News & Politics

The Antiglobalization Movement Gets Global

Whither the antiglobalization movement? After last week's protests in Prague, where the news media focused almost exclusively on a few rock-throwing anarchists, the movement is again mired in police brutality scandals. Still, there are signs that activists are starting to have real effects on the IMF and World Bank.
If you were watching news coverage of the protests in Prague the other week, then what you probably saw were bleeding cops, Molotov cocktail-throwing anarchists and thousands of youthful radicals in a disorganized protest. But the truth was far from those images. Although violence did break out among some demonstrators and up to 55 Czech cops did get injured, the protests organized by the Initiative against Economic Globalization in Prague (INPEG) were largely nonviolent and successful.

Come September 26, 10,000 protesters from practically every major city in Europe and North America gathered in the city of spires. Black-clad anarchists from Bristol could be seen rubbing shoulders with Slovak environmentalists. Members of the Italian group Ya Basta!, which takes its name from its support of the Zapatista revolutionaries, could be found marching in matching white fire suits, followed by Greek workers in red bandanas carrying flags with the hammer and sickle. There were Canadians and Americans, Swedes and Poles. And their target was the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- the two international lending institutions which were holding their 55th annual meetings in Prague and which protesters insist have increased world poverty, wrought environmental damage and sought to make the world over in terms that best suit the United States.

Franz Kafka was the true host of last week's events. His ghostly presence loomed over the sea of 12,000 dark-suited bureaucrats, bankers and politicians who had gathered in a meeting hall intended for apparatchiks of the Communist Party. Surely the author of The Castle would have appreciated that the financial elite were forced to share the same medieval city with a gang of postmodern flower children. He also would have been amused by the presence of hundreds of representatives of non-governmental organizations -- environmentalists, human rights activists and church leaders -- who had made a pilgrimage to Prague to denounce the Bank and the Fund. I am certain the Czech misanthrope was present when David Hawley, a spokesman for the International Monetary Fund, announced in perfect bureaucratese that the meetings were closing ahead of time. "They moved more quickly than anticipated," said Hawley. "It has nothing to do with protesters."

But the protesters knew better. They had pulled off much of what they intended: disruption of the Bank meetings and a media spotlight, however weak, on the darker sides of globalization. "We have continued the spirit of Seattle," said Scott Codey, an American organizer with INPEG. "The atmosphere was positive, celebratory. Thousands of people from all over the world shared their views on antiglobalization."

However there was much not to celebrate in Prague. After dozens of demonstrators broke through police barricades and got within yards of the bankers' meeting hall for a one-hour battle with cops, and after protesters were covered in tear gas after the more radical types smashed storefront windows in the Wenceslas Square neighborhood, Czech police abandoned the restraint that had been so admirable the first day of the protests. Come the second day, the 11,000-member force rounded up activists for no apparent reason and put them in jail. There things got decidedly worse. Among the 859 protesters in jail, many were denied food, water and phone calls. In numerous cases, they were severely beaten. Reports were flooding in of broken limbs and ribs, black eyes and other kinds of abuse. Suddenly, the benign image of the fledgling Czech democracy had endured some serious tarnishing.

"I was pleasantly surprised by the professionalism of the police at first," said Marek Vesely, a legal observer with Citizens Legal Watch, a Czech nonprofit. "But it seems that the emotions repressed were released elsewhere." In addition to investigating a range of human rights violations, Citizens Legal Watch is tying to determine if police provocateurs urged on the crowds and -- as was widely rumored -- if the FBI provided names of those activists who were not allowed to cross the Czech border.

With almost a tenth of their number in jail, Prague activists spent the latter part of their stay in Prague protesting not the IMF and the World Bank but the Czech police system. It was not unlike Seattle, Washington, D.C, Philadelphia or L.A. But there was an increased sense that violent protest -- and police brutality -- can no longer take center stage of anticapitalist demonstrations.

"If we're really serious about doing an action," said Tedd Cain, an INPEG activist from Chicago, "then we need to make certain there are de-escalation teams, people who are responsible for breaking up the violence." Other activists were not so sure of this possibility. They talked about different traditions of protest, particularly those of Europeans, some of whom see violence as a means toward radical reform. "You cannot control who comes to the protests," said Scott Codey.

What activists uniformly would like to control is their media presentation. They are deeply frustrated the press describes them as ignorant and rebellious simply because of their youth. Also among activist frustrations is the way the term antiglobalization is used against them. Activists argue they are not against the benefits of globalization: speedy travel, mass communications and quick dissemination of information (especially through the Internet, which is a key weapon in the activist arsenal.) "We have a fleet of messenger pigeons and we'll be using them in the next protest," joked INPEG organizer Patrick Twomey in reference to the usual Luddite accusations.

Rather activists say they seek to get out a complex message: that multinational corporations and the institutions that support them (the WTO, the World Bank, the IMF and many a Western government) are causing vast economic imbalances between rich and poor and tremendous third world debt. They are anticapitalists not because they are against private business but because they believe capitalism has gone too far.

It is unclear what the reactions to the Prague protests will be. Certainly, many in the United States are horrified by protesters' brawls with Czech police and the $2.5 million in property damage Prague incurred. But among the financial elite there are signs that opinions about economic globalization are changing. Even before the Prague protests Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, acknowledged there is a "deep-seated antipathy toward free market competition." And the day after protests sent delegates scurrying to the safety of their hotels, World Bank President James Wolfensohn told an audience of central bankers, finance ministers and financiers: "Outside these walls, young people are demonstrating against globalization. I believe deeply that many of them are asking legitimate questions, and I embrace the commitment of a new generation to fight poverty. I share their passion and their questioning."

Whether or not Wolfensohn's statement is the stuff of empty rhetoric remains to be seen. But what is clear is that the World Bank, largely because of Wolfensohnn, is taking steps toward reform. In the Bank's World Development Report 2000/2001 the focus was on reducing poverty not only through macroeconomic restructuring but also through attention to health, environmental and educational issues. This is what the NGO community has been advocating for over 30 years. And though very few Bank critics felt change was happening quick enough, 350 of them were permitted to attend this year's annual meetings (as opposed to the two NGOs who were let in five years ago).

As for the International Monetary Fund's declarations of reform -- encapsulated by IMF Managing Director Horst Kohler who said "we need to make the globalization work for the benefit of all" -- the response among institutionalized activists was generally bleary-eyed. Ryan Hunter, who works for Friends of the Earth, Slovakia, told me, "We cannot do needed environmental research because the IMF refuses documents on its Slovakian programs, even though the Slovakian government has written to Kohler in support of our request." Unlike the World Bank, which has begun to make some documents available for public scrunity, the IMF remains an institution with zero transparency.

Whither the antiglobalization movement? you might ask at this point. Will it continue to hopscotch from protest to protest? Will it remain mired in police brutality scandals that shed harsh light on the limits of civil disobedience? The best answer I heard was from an environmental activist from Seattle. "I think many people from many international communities will go back home and organize against corporate power and corporate control," said Robin Denburg. "Prague has created connections that we can use to organize ourselves."
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