How to Tell If You’re in a Movement

Let me just put before you briefly some of the major problems facing the world.” Ralph Nader’s opening remark at the International Forum on Globalization’s daylong teach-in brought a few titters from the standing-room-only audience. But it was respectful laughter; few can outline the big picture better than Nader. And as quixotic as it may seem, the state of the world was the reason thousands had converged on Washington in mid-April, in the widely anticipated sequel to last November’s watershed protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle.

Taking the podium well after 11:00 p.m., Nader delivered the final lecture in a twelve-hour crash course on globalization. The teach-in was held at Foundry United Methodist Church (the house of worship attended by one of globalization’s greatest stalwarts, Bill Clinton) two days before the massive A16 street demonstrations against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in downtown D.C. Even though it was late, the large chapel and balcony were as packed as they had been all day, primarily with young people. Hundreds more sat or stretched out on the floor in two large overflow rooms, where video screens relayed the action. Many took notes. Long before Nader took the stage, the notetakers had the outlines of a thorough critique of the major institutions of global capitalism, delivered by some of the world’s leading dissident voices.

Most Americans have probably never heard of the men and women on the panel of speakers, including such stars of the international left as Walden Bello of Thailand, Vandana Shiva of India, Oronto Douglas of Nigeria, and Bertha Luján of Mexico. Few, in fact, are familiar with the International Forum on Globalization, which represents sixty organizations from twenty-five countries. For the most part, domestic and foreign critics of the “Washington Consensus” – as the bi-partisan embrace of globalization is referred to outside of the U.S. – have been invisible in this country. On a tour through Austin to promote the upcoming teach-in, I.F.G. member and author David Korten complained about the mainstream media’s ignorance of these individuals, who are so famous in international circles. Following the Seattle protests in November, a reporter from Time had asked Korten who were the major thinkers behind the anti-W.T.O. protest. Korten listed philosophers, economists, and heads of large non-governmental organizations, including several who had appeared at the I.F.G.’s Seattle teach-in. “She said she had never heard of any of them,” Korten recalled. Instead, her article included a sidebar on the influence of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

Nevertheless, Korten (author of When Corporations Rule the World) and his fellow speakers are quickly becoming the unlikely heroes of what appears to be a movement at the moment of coalescence in this country. Take Walden Bello, for example. Chances are good that many Americans have caught a glimpse of him only once, when the diminutive Philippine-born sociologist with the stately accent and the horn-rimmed glasses appeared on the evening news, being dragged away, kicking and fighting, by Seattle police. Time could hardly be blamed for not recognizing him: he was wearing a Kermit the Frog suit. Exiled to the U.S. by the Marcos government for his outspoken criticism of the regime, Bello wrote the first generally recognized critique of the World Bank. (Many of his criticisms anticipated the scathing critique of the I.M.F. recently released by a Congressional commission, known as the Meltzer Report.) Years in advance, Bello had also predicted the devastating Asian financial crisis of 1996-97. In Washington, the crowd of college-age kids at the teach-in hung on his every word. “Many of us have come from Asia to be with you today,” Bello began. “We did not come to dialogue with the World Bank and I.M.F. We did not come to negotiate. We actually came to shut down these institutions,” he shouted. The roar was deafening.

Despite its relatively low profile, the International Forum on Globalization has quietly emerged as the leading counterpoint in this country to the Clinton Administration’s embrace of globalization, providing not just criticism, but an alternative model for development and trade. Since Seattle, it has focused much of its attention on the International Monetary Fund, and its cousin the World Bank – lending institutions largely controlled by the United States, which employs them, along with the W.T.O., as engines of globalization. Globalization (or free trade, or neoliberalism, as it is sometimes called) is shorthand for an economic trend that began fifty years ago and accelerated rapidly in the last decade: the removal of barriers – including not only import tariffs, but also national laws enforcing environmental, labor, and human rights standards – to the free movement of capital and corporations across borders.

Ostensibly created to coordinate funding for the reconstruction of war-ravaged Europe and to regulate currency values after World War II, the World Bank and I.M.F. have evolved over the last five decades into levers by which transnational corporations gain access to natural resources, cheap labor, and markets in the Third World. The two institutions do this through a variety of mechanisms, most notoriously the “structural adjustment programs”: austerity measures imposed on countries in economic crisis as a condition for borrowing money. The I.M.F. often requires governments to slash social spending and eliminate price supports for agriculture (in order to demonstrate “fiscal responsibility”). In order to encourage foreign investment, loan recipients are required to gut environmental regulations and protections for domestic industry and workers. Economies are reoriented from subsistence and self-reliance to export-oriented production (which in turn requires massive importation of goods, including food). Meanwhile, debt grows, often fueled by ill-conceived large-scale projects (especially in the Seventies, but by no means limited to that period) such as dams and power plants, which eventually fail financially, leaving behind disastrous social and environmental consequences. Many Third World countries now devote more resources to debt service than they do to the health and welfare of their own citizens.

