Photo by Khue Bui, AP/Wide World
WASHINGTON — “Brothers and sisters! We’ve already won the Battle of Washington,” said Lori Wallach, head of Ralph Nader’s Global Trade Watch, to a teach-in of 1,500 people last Friday night — two days before the street skirmishes began. “Now, all that is left is the mopping-up operation.”
Before a single demonstrator even took to the street during last Sunday’s much-heralded A 16 showdown against the meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, Wallach could make her boast, because the publicity and dialogue generated around these two normally obscure institutions of global finance had reached unprecedented proportions.
Now, two days of hot protest, 1,300 arrests and metric yards of good expository newspaper copy later, the decisive victory can be claimed. Ten, 15, maybe 20 thousand determined and delightfully young protesters have forced the officials of the IMF/WB into a never-before-seen political retreat: an avalanche of statements and communiqués promising more accountability, more sensitivity, more attention to the needs of the Global South — the impoverished nations that the protesters claim are the prime victims of these two international agencies.
Of course, it’s a feint. “This is mere evasion, but still significant progress in tearing down the façade of the official consensus,” says author William Greider, an early chronicler of the global economy. “The fact is, nothing like this has happened before in my memory — a strong and confident protest aimed at institutions that are quite obscure to most Americans. The officials are used to hearing rage and scorn from poor countries but not from the capital of capitalism. Americans, much more than others in the world, are in need of education, and this event advances that project.”
Not too shabby a follow-up after the earth-rattling showdown in Seattle last winter around the World Trade Organization. Irony or not, just at a time when the dot-com consensus of the permanent boom seems to be crashing, anxious Americans are in the streets — for the second time since Thanksgiving — protesting the inequities of global capitalism and international trade. Roll over, Francis Fukuyama.
Whose Streets? Our Streets!
A 16 was hastily organized in the electric aftermath of Seattle. The exuberance and exhilaration coming out of the anti-WTO protests seemingly just had to find another, quick and equally dramatic expression. The young activists of the leaderless and amorphous Direct Action Network (DAN) — the street soldiers of Seattle — soon set their sights on the annual meeting of the IMF/WB, an ordinarily prosaic confab that traditionally drew no more than a few dozen dogged demonstrators and picketers.
Some Seattle veterans quietly objected. That awesome student-worker-environmental alliance — that marriage of Teamsters and Turtles — forged in the anti-WTO demos, they said, could not be reassembled in Washington. Organized labor, they argued correctly, was, plain and simple, not going to sign on to sitting in the streets and getting arrested over something as obscure as the austere structural-adjustment programs of the IMF. But DAN persisted.
And as the protests finally unfolded this past weekend, the differences between Seattle and D.C. were, in fact, immediately evident. Where youth and students made up maybe half the marching contingents in Seattle, here they were the virtual totality.
As a drizzly dawn broke over the streets of Washington on Sunday, April 16, conspicuously missing from the ranks of the protesters were the satiny red jackets of the Steelworkers, the blue-and-gold of the Teamsters, the black-and-white of the Auto Workers or the sea-green logos of unionized public employees. Instead, the streets filled, as one DAN organizer affectionately called it, with the “crème de la grunge.” Or to quote one Washington Post stylist, an ocean of kids all dressed “in generic lint-colored clothes.”
And yet, brimming with pluck and tenacity, these students from Berkeley to Evergreen State, from U.T. to UVA — many of them seasoned veterans of the anti-sweatshop wars — marched and danced under their magnificent giant papier-mâché puppets. A towering 20-foot shining and smiling sun, its outstretched arms carried aloft by squads of marchers, gave the lie to the corporate spin that these kids were some sort of flat-earth deniers of the world community: Its emblazoned slogan proclaimed boldly, “Globalize Liberation.”
“Less Bank! More World!” the activists chanted as — in the early-morning hours — they systematically and peacefully occupied the 18 intersections that surround the IMF/WB complex. Yes, the police and the 16 other law-enforcement agencies that have jurisdiction in D.C. ä had gotten there first and set up barricade fences and a heavily armed perimeter at times bolstered by armed personnel carriers. And, yes, the authorities had roused the finance ministers and delegates of the IMF at 4:30 in the morning so they could be bused under armed guard and through underground tunnels into the besieged meeting. And, yes, the ultraegalitarian, no-leader ethos of DAN sometimes seemed to melt in rudderlessness.
