Whose March Is This, Anyway?

The Global Justice Movement Is at a Crossroads


The first decision: Who to march with? A dozen student activists from the University of Texas at Austin huddled near the UT Tower last April, formulating a plan of action for the mass demonstrations in Washington, D.C. just two days away. Last-minute decisions had to be made about the 15-passenger vans reserved for the 25-hour drive, and about housing, cell phones, and legal support. The most pressing decision, though, was which march to join.

Activists have faced these decisions before. Beginning with the landmark demonstrations in Seattle in 1999, the worldwide phenomenon alternately known as the anti-globalization movement or the global justice movement has brought together disparate organizations in Washington, D.C., Quebec, Davos, Genoa, New York City and, most recently, a 500,000-strong demonstration in Barcelona. Activists typically choose to align themselves with a particular camp: environmentalists, anarchists, unions, students. Yet they agree on the big picture: the global expansion of corporate influence–crystallized in the transgressions of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization–is the problem, and more democracy is the solution.

Since September 11 things have changed. As the first major demonstration since the terrorist attacks, the April 20 convergence (A20 for short) was a test of the national tolerance for dissidence. Fault lines already present in the movement–particularly between progressives and organized labor–were exacerbated. The emergence of an anti-war movement and a pro-Palestine movement, meanwhile, has altered the shape of activism in the United States in ways that organizers are still beginning to comprehend.

Also, unlike recent anti-globalization protests, the nearly 75,000 people that converged on Washington, D.C. from April 18 to 22 were not responding to a single call. On Saturday, the largest day of action, activists would have four marches to choose from: the anti-globalization march, the Palestinian solidarity march, or one of two different anti-war marches organized in response to Bush’s War on Terror. Organizers of the various marches said that when they became aware of each other’s plans, they decided to unite and build a larger presence. All of the marches would converge near the national mall, but the UT students knew that in many ways they would be coming from drastically different directions.

“I think everyone here supports all the movements that will be in D.C.,” said Brent Perdue, a history major active in a group called Campus Coalition for Peace and Justice. “But we need to try to reach some kind of consensus on which events we’ll focus on.” The students laughingly dismissed one of the anti-war marches, which was organized by ANSWER, a front group for the International Action Center and the Workers World Party, both authoritarian Marxist organizations. Some activists wanted to focus on the other anti-war march, but others pointed out that it would draw a more middle-aged, politically moderate crowd. Everyone supported the Palestinian march, but it was ruled out as single-issue. The global justice events would be more youth-dominated, multi-issue, and militant. Hands went up nearly unanimously for the global justice movement.

At the IMF headquarters on Saturday, the first major day of demonstrations, speakers condemned structural adjustment programs and demanded cancellation of third-world debt. Activists carried puppets and performed street theater while surrounded by riot cops. It looked like many other global justice protests, except for subtle differences. Near one police barricade, a small group of activists held a banner–”World Bank=West Bank”–that showed how things have changed since Seattle, and since September. “They both have the same effect,” said Manoj Saranathan, referring to the banner. Saranathan traveled to Washington as a representative of the Association for India’s Development. “Both are based on policies that benefit the privileged, the powerful, and systematically disenfranchise the rest. They are done with reckless disregard for the general population. People are slowly realizing the comparisons. The ties between governments, militaries, and corporations are getting more and more blurred.”

The efforts at on-the-fly integration of the pro-Palestinian and anti-globalization movements benefited from a sense of a shared animus: Washington represents the root of offending policies to activists in both movements. U.S. military aid to Israel begins here, as does IMF/World Bank aid to debt-ridden countries. And, of course, Washington has been the traditional target of anti-war demonstrations for generations. In fact, the lines between the Pentagon and the global financial institutions can get pretty blurry at times. Just after the President declared war on global terror, the IMF’s executive board approved a $135 million loan for Pakistan, the final installment of a $600 million one-year package. IMF officials assured the public, despite appearances, that they were not rewarding Pakistan for supporting Washing-ton’s “War on Terrorism.”