Perhaps more than any other single factor, job losses associated with NAFTA (which sent thousands of U.S. jobs to the Third World almost overnight) piqued American interest in the consequences of globalization. The U.S. environmental movement has also become increasingly linked to global forest and species protection movements, in part because the same transnational corporations are threatening ecosystems across the globe. Anti-globalization activism has gotten increasingly more militant in many countries, most notably in India (where the agricultural company Monsanto has been forcibly evicted from much of the country), and in Bolivia (where townspeople recently rioted against a plan to privatize and sell – to a U.S. company! – their municipal water supply). The recent upsurge of protest in America, where globalization has until now largely been taken for granted (according to Nader, few members of Congress even bothered to read the World Trade Organization agreement they approved in 1995), has caught the attention of anti-globalization protest movements around the world. “There is good news coming out of the U.S. when the youth of America rise up and take to the streets,” Nigerian activist Oronto Douglas told the audience at the D.C. teach-in. He echoed several speakers, exhorting those present to do more of the same in the coming days. “I challenge you to rock the boat on Sunday!” he shouted. The kids looked ready to eat the World Bank, if necessary.

The Convergence Center

Activists protested at last year’s spring meetings of the World Bank in D.C. as well, though you probably did not read about it: about thirty people showed up. How did the anti-globalization movement grow from thirty to tens of thousands in twelve months? In fact it didn’t. The real significance of the A16 protest, like the anti-W.T.O. demonstrations in Seattle last fall, is not that more young people in America are becoming active (though this is undoubtedly the case). What is happening is that people who were already active – in a variety of organized campaigns – have found a common enemy, and in the process, found each other. A theme shared by virtually all of the independent campaigns represented in Seattle and D.C. – from food safety, anti-logging, fair trade, the student anti-sweatshop movement, to anarchist collectives – is opposition to corporate power. The W.T.O. and the World Bank and I.M.F have been targeted as symbols — extremely appropriate ones – of corporate power in action. The fact that this large international movement is a convergence of many local and regional campaigns was illustrated by the difficulty some protestors had in explaining the big picture to an often skeptical news media. Well-versed in their own causes, many of them are still learning about globalization — a fact that became evident, in some cases painfully so, in on-the-fly media interviews with activists on the street. Vague answers about “opposing everything” fueled dismissive editorials in The New York Times by Thomas Friedman and others. What occurred in Seattle was a demonstration of the strength of a movement that already existed but was unaware of its own scope and direction. In this sense, Seattle was a revelation not just to the mavens of globalization, but to the activists themselves.

There is a second development that has been crucial to the success of the current mobilization. In the past, anti-corporate movements have lacked popular appeal. The focus on “anti-globalization,” however, has attracted the support of organized labor, which has an interest in stopping the export of jobs to low-wage countries where industry isn’t bothered by environmental and workplace safety protections. Labor’s belated recognition of its self-interest, and its alliance with environmental and anti-globalization organizations, has resulted in some impressive victories, particularly in Congress. Clinton’s free trade agenda has suffered a series of setbacks in the last three years, including the defeat of fast-track trade negotiations, the defeat of the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (M.A.I., an attempt to further liberalize currency flows), and the slowing of the expansion of the W.T.O. – including the current fight over bringing China into the organization.

While its presence has been felt in the streets, organized labor did not endorse or organize the street protests in Seattle or D.C. Seattle came together through a year-long organizing effort by a coalition of organizations linked by e-mail, which came to be called the Direct Action Network. Having this network already in place greatly facilitated the organizing for A16, which, though it attracted fewer people, was accomplished in a fraction of the time. Organizing began about one month after November’s protest in Seattle, under the auspices of a new umbrella group called the Mobilization for Global Justice. Beginning in late December, a core group of about 100 activists began meeting in D.C., breaking into smaller groups divided by task, such as media outreach, tactical strategy, housing, etc. Word rapidly spread that the next Seattle would be D.C. Local groups organized to do outreach and to hold training meetings in their areas. Caravans traveled the country, to universities, meetings of environmental groups and food co-ops, and even church-sponsored events – picking up commitments from groups that would ultimately send delegations to D.C.

Well before the teach-in and demonstrations got underway, those groups began to move quietly into the capital. In the days leading up to the street protest, with groups spread across the city, it was impossible to tell how many people were in town. Activists stayed in their small groupings, known as affinity groups, for the duration of the week, each electing a spokesperson to be their liaison to the larger group. After a certain number of delegations had arrived, spokespersons met nightly. Thus, everyone knew the tactics and strategy that was being developed night by night, though at no time was the entire group ever assembled in one place, nor was it ever addressed or organized en masse. Affinity groups could be seen meeting all week in small huddles, making decisions by consensus. Even under extremely stressful conditions in the streets, where activists dealt with gas and rain and injured colleagues, they could be seen huddling and voting, in an incredible display of democracy in action.