But no matter. DAN, and other organizations, had divided the city up into 14 different “slices of the pie,” and each separate face-to-face affinity group took up its assigned position. So-called “action elves” — some called them “vibe monitors” — made the rounds bringing water and succor to the protesters. Chartreuse-capped legal monitors, notebooks in hand, kept a steely eye on the cops. And group after group, slice after slice, the kids sat down right in front of the police barricades, locked themselves down with their so-called “sleeping dragons” (galvanized pipes that linked and covered their arms and made arrest cumbersome), or they tied heavy-duty steel cables around their necks and waited out the day, clapping and singing and napping as the rain turned to a summerlike sunbath.
I spent the day moving from intersection to intersection along with a principal organizer of my generation’s street protests, Tom Hayden, who had inconspicuously flown in to participate. He kneeled on the sidewalk and quietly chatted with the locked-down protesters and readily soaked up their passion. “It’s like the South in the 1960s. You see what is intolerable around you — 1.2 billion people today in the world making less than a buck a day. That’s intolerable,” Hayden said. “In the ’60s, young people filled the jails because they refused to enter a corrupt system. That’s what we are seeing again.”
Where, in Seattle, about 75 black-clad anarchists grabbed the media spotlight as they took their ice hammers to the plate glass of Starbucks and the Gap, the anarchist D.C. “Black Bloc” swelled into the hundreds. But not a single window was smashed. When the rowdy anarchist contingent, blazing their flags, poured into and took over the narrow streets around George Washington University, the D.C. Metro Police struggled to establish a perimeter. But the line just wouldn’t hold. The cops fell back one block, then two. When reinforcements arrived, they briefly held an intersection. But the anarchist push was too much. The cops set off two harmless smoke bombs and then, with disciplined precision, pulled back, retreated into a bus and sped away in retreat. “Whose streets? Our streets!” the anarchos jubilantly chanted as they lifted and shook their garbage-pail shields high in the air.
A few brief skirmishes flared during the day. About 20 scattered arrests went down. A bit of pepper gas was sprayed. A couple of protesters were unnecessarily injured. But, by and large, the D.C. police showed flexibility and restraint and — at least inadvertently — revealed the Seattle cops to be the woeful, podunk department they are. The D.C. cops did display a few, and crucial, flashes of hubris. On the day before A 16, they raided the crowded crash-pad headquarters of the direct-action squadron and shut it down on fire-code violations. And that same afternoon, they bottled up a completely peaceful but unauthorized sort of warm-up march and pinched 600 detainees, putting a sizable bite in the next morning’s street-troop strength. But the panicked and violent overreaction, the rubber bullets, and the gales of pepper spray and tear gas that characterized Seattle were all, gratefully, absent.
By early afternoon, the 90-block area around the IMF complex was occupied by the police, its perimeter by the demonstrators. The point was made: no more global-business-as-usual. And a celebratory march of maybe 10,000 circled the sealed-off downtown, eventually peeling away the clumps of demonstrators from their blockaded intersections.
That night, 500 activists crowded into a church basement to plot the next day’s activities. They figured their troop strength would be down on Monday morning to about 2,000, with some 800 willing to be arrested. A consensus was reached that by 5 the next morning, groups of demonstrators would blockade the four hotels lodging the IMF delegates.
But a torrential downpour and a rabid electrical storm washed away the carefully drawn plans. Once again, the IMF delegates made it to their meeting. But by noon, the 2,000 or so protesters materialized in downtown Washington, marching in and against traffic and playing a volatile cat-and-mouse game with a much more cranky corps of cops — now buttressed by camouflaged National Guard units.
Several flash points erupted along the broad lengths of Pennsylvania Avenue, and as many as 200 more protesters were arrested. And then, by noon, a huge and tense standoff jelled at the corner of 20th and Penn, barely a block from the IMF nerve center. But bloodshed was averted when negotiations between police and protesters produced a unique deal: The cops would open a passage in their steel barricades, and, in groups of 10 at a time, the protesters would be allowed to peacefully cross the line and be arrested. By the end of the day, another 400 demonstrators volunteered to break the law and be arrested to symbolize their fight for global justice.
