From Seattle to Washington

The earliest press reports (look for a full report here May 12) from the A16 protests against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund suggest that Washington, D.C., was no Seattle, Washington. While the November W.T.O. protest in Seattle drew 50,000 people, some 10,000 gathered in the nation’s capital to shut down the World Bank.

There are several reasons for the diminished numbers and effectiveness. Organized labor, which had been focused on the W.T.O. protest in Seattle for months, didn’t get involved until weeks before the I.M.F./World Bank event. The organizations putting the D.C. event together had little time to prepare, while Seattle organizers were drawing up plans almost a year in advance. The Seattle W.T.O. meeting was a major event, launching its “Millennial Round”; in D.C., the I.M.F. and the World Bank convened for a routine meeting. And Washington is a city that can take a punch.

“Cars will be towed, everything will be picked up off the streets so there will be nothing to throw, and government employees will be given a day off,” predicted a Washington-based reporter who had covered the Seattle event. “And the Washington police have experience with civil disobedience.”

Indeed, the D.C. police were more adept at managing the protests. But where the Seattle police seemed to violate the Bill of Rights reactively, the police in Washington went at it programmatically. Early Friday morning they shut down the protest headquarters, claiming the warehouses that served as a coordination and communication center were a fire hazard. “The fire marshals were concerned about the safety and well-being of the people who were staying here,” D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey said after police evicted the two hundred activists working in the warren of warehouses.

Later the same day police made preemptive mass arrests of peaceful marchers — because, Ramsey told the press, marchers “refused police orders to disperse.” That line led to a rare editorial aside in The New York Times news coverage, as reporter John Kifner noted, “reporters who had observed the march had not heard any such order.” And World Bankers and I.M.F.ers avoided confrontation by arriving at their offices hours before dawn — on buses protected by police escorts.

So Washington was no Seattle.

But that does not mean that the growing movement surrounding the international lending and trade organizations has run its course. On the Tuesday night before the A (April) 16 meeting, David Korten spoke at a Unitarian church in Austin. Korten is one of a few writers on whose work this growing movement is built. (He was joined by legal scholar Richard Grossman.) With his wife Frances, Korten spent his professional life working on foreign aid projects in the developing world and teaching at Harvard. In 1992, after thirty years in the field, David and Frances Korten walked away from the economic development business, writing to friends and colleagues:

Development as we understood it thirty years ago, and as it is to this day understood and vigorously promoted by the World Bank, the I.M.F., the Bush administration, and most of the world’s powerful economic institutions, isn’t working for the majority of humanity. And the roots of the problem are not found among the poor of the “underdeveloped world.” They are found in the countries that set global standards for wasteful extravagance and dominate the global policies that are leading our world to social and ecological self-destruction.

The letter is quoted in the prologue of Korten’s When Corporations Rule the World. The title suggests the roots of the problem: the limited liability corporation and the constitutional rights courts have bestowed upon it.

“How many of you are going to Washington?” Korten asked the four hundred people listening. He told the thirty or forty who raised their hands that “shutting down the I.M.F. and the World Bank for one day is a good first step.” Everyone in the room, he said, was part of a “spiritual awakening.”

“For each of those fifty thousand in Seattle there were thousands more around the world,” Korten said. “Now, we’re going to bring a little democracy to Washington, D.C.” Over the weekend of April 16, they did. — L.D.

Lou Dubose was editor of The Texas Observer from 1987-1999. He’s authored five books, including the best-seller Shrub with Molly Ivins. He currently edits The Washington Spectator.

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Published at 12:00 am CST