The World Bank and IMF were born in war. Near the end of World War II, the United States had already emerged as an economic powerhouse, while many European nations struggled to survive. At the Bretton Woods meetings in 1944, finance ministers from the Allied nations met to plan the new international economy. They created the World Bank to help rebuild war-torn countries, and created the IMF to stabilize currency exchange rates. Later, the role of the World Bank shifted to aiding the non-European, “underdeveloped” world, and bringing poor countries into the international economy. This has also meant, in practice, a forced opening of these economies to investment by multinational corporations (frequently for projects of questionable value to the local population), as well as a slew of “reforms,” often including massive slashing of public-sector spending. Many of the global justice activists on Saturday feared a repeat of history, this time with Middle Eastern and Latin American nations left dependent on the wealthy nations.

After the rally, the global justice crowd slowly weaved into the other marches, forming a mass that crawled toward the national mall. The banners of the global justice activists–”Shut Down IMF, Stop Washington’s War on the Poor” and “Drop the Debt, Not Bombs”–could be seen bobbing among the green, red, and black banners of the Palestinian march. The IMF chants quickly turned into “Free, Free Palestine.” In only a few minutes, the global justice march disappeared. The next day, the Washington Post slapped this on page one: “Demonstrators Rally to Palestinian Cause: Arab Americans, Supporters Drown Out Other Issues.”

It’s not that simple, said Soren Ambrose, a policy analyst with 50 Years Is Enough, an organization that focuses on the World Bank and IMF. The Palestinian march did not drown out the global justice march, he said, because the two were not in competition. The Palestinian crisis and the War on Terror have thrown a wrench into the operations of global justice groups, though. Some organizers with 50 Years Is Enough felt they needed to refocus their personal efforts on the Middle East, and pull back from the global justice movement.

“A lot of these divisions aren’t ideological, they are time,” Ambrose said. “We’re already overworked, we’re already tired. Now people are even more pressed to decide what they will work on. If we could take a pill to not sleep, we would see these divisions disappear.”

Many marchers seemed to accept the forefronting of the Middle East crisis on Saturday. Activists said they embraced the strong presence of the Arab community and understood the urgency of supporting the Palestinians. Anyway, the reasoning went, Sunday would be the main day for global justice protests. The same crowd would turn out for the IMF/World Bank protests, and the spotlight would shift.

Sunday came, and it didn’t happen. Only a few thousand showed up at the IMF headquarters that morning, a disappointing turnout compared to the tens of thousands that had been on the same streets just the day before. The bridges built between the anti-war, Palestinian, and global justice movements didn’t seem so strong. Faisal Kharr looked up and down the same streets that were yesterday flooded with Palestinian flags. He wore a kuffiya, the scarf that has come to symbolize the Palestinian resistance. Scattered throughout the crowd were similar red and black garments and Palestinian flags, but he couldn’t believe there weren’t more.

“All over the world, the United States does the same type of thing,” he said. “All policy is geared towards the rich getting richer, never to the working class. It is U.S. corporations that drive foreign policy. That’s why I had to attend both the events yesterday and today. They want to open markets so capital can go anywhere, so warplanes can go anywhere, but people can’t.”

The global justice procession, led by an oddly non-confrontational Black Bloc (the anarchist contingent that has become a hallmark of major demonstrations since Seattle), marched to the Washington Monument and met up for a rally, where speakers drew parallels between trade policy and militarization. “The global justice movement and anti-war movements have to be linked,” said Bill Brown, who attended a rally on Plan Colombia, the well-funded U.S. plan to take the drug war to its source. “Once you control finances, you can dictate governmental policies. It’s like going to war without having to go to war.”

In Colombia, war, foreign aid, and trade can’t be separated. In 1999 the Clinton Administration initiated a $1.3-billion military aid package given to the Colombian military to eradicate coca plantations and combat “narco-guerillas.” The same year, the IMF approved Colombia’s request for a $2.7-billion loan to help stabilize the country’s economy. In exchange, Colombian officials promised to continue their “structural reforms,” including relaxing trade barriers, increasing foreign investment, and rewriting labor laws. Colombia is the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid (Israel being the first), and has used this money to escalate a civil war that has displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians and strengthened a military notorious for human rights abuses. Since 1985, two million Colombians have fled their homes because of the increasing violence.