Steelworkers and Students
The victory march around the city on the afternoon of A 16 began on the expansive grounds of the Capitol’s Ellipse. In the last few weeks before the A 16 action began, Washington organizers had picked this location as the site for a legal, permitted rally — a gathering point for those who wanted to join in the demonstrations but not risk arrest. Late in the game, the AFL-CIO endorsed the legal rally and essentially took over its organization. The crowd of maybe 10,000 was addressed by a panoply of speakers, from Green presidential candidate Ralph Nader (whose volunteers collected 1,500 new names at the rally), to TV jokester Michael Moore, to populist Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who charmed the crowd by singing a verse of “This Little Light of Mine.”
But the most fiery moments of the legal rally were provided by the crusty international president of the United Steelworkers, George Becker. Using rhetoric unimaginable as recently as five years ago in the American labor movement, he brought the crowd to a rousing ovation when he thundered:
“Why in the hell are we in the streets of D.C.? Because our leaders betray working people and go against the principles we hold dear as a nation. What happened last night was a disgrace,” he said referring to the arrest of the 600 peaceful demonstrators. “Everything we value was trampled on . . . The government refused to let you exercise your constitutional rights to protest . . . This is the power of the corporate state controlled by multinational corporations; the betrayal of working America by the IMF, WTO and WB!”
Then, pointing his comments to the gathered youth, Becker added: “In Seattle, you shocked the government and world institutions. You shook the establishment to the roots of the system, you challenged the status quo . . . The world was forced to listen to you . . . You have an idealism that holds no bounds. If this is going to be a better world, it is up to your generation to change history. And history is on your side . . . You put your convictions on the line time and time again. That’s why we won in Seattle, and that’s why we are going to win in D.C.”
Earlier in the week, organized labor flexed its political muscle during the A 12 action. A number of unions, but most prominently the Teamsters and the Steelworkers, joined with activists of the Citizens Trade Campaign and produced 15,000 workers to conduct a “citizen lobby.” Its one single-minded goal: to block the Clinton administration’s aggressive legislative push to grant permanent normalized trading relations to China. Early on in the run-up toward A 16, some prominent activists argued that this pressing trade issue, and not the IMF/WB, should be the major focus after Seattle. That argument was lost, but A 12 was a resounding success, and the administration is currently struggling uphill to find the votes it needs to win the China pact.
Not Where — but What?
HOW TO keep labor in the blue-green coalition emerging post-Seattle is the question crucial to the expansion and consolidation of the new movement for global justice. There was certainly nothing about A 16 that weakened the fledgling alliance. But it’s not clear either that A 16 strengthened it.
The magic of the explosion in Seattle was that it shattered the prevailing official consensus on the international economy. It opened up a much needed space to discuss and review some of the more complicated facets of globalization. And Seattle was, in some ways, beginner’s luck. Its militant tactics are the sort usually seen as a social movement crests, not as it is born. So the world after Seattle is fraught equally with opportunity and peril. Opportunity to enrich and broaden a citizens’ movement for domestic and international economic justice. But also the danger of letting tactics outpace and overwhelm political strategy. “That’s definitely a concern,” says Tom Hayden. “But that’s a logical outcome when politics fail, when electoral politics are bankrupt. Your response can be extreme when you feel no one is listening.”
Indeed. Capitalism is neither reformed nor threatened by a string of shut-down meetings or conventions, from Seattle to D.C. to Philadelphia to L.A. or to next fall in Prague, when the IMF reconvenes. Militant shutdowns cannot be the strategic goal. They are, instead, fertile propaganda-by-the-deed that interrupts official narrative and re-focuses attention on alternatives. But those alternatives have to be clearly drawn and presented.
In that sense, some of the questions raised after Seattle, and now in the wake of A 16, are improperly framed. It’s not so much where we go from here. Because the answer should be political and strategic, not geographical, the question should, instead, be what do we do now? How? And, most importantly, with whom? Our goal is not to feel good or indulge in mere self-affirmation — but to win tangible victories.
It was in that precise context that I had a memorable discussion with Mike Dolan, field director of the Citizens Trade Campaign. As one of the chief organizers of the Battle in Seattle, Dolan concentrated his efforts this week almost exclusively on A 12, the day of labor-backed lobbying against the free-trade pact with China. We chatted outside the Calvary Methodist Church on the night of A 16 as the activists inside charted their plans for the second morning of direct action. I asked Dolan where he would be during that next morning’s street protests.
“I will not be participating in Monday’s protests,” he answered pointedly. “I have to go back to my real work of confronting the corporate elite on the most important and strategic trade vote still pending before this Congress — the China vote. That’s a real victory we’re about to score for this movement, and I can as much as taste it.”