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Anti-Corporate Protests in Bush's Backyard

The next big globalization protests will be held in D.C. this September. While a subtext of violence permeates the planning efforts, activists expect a massive mobilization.
 
 
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Since last August's sweaty battles with the LAPD at the Democratic convention, anti-corporate protesters here in the United States have been relatively quiet, despite huge actions in Quebec, Prague, Gotesburg and most recently Genoa. But this quiet will end dramatically in late September when tens of thousands of activists will descend on Washington, D.C. to confront representatives of the IMF and World Bank who are holding a summit there.

Since the last protest in D.C. -- the half-successful attempt to shut down a World Bank meeting last April -- much has changed in the "globalization from below" movement. The organizing for this upcoming "Global Justice Week," which begins on September 24, is more mature, diverse, clear about goals and media savvy. Also, the labor movement, which came out strongly for the Seattle WTO protest but didn't participate much in subsequent actions, has made a firm committment to come heavy to D.C. (now that we have an anti-union president, labor is free to flex its political muscle without fear of jeapordizing its relationship to the White House). And highly visible demonstrations around the globe have created a renewed and powerful wave of momentum; as Robert Collier writes in the San Francisco Chronicle, the "G-8 summit [last month in Genoa] was yet more proof that the anti-globalization movement has become the biggest left-of-center force for social protest in decades."

Combine all this with the simmering anger about the 2000 election -- Fox News recently reported that 58 percent of the public is still mad about how Bush was elected -- and organizers are confident that big crowds will head to D.C.

If so, they will be building on a series of notable victories. As Sarah Ferguson of the Village Voice points out, "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." Adds Collier, "the anti-gloabalization movement's influence is apparent on Capitol Hill, where Republicans are fighting an uphill battle to renew fast track authority, which would enable Bush to negotiate international trade pacts and force Congress to vote on them without amendments."

In addition, the credibility of the World Bank and IMF is on the brink. Pressured by environmentalists, the Bank recently announced it would consider no longer funding oil, gas and mining projects.

Nevertheless, it is a very dangerous and precarious moment for the global justice movement. There seem to be two powerful, competing forces that may be doomed to clash. On the one hand, the movement has made concrete progress toward a consensus about how to push governments and undemocratic global institutions toward reform. The overall protest message seems to resound with a large majority of the population: a recent survey by the University of Maryland says many Americans think U.S. trade policy favors multinational corporations over U.S. workers, while 74 percent agree that the U.S. has a moral obligation to ensure that foreign laborers don't have to work in harsh and unsafe conditions.

However, any political progress is tempered by the overwhelming displays of police force in virtually every demonstration and the simultaneous violent escalation of certain protesters. The police reaction was most extreme in Genoa, and resulted in the first "prime time" globalization martyr -- Carlo Giuliani, the son of an Italian labor organizer, who was shot in the head by a 24-year-old rookie carbinieri. Conservative Italian President Carlo Chambi had brought in 20,000 police, which in large part contributed to 400 injured and an estimated $45 million in property damage.

Starting in Seattle, polices have established a consistent pattern of preemptive strikes against protesters. Undercover agents and provocateurs have been widely deployed, along with increased firepower and violence by police. Add to this the growing presence of the media-fetishized Black Bloc -- radicals who explicitly endorse property destruction -- and the resulting mix is explosive. Such violent confrontations threaten to undermine the nonviolent protestors' efforts to get their message out to an increasingly receptive audience.

Intense planning and organizing is underway to mitigate that threat, and to plan the events of the week. Recently, more than 70 groups met to plan their cooperative strategy. "The goal," said Simon Greer of Jobs With Justice, one of the organizers of the confab, "was to bring together many sectors of the global justice movement to see the potential to collaborate. At the same time, we wanted to secure commitments for the upcoming 'fast track' battle in Congress, and for Global Justice Week. We sought to identify common ground and develop strategies for how to build a broader and deeper global justice movement."

