said Kevin Skvorak. “Our message got across, and people were happy with that.”