No more street fighting man

In the wake of the terrorist attacks, the anti-globalization movement is trying to rein in violence -- and preparing for a hard road ahead


David Moberg
September 21, 2001 11:34PM (UTC)

The terrorist attacks last week that ripped apart the lives of thousands of people, New York's financial center, the U.S. economy and Americans' sense of security have done collateral damage in an unexpected place: the anti-globalization struggle.

As the third hijacked plane plowed into the Pentagon, spokespeople for a broad coalition of corporate globalization critics were preparing for a press conference to formally announce a week of protests during the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings in the last week of September. The groups involved -- drawn from labor, environmental, religious, world anti-poverty and anti-corporate movements, including the AFL-CIO, Friends of the Earth, Oxfam, Rainbow Coalition, Feminist Majority and dozens of others -- had planned to detail their demands, including canceling the debts of poor countries, fully funding international efforts against AIDS and blocking "fast track" trade-negotiating authority for President Bush.

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From 50,000 to perhaps 100,000 protesters were expected to converge in Washington, where police had already planned a massive presence and a protective fence to keep them at bay. The two big international financial institutions -- long criticized for imposing policies on poor and developing countries that often worsened the plight of the majority -- had already cut back their meetings from a week to two days in anticipation of the protests, the latest in a series stretching from Seattle in late 1999 through many other sites, including Quebec last spring and Genoa, Italy, in June.

But the terrorist attacks overshadowed all that. The press conference never took place. By the end of last week all of the major organizations involved had called off their protests, and on Monday the World Bank and IMF officially called off their meetings. One separate strand of protesters, the Anti-Capitalist Convergence, still planned to meet and decide what, if anything, they would do, and another small group, the International Action Center in New York, called for holding a protest against war and racism on Sept. 30. But most of the mainstream protest groups either agreed to continue with only an educational conference or abandoned all actions.

The labor movement had already shifted its grass-roots mobilization effort from recruiting demonstrators to helping the victims in Washington and New York, where many union members were either killed in the attack or are prominently involved in the rescue effort. While the AFL-CIO and the Mobilization for Global Justice coalition called off the protests "out of respect for victims of the tragedy," they also remained steadfast, as labor federation president John Sweeney said, "in our conviction that the policies of the World Bank and the IMF must change if they are to foster a fair and just global economy."

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Yet the terrorist attacks have clearly set back what participants call the movement against corporate globalization, or the global justice movement, at a time when its political momentum and popular support had been building. "It's an unimaginable tragedy," said Jobs With Justice director Fred Azcarate. "I don't think any of us knows how it will impact social movements."

It's clear, though, that anti-globalization groups face new hurdles. It's politically riskier to criticize the president and American international policies in a time of foreign conflict or war. And it will be harder even to put such arguments on the agenda: The nation's political leaders will be overwhelmingly focused on combating terrorism in the near future, especially if the Bush administration launches major military operations.

-The question of how best to respond to the terrorist attacks may also prove divisive. Some of the critics of corporate globalization, especially the loosely organized local and student groups, are likely to oppose any military actions. But many organizations, seeing issues of war and peace as beyond their mandate, are likely to remain silent. And others may support the use of force.

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"I think the movement [against corporate globalization], like everyone else in the country, has been deeply affected by this," said Stephen Kretzmann, an organizer of the Mobilization for Justice. "Like everyone else, we're changed. I don't think in any way it reduces our commiment to global social and economic justice and racial equality. But the political landscape in America shifted at 8:42 in the morning last Tuesday. Some careful thought has to be given to how the movement goes forward."

For one thing, Kretzmann said, "There's widespread recognition that the talk about 'diversity of tactics' and actual employment of a diversity of tactics" -- which has included some property destruction or physical clashes with police by a small minority in past protests -- "is going to have to be severely moderated in the near future. We're entering an era when all of our civil liberties are in greater danger. The patience of politicians, the courts and the public will be much less than before."

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Although their momentum may have been destroyed by the terror attacks, most global justice movement leaders insist that the movement is far from dead and will be capable of both carrying on targeted fights and maintaining the diverse coalition for a more politically receptive time. "If you're looking in terms of years, we've hit the pause button," said Robert Weissman, co-director of Essential Action, the Nader-founded corporate accountability group. "At some point we'll turn the pause button off. We won't have all the momentum we had, but the organizing has been deep enough and the broad grass-roots support will still be in place. The objective factors and policies pushing this will still be causing concern among broad segments of the population."