This time around protest organizers are much more consciously reaching out to groups in the U.S. who are affected by "structural adjustments" -- i.e., the deregulation and privatization agenda. This includes groups fighting sweatshops, particularly UNITE, the union that represents apparel workers, which plans to carry out some direct actions against clothing retailers who produce goods in sweatshop-like conditions. Also, the backlash against the privatization of health care, welfare, education and many other social services is bringing in more groups of people of color.

So far, the week-long series of public demonstrations and event is shaping up to be varied and focused at the same time. The protesters' central demands, according to John Cavanagh of the Institute for Policy Studies, are opening up the World Bank and IMF meetings; ending structural adjustment programs at home and overseas; ending World Bank funding of fossil fuel projects; and expanding debt cancellation. Other issues will also be aired, like the availability of AIDS drugs in Third World nations, (Act Up Philadelphia, considered one of the most creative protest groups, will push that issue). There will also be a Latin American Solidarity march, focusing on Plan Columbia and the continued bombing of Vieques. With the planning process in full swing, a full array of events should emerge soon.

But the best laid plans can be undermined. The question of what to do with different philosophies and styles of protest -- and the potential of violence to pull down the whole effort --- continues to bedevil organizers. On the one hand, virtually every visible, credible leader is wringing their hands, trying to figure out how to keep it all from unraveling, and insisting on the need for nonviolent protest and cooperation. Yet, tolerance for other tactics and the practice of small "d" democracy -- especially in light of huge anger engendered by massive police violence -- may drag the protests down to their lowest common denominator.

Susan George, author of nine books and one of the most visible global justice activists, articulates these tactical concerns very clearly:

The fact remains that this movement for a different kind of globalization is in danger. Either we'll be capable of exposing what the police are actually up to and manage to contain and prevent the violent methods of the few, or we risk shattering the greatest political hope in the last several decades. If we can't guarantee peaceful, creative demonstrations, workers and official trade unions won't join us; our base will slip away, and the present unity -- both trans-sectoral and trans-generational -- will crumble.

Simon Greer, of Jobs With Justice, is more upbeat: "We are working every day to build relationships and effective bridges so we can carry out non-violent, powerful demonstrations. We're working overtime to make this happen."

This preoccupation with violence is not unfounded. In preliminary meetings with D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams and Police Chief Charles Ramsey, there was little indication that the District will be hospitable to protesters and their right to free speech. In fact, one participant used the term "saber rattling" to characterize the early discussions. The D.C. police have reportedly recruiting more than 3,500 additional cops from other jurisdictions in preparation for Global Justice Week.

Meanwhile, a federal investigation recently concluded that there was a "pattern of excessive force in the D.C. police department in the 1990s," according to the Washington Post. A survey found that 15 percent of the time force was used in D.C., it was excessive, in comparison to two percent in most well-managed police squads. A Justice Department monitor has been put in place for the next five years to provide oversight for the D.C. department.

The excessive violence data is no surprise to Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, an attorney in the public-interest law firm Partnership for Civil Justice, which filed suits on behalf of demonstrators from the A16 protests. "Police are attempting to demonize protestors," she said, after attending the preliminary discussions with D.C.'s top brass. "They have a lack of understanding of constitutional rights. It's not appropriate for the state to oppress people because they don't like their ideology. Washington is the national center of our government and they should be welcoming people to express their opinions."

"I repeatedly asked for assurances that there would be no repeats of the bloody battles of last year, when there were mass arrests for peaceful activities, when arrestees were kept on buses for as long as 18 hours with no bathroom facilities, when there were illegal raids on the convergence center," added Verheyden-Hilliard. "But the [D.C. police] were unable to give assurances. In fact, they have allocated a massive $5 million for equipment just to battle protestors."

