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 A 16 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 required to be ready at 5 a.m. for pick-up from their hotels by policeescorted 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 A 16 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 Return of the Sixties? Shannon Young 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. MAY 12, 2000 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11
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