The backbone of Plan Colombia is aerial eradication: Planes spray an enhanced version of Monsanto’s Roundup on coca and poppy fields to destroy the crops. Studies by both the U.N. and the conservative RAND Corporation concluded that these policies haven’t worked. Coca production continues to increase, and so does cocaine-flow into the United States. The problem with both the U.S. and the IMF policies, protestors said, is that they do not address the real development needs that motivate people to cultivate coca. The fumigation only causes environmental destruction (not to mention human health problems) that pushes people further into poverty and dependence on coca. When their crops are fumigated, coca growers cut down acres of rainforest instead, leaving the contaminated land idle.

In addition to the War on Drugs, Colombia has become a hot topic in the War on Terrorism. Colombia is the seventh-largest oil supplier for the United States, and has vast oil reserves waiting to be exploited–especially attractive in light of the recent instability of Middle East oil markets. Leftist guerillas have repeatedly bombed Occidental Petroleum’s 500-mile-long Cano Limon oil pipeline in Colombia, and in March the Bush Administration requested $98 million for a specially trained Colombian military brigade to protect the corporation’s property.

“War is a way to control resources through foreign policy,” said Nathalie Paravicini, who is running for Lieutenant Governor of Texas on the Green Party ticket. “People see the connections between war and oil. That’s simple. But people haven’t realized that fighting issue by issue isn’t working. This is an issue of power structures. The long-term solution is to change those power structures, and make the people more concerned, aware, and empowered. The people in power make all the decisions. So, instead of reacting to their decisions, we need to begin to make our own.”

The same comments were heard only a few years ago, at the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, when hundreds of different groups came together and began to realize the similarities between their struggles. Labor unions proclaimed that they were “late getting involved,” but they were ready for the fight. Since then, some of those coalitions have crumbled. The proudly trumpeted “Teamsters and turtles, together at last,” hasn’t lasted. The Bush Administration’s plans for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have divided the blue and the green.

Moreover, the American labor movement, which has historically been pro-defense and pro-Israel, won’t be signing up for the anti-war effort any time soon. The AFL-CIO refused to participate in the April demonstrations because of the attention given to Palestine and the anti-war movement. Thea Lee, Chief International Economist of the AFL-CIO, said that broadening the focus of the global justice movement to include opposing the war would risk division and splintering. “What does ‘anti-war’ even mean?” Lee said, adding that she felt the global justice movement had a more defined objective and constituency. “It was pretty unclear which organizations were involved [in A20] and what the demands were. We have a pretty clear mandate from members on trade and economic issues, but not on anti-war issues. It’s a question of resonance and priority.”

So does that mean that the AFL-CIO will pull out of any protest that isn’t exclusively “global justice”? “We will always look at what the march is about,” Lee said. “And if it is about something our constituents wouldn’t take part in, we won’t march.”

“This is where statesmanship and leadership come in,” said Kevin Danaher of Global Exchange, referring to the widening gap between unions and the other camps within the global justice movement. “There’s people who believe in the old-union focus, the shop focus. It’s a union-centered focus, and it’s also a nationalistic focus. There are also people we deal with who say we have to form alliances, and don’t buy into the nationalistic approach. These alliances haven’t crumbled, but they are under some tension.”

On the other hand, it was only a few years ago that the Middle East was such an emotional topic that even saying “Free Palestine” in any of these movements was taboo. That barrier has started to come down. The trick, though, will be making sure it doesn’t come down on top of the global justice movement. As an anti-war movement and pro-Palestinian movement struggle to gain momentum, the global justice movement will struggle not to lose it.

If nothing else, the diversity of protests in D.C. could fit under one broad umbrella: They all demanded a democratization of power–in foreign policy decisions, in “free trade,” in military operations. Brian Verdín of the Greater Milwaukee Green Party said that this type of broad synthesis is the best the movements could hope for. The weekend could be seen as a potential for division, he said, or as a source of optimism and possibility. “Most people here understand that the underlying cause of all this is U.S. arrogance and U.S. imperialism,” he said. “Not each and everyone here understands how intricately we all fit together, but many do. It has been very gratifying to see the Arab community here. I’ve had some amazing conversations with some who have said how de
perate they are to get involved. They know they are late getting involved,
nd want to do something about it.”

Observer contributor Will Potter is an intern at The Chicago Tribune.