The big question is, what will the D.C. police do if the protests escalate beyond nonviolence? As Ferguson notes, the new buzz among activists 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. During A16 a compromise was struck with the Black Bloc, which for the most part stayed within the consensus guidelines for nonviolent protest. As a result, the A16 protests did not get bogged down in the property destruction that has punctuated the last five or six demonstrations in other international cities. Can organizers strike a similar balance again? Should they?

"For me, diversity of tactics is a pseudonym for not having thought through what we really believe," counters activist Terra Lawson-Remer, a founder of Student Alliance to Reform Corporations (STARC) who has been involved in a number of the demonstrations. "But nobody wants to take a stand that will be divisive. How movement leadership respond to the more extreme of the tactics will be definitive."

John Sellers, the Ruckus Society's direct-action strategist (who gained worldwide fame when the city of Philadelphia put a million dollar bail on his head for carrying a cell phone during the Republican convention) told Sarah Ferguson of the Voice, "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. It's one of the most dynamic in growth because it's so emotionally charged. But for us, Washington is about building bridges from the globalization to the social justice and union movements -- communicating a critique of how globalization functions in inner cities and poor communities. We're looking to make things compelling, dynamic and nonviolent."

Is Sellers' vision possible? That depends a lot on the Black Bloc. While it's not easy to gauge exactly what the Black Bloc thinks, a recent article submitted to AlterNet by "Mary Black," who represented herself as a Black Bloc activist (the authenticity of her communique has not been questioned), states:

We believe that destroying the property of oppressive and exploitative corporations like The Gap is an acceptable and useful protest tactic. We believe that we have the right to defend ourselves when we are in physical danger from tear gas, batons, armored personnel carriers and other law enforcement technology. We reject the idea that police should be allowed to control our actions at all.

As a protest tactic, the usefulness of property destruction is limited but important. It brings the media to the scene and it sends a message that seemingly impervious corporations are not impervious. People at the protest, and those at home watching on TV, can see that a little brick, in the hands of a motivated individual, can break down a symbolic wall. A broken window at Nike Town is not threatening to peoples' safety, but I hope it sends a message that I don't just want Nike to improve their actions, I want them to shut down and I'm not afraid to say it.

Part of these tactical divisions may break on generational lines. Blackstar, an 18-year-old anarchist from Denver, told the Voice, "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. So we don't want to be passive anymore. Those are old tactics for older times."

Like Blackstar, many Black Bloc members 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."

Contrast these young Stars with pacifists who take their model from Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The peaceful idealism of the '60s generation is vulnerable on the street, where protesting has become what Ferguson describes as "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."

Yet another problem is the extent to which security forces will go to infiltrate protests and egg them on to violence, especially in the Black Bloc. One recent, somewhat hilarious example came at a modest biotech protest march in San Diego. There were only about 1,000 marchers, but according to Sellers, there were hundreds of cops in the march -- many pretending to be in the Black Bloc.

"It was so obvious," said Sellers. "These beefy, football-player types with their brand new Nike boots -- most Black bloc types are pierced, tatooed, skinny, vegan kids. We eventually just outed them by walking alongside them with signs that had arrows that read, 'Cops.' These were the same guys hogging the TV cameras and shouting off the pigs." No doubt the very experienced Washington cops and the feds will not be so obvious.

So a lot is at stake. As George Monbiot writes in the Guardian of London, many agree that "the world would be a better place without the companies which are lobbying against action on climate change, building Bush's missile defense system, producing fragmentation grenades, demanding control over health and education services, privatizing water in third world cities then selling it back to their people at inflated prices, ripping up virgin forests, designing plants with sterile seeds ..."

... and on and on. Can these juggernauts be stopped? The momentum is there, and the increasing poll numbers seem to indicate a more supportive public. But rather than asking what it can acheive, maybe the question should be, can the huge potential of this movement be derailed by violence and infiltration? Is there room for the Black Bloc?

Stay tuned -- or head to Washington D.C. in late September to find out for yourself.