Exporting Seattle


By the time you read this, thousands of activists will have descended upon Washington D.C. for a week of rallies, teach-ins, and civil disobedience, which will potentially culminate in the shutdown of the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund, scheduled for April 16 and 17. The I.M.F. and its sister agency the World Bank are the primary agents through which the power of global capital (i.e., Western multinational corporations and their political allies) is extended into the developing world. I.M.F. loans are often the wedge enabling predatory investors to exploit new markets, cheap labor, and natural resources. After the successful disruption of the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle last November, organizers of that event (including Global Exchange, Direct Action Network, Ruckus Society, Earth First!, and many others) seized on the I.M.F. meeting as the next focal point for a new national movement against the excesses of global capital. The challenge faced by organizers of the April 16 action – called the Mobilization for Global Justice, or simply “A16” – is to equal or better the Seattle turnout.

The prospects appear good. As in Seattle, organized labor is not directly on board, but is organizing its own events on a parallel track, adding considerable weight to the movement. An actual shutdown of the conference – the type of massive civil disobedience that provoked a police crackdown in Seattle – has not received the official imprimatur of the AFL-CIO. But the unions will be present all week. A labor rally against the expansion of the W.T.O. is planned for April 12, with the support of the Steelworkers, Teamsters, U.A.W., and U.N.I.T.E. April 16, while the direct action protestors are disrupting the I.M.F. meeting, the AFL-CIO has planned a “permanent demonstration” about twelve blocks away, to be emceed by Michael Moore.

Two indicators will suggest whether a new American movement is truly in the making. One is how many troops the civil disobedience organizers can muster on the sixteenth and seventeenth. (In Seattle, by some accounts, as many as 20,000 were in the streets.) Organizers are making excellent use of the web. Teach-ins at area universities and churches are planned for a smorgasbord of campaigns, including crash courses on third world debt, the history of the World Bank, Burma, the School of the Americas, forest policy, and Iraqi sanctions, among others. (For a full listing, visit the “April Days of Action” section of the homepage at www.a16.org.) Organizers are asking civil disobedience participants to attend a seven-day course, starting April 8, on direct-action techniques. Housing for everyone must be provided, along with food, childcare, and medical and legal support, all of which requires volunteers. Seattle created a boost of momentum for what remains a somewhat inchoate accumulation of sentiment; this effort to channel it will be widely watched.

The second important indicator is the degree of cooperation between labor and the coalition of anti-corporate and pro-environment forces, which are generally speaking much more radical. Labor is more cautious, but also more organized and much better funded. The AFL-CIO has an institutional aversion to participating in any event it does not directly control, a sort of instinctive reflex to preserve its hard-won place at the political bargaining table in Washington. But AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney has shut down the Capital before (as then-head of the S.E.I.U.) with a march of thousands of angry janitors. In Seattle, there was considerable crossover, as the presence of hundreds of steelworkers, longshoremen, and other radical labor activists (particularly Jobs for Justice) demonstrated in the confrontational downtown street actions. This time, the parallel actions will be physically much closer together, suggesting a closing of the philosophical spaces as well.

It is certain that D.C. authorities won’t be caught off guard, as the mayor and police apparently were in Seattle. The police in D.C. are used to large demonstrations, and have already pledged not to allow protestors to disrupt business as usual. Which is not to say they won’t disrupt it themselves. The District has been known to simply shut down – with all but a skeleton crew of federal employees ordered to stay home – when particularly large demonstrations are anticipated. –N.B.