Considering how decentralized decision-making was, the level of organization was impressive. A16 organizers had set up a planning-and-meeting headquarters in a working-class, mostly black neighborhood on Florida Avenue, where activists from across the country began checking in as early as April 8. On Friday, three days before the big demonstration, a media guide gave me a tour of the facility, comprised of two adjoining warehouses and the alleys between them. The guide also told me of certain restrictions: no pictures without permission, no access to restricted areas, no group photos. Posted prominently on one wall were four rules that organizers asked all street demonstrators to agree to: (1) We will use no violence, physical or verbal towards any person; (2) We will carry no weapons; (3) We will not bring or use any alcohol or illegal drugs; (4) We will not destroy property. Sometime during the week, a fifth had been added: “People may alter or modify barricades erected to prevent us from exercising our first amendment rights.” It would become a well-exercised rule.

The Battle for the Streets

On Sunday morning, one hundred square blocks of downtown had been blocked off by the police and turned into a sort of demilitarized zone. The strategy of the demonstrators, as in Seattle, was to seal off the buildings, in this case the buildings that housed the World Bank and the I.M.F., in order to prevent delegates from getting to the meetings. Beginning at dawn, protestors assembled in their assigned intersections, as close as they could get to Bank headquarters.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about A16 was how ritualized this new type of protest has already become in “post-Seattle” America. Cops from Los Angeles and Philadelphia, sites of this summer’s Democratic and Republican national conventions, came to observe the “D.C. model” of street warfare. Walking through an eerily empty downtown – it was as though a stage had been cleared for demonstrators and cops to act upon – it was easy to see that the cops, after Seattle, had internalized the notion that they did not control the streets. They had orders to hold lines when they could, back off when they could not, and use force as little as possible. The protestors had their rules as well, the most salient being a rule of nonviolence, but they were subject to broad interpretation. The Washington Post called the protest a standoff. And it did appear to be a series of small standoffs – at each intersection – between riot-suited cops and demonstrators, and each intersection had its own dynamic, dependent in part on the personalities present. There was police violence, however, despite the approbation D.C. Police Chief Ramsey has enjoyed for preventing “another Seattle.” Chemical weapons – which are rapidly becoming the firehoses and police dogs of this movement – were used indiscriminately against unresisting protestors.

At the end of the first day of demonstrations, World Bank spokespersons declared victory. Though a few delegates were prevented from joining the group, they said, “the meetings occurred as planned.” As planned? As many as 1,500 cops were needed just to allow the meeting to take place. Some World Bank employees spent the night in the building on Saturday. Delegates were
equired to be ready at 5 a.m. for pick-up from their hotels by police-escorted vans, to get to the meetings before the demonstrations had fully begun. One million dollars was spent on new riot gear, and an estimated total of $5 million was spent for the police operation. As in Seattle, National Guard units were activated. If this is now standard operating procedure for meetings of financial institutions which few Americans had even heard of just twelve months ago, then a small victory has already been won.

A Movement?

Everyone seemed to want the kids to be in the streets, but not everyone was willing to join them. Labor held a rally of its own on the Wednesday prior to A16, focused on opposition to China’s entrance to the W.T.O. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. did not officially endorse the A16 events until a few weeks before the demonstrations, and even then did not officially encourage participation in the civil disobedience. Instead, labor organizations obtained a permit to rally in a large park near the White House, and to march on the edge of the sealed off area downtown. Yet one of the first speakers at the rally, Steelworkers president George Becker, recognized that his audience consisted mostly of young people who had come from encounters at their respective intersections to hear him speak. He gave full credit to the street demonstrators for breathing life into the movement. “You represent what is best in your generation,” he said. “Pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets did not silence your voices, and in the end the world was forced to listen to you.”

Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, said that she, too, had learned something about the value of direct action. Wallach – who earns her living working largely within the system, testifying before and lobbying Congress – said the confrontation in Seattle achieved more in one weekend than she had been able to accomplish in three years on the Hill. She told those present at the teach-in that the battle for Washington had already been won by Friday, because the attention of the world, and perhaps most importantly, the U.S. media, had been focused on the World Bank and the I.M.F. Taking over the streets – and the force required to take them – cannot be ignored.

But is this a movement? Can an American youth culture be built around opposition to free trade? Perhaps not, but the essence of what is being rebelled against is deeper than that. “Why are we here?” Walden Bello asked the young people at the teach-in. “Free trade, yes. But let us not use euphemisms. The spectre is capitalism.” This generation, more than any before it, has been immersed in consumerism. The rate at which its own authentic cultural expressions – in fashion, music, and recreation – are commodified by the culture industry is staggering. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the heroes they have seized on are those most critical of corporate power. And the radical intellectual as rock-star is not as unlikely as it sounds. Noam Chomsky’s recorded lectures on U.S. foreign policy, now distributed as B-sides of punk rock seven-inch singles, have become a mainstay on some college radio stations. The aesthetic of youth rebellion, after all, is the embracing of that which is off limits, the further off the better. And you can’t get much more off limits than Walden Bello and company, who officially do not exist in the pages of Time magazine.

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Published at 12:00 am CST