There are worries that the Bush administration and allies in Congress might try to use the crisis and appeal to national security to push through measures that face serious opposition, including national missile defense, drilling for oil in the Alaskan national wildlife refuge or trade legislation. For example, House Ways and Means Committee chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., said last Friday that he expects to vote within the next few weeks on giving Bush "trade promotion authority," formerly known as "fast track authority." But the labor movement, which has made blocking such authority a top legislative priority, will not let the national focus on terrorism or mourning for the victims divert its attention or effort. "People can distinguish between a response to terrorism and the trade agenda of the administration and the Chamber of Commerce," said Mike Cavanaugh, assistant director of field mobilization for the AFL-CIO. "Those are totally different things."

In meetings throughout the week after the attacks, movement activists not only struggled with their human reactions like everyone else, but thought about how to keep their coalition together and find a strategy that could work in the new climate. "The movement will have to recognize that the United States is just one country among many," said Soren Ambrose, senior policy analyst at the Fifty Years Is Enough Network. "The movement may shift from Seattle, Washington and Quebec to more culturally appropriate counterparts in the global South." Others suggested working on smaller pieces of the issue or on more localized projects.

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Lurking in the background, Ambrose acknowledged, was the worry that critics might try to link the terrorists to the movement and to portray "anti-globalization as anti-American." Some of this has already begun. Sen. Don Young, R-Alaska, last week intimated that protestors against globalization might be behind the terror attacks. New Republic editor Peter Beinart argued that the movement is in part "motivated by hatred of the United States" and that critics must choose between being pro-American or aligned with this country's enemies. In the New York Post, columnist Steven Schwarz attacked protestors against corporate globalization, including the AFL-CIO, far-fetchedly contending that "the distance between breaking the windows of McDonald's to achieve that end and blowing up the World Trade Center is pretty damned narrow."

In the wartime atmosphere that has been generated, such arguments -- which AFL-CIO trade expert Thea Lee called "reprehensible and outrageously irresponsible" -- could lead both to attacks on protestors of any type and legal repression. In response, Ambrose says that "our decision not to engage in confrontational protest will be sufficient to make it clear that our interest is not to protest at all costs or just confront authority but to draw attention to large and important issues."

The new climate already has had a chilling effect on discussion. Weissman and Kretzmann argued that despite the rhetoric of some Islamic radical groups attacking the global influence of the United States and the West, it is both inaccurate to see someone like Osama bin Laden simply as a reaction against a new global economy and culture or, even more so, to identify his objectives with those of a movement fighting for global democracy and justice. Movement leaders are, however, reluctant in the current climate to discuss how United States policies in the past, from U.S. involvement in overthowing the democratic Mossadegh regime in Iran in the 1950s to C.I.A. support for the Afghan rebel movement in the 1980s where Osama bin Laden got his start, may have contributed to creating the terror that now unjustifiably targets the United States.

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Movement leaders have long argued that if the nation can't learn from its past, it could risk its future. But they say that now is not the time for a remedial course on America's missteps. "Trying to force-feed people information about what happened in the past is of no value now," argues Lisa Fithian, a direct action trainer with the Movement for Global Justice. "Trying to get people to ask why this happened is of use. But we have to have people focused on the future, not the past. We can make that information available in time, but it is of no use now. Our message, which we were using, came out of the global south -- 'another world is possible.' We don't have to live like this. We don't have to be at war. We don't have to have global corporations control our political system. The challenge is to create hope and practical models that show how we can be different from what we are now."

But the national mood is now one of sorrow and anger, not hope, and the focus is on terrorism, not the perils of global corporate power, the risks of unregulated markets or the hardships imposed on many ordinary people in rich and poor countries alike under the current rules of world trade and finance. In recent polls, roughly 80 to 85 percent of Americans supported military action even if it posed high costs in economic hardships and lives lost. Other polls over the past years have shown high levels of support for the goals of the movement against corporate globalization. Even now, both attitudes may coexist. But right now, with terrorist attacks uppermost on Americans' minds, the global justice movement has found its recently success stalled and its ability to act severely constrained.


David Moberg

David Moberg is a senior editor at In These Times and a fellow at the Nation Institute.

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