Converging Against Capitalism
No topic divides the globo protest movement like the diversity of tactics question. Anarchist snake marches or well-marshaled parades of opinion? A brick through a window or a seat at the table?
And while the better-coifed protesters nearly always prefer the second set of options, even they'll concede that it's the first set -- tactics intended to disrupt and piss off the cops -- that gets the headlines. The demonstrations against the IMF and World Bank last month were no exception. By the time DC rush hour was over on Friday, the first projectile had been lobbed through the window of a Citibank office. By mid-afternoon, some 650 protesters, most part of the loosely organized Anti-Capitalist Convergence, would be in jail. The U.S. anti-globalization movement was back in the headlines.
"I'm so sick of these protests," a journalist friend complained to me as we walked through Adams Morgan, a formerly diverse DC neighborhood that is now home to interns from a diverse array of non-profits. "I feel like I'm under siege," he said. To protect the neighborhood from marauding globo-kids, city workers had removed all of the trashcans for blocks; urban detritus was already piling up. Minutes later, a caravan of police cars sped by, providing a shrill, high-speed escort service to someone important.
"That must be one of the delegates," my friend said, referring to the IMF/World Bank meeting invitees who now merit as much security as Dick Cheney. "They don't like to go outside without their taxpayer-financed escorts."
While the globalization protesters did succeed in getting back in the news -- no small feat for a movement that seemed all but washed up after Sept. 11 -- they didn't rack up many points with the locals this time. With posters wheat-pasted all over downtown, the Anti-Capitalist Convergence called on demonstrators to "shut down DC."
The ACC even had an image of what the ensuing chaos would look like: a fist choking off the metro roadway system. A powerful symbol, certainly, but perhaps not the best way to grow the movement, as they say. "Peaceful demonstration is fine, but if people can't get to their jobs, its disruptive," a DC construction superintendent told the Washington Post. "They should lock them all up."
Elsewhere in the city, another group of demonstrators was handing out leaflets to passing motorists, apologizing for any disruption. The massive police force brought in from as far as Chicago wasn't charmed by such niceties. The friendly kids ended up in jail too.
Knowing they were outnumbered, the Friday protesters had a strategy to bite back at the cops: fake 911 calls intended to divert the men and women in blue to mock emergencies all over the city. A victory of sorts for those who lamented the heavy-handed tactics of the police, but also a concession to charges that the demonstrators are from elsewhere, "invaders," as my journalist friend might say. Who else would intentionally divert emergency services away from Southeastern DC, one of the most notoriously under-served communities in the country? When Public Enemy rapped that "911 is a joke," and "Now I dialed 911 a long time ago. Don't you see how late they're reactin'?" I don't think Chuck D. and Flava Flav were complaining about fake calls from globo-kids.
By Saturday, cooler heads were prevailing. There were few of what the press terms "black-clad protesters" in the crowd; most were cooling their heels in the central DC lock up. The afternoon march from the Ellipse felt more like a parade or a pageant than a political protest. Somewhere near 17th and K streets, the procession stalled and the crowd began chanting that perennial favorite: "Whose streets? Our streets!"
"I feel a little embarrassed chanting this," my marching partner confided. "They're so clearly not our streets."
All Capitalists Converge
Despite smaller than predicted crowds -- organizers estimated 20,000 participated in Saturday's march and rally; cops put the number at closer to 5,000 -- the protesters no longer represent a fringe element within political discourse. A majority of Americans would now seem to agree with the sentiment espoused by one popular poster: "Capitalism Sux."
Ralph Nader, the rally's star speaker, summed up the oddity of this particular American moment best. "It doesn't matter whether you're listening to Rush Limbaugh or Amy Goodman," Nader told the screaming crowd on the lawns of the Ellipse. "Right now everyone is saying the same thing: 'Send the corporate crooks to jail.'"
While Nader may be right, this particular crowd were all Goodman fans. The only likely Limbaugh listeners were corralled into a tiny counter protest encircled by police protectors. They stood stone-faced, holding up signs that read "Daddy Wants His Credit Card Back," "Fry Mumia," and "All Capitalists Converge" and "Hold the Tear Gas, I'm a Conservative."
"I'm more of a pro-capitalist myself," a well-dressed bystander told me. In town from Florida, he was wearing an oxford cloth shirt in pink, a favorite color among the moneyed. But when pressed, the gentleman, who makes his living as an investment manager, launched into a tirade against capitalism to rival that espoused by any of the marchers-by.
"What's happened in this country with corporate corruption is a disgrace," he told me. "These CEOs have stolen more money than they could ever spend. It's really bad." When I broached the subject of his personal money, he became glummer still. "I've lost a fortune. Everyone I know has lost money."
The months since Sept. 11 have not been kind to the U.S. anti-globalization movement. Unlike Europe, where protests against mondialisation neo-liberal have continued to attract hundreds of thousands, the ranks of the U.S. demonstrators have thinned considerably. The war is a big reason: much of the activist crowd that once denounced genetically modified food and structural adjustment has since moved onto Bush's wars. And the labor movement, nervous about the easy camaraderie between said war protesters and the globo forces, has pulled much of its support too.
But despite the absence of density on the streets, the U.S. movement now exerts more influence on the debate about globalization than ever. The famously leaderless protests have spawned a generation of savvy movement leaders who, if they don't yet have a seat at the table, are now standing close to the door. To put it bluntly, we've won, something that no less a capitalist tool than the Wall Street Journal now freely admits. "This weekend, the protesters returned," Alan Murray wrote in a recent column. "Their zeal is undiminished. But to a degree many of them still don't recognize, they have won the argument. Capitalism now has the black eye they tried so hard to give it."
The procession through the streets of DC did not have the feel of a victory march, though. And few of the protesters seem to have any idea of the depth of the despair felt by real capitalists right now.
"People are shocked," the investment manager from Florida told me. "They're holding onto stocks that are close to worthless with no end in sight. What can I tell them? Get into cash? The fact that greedy and corrupt CEOs are to blame just makes it worse. They should have a protest about that," he said, pointing to the demonstrators winding slowly by.
Maybe next time they will.
Jennifer Berkshire is a freelance writer based in Boston. Email her at email@example.com.