"More World, less bank" -- fewer protesters

Last weekend's lame protests raise the question: Is the nascent anti-globalization movement already dying?

By Joshua Micah Marshall

Published September 30, 2002 3:33PM (EDT)

Going into last weekend, organizers of the Mobilization for Global Justice protest in Washington had predicted crowds of 20,000 protesters. Those numbers never materialized -- never came close, really. Police estimated between 3,000 and 5,000, and I saw no evidence to doubt those numbers.

And that raises an interesting question about whether the anti-globalization movement, which had become the domestic umbrella group for those disenchanted with the U.S. government, had become, just a few years after its zenith, outdated. Last weekend sure looked like a denouement.

Early on, it looked like it would be a turbulent weekend. Friday morning, D.C. Metro police arrested 649 demonstrators in a series of nonpermitted marches in downtown Washington. That startling number was larger than the total arrested in the massive and highly publicized protests in Seattle in 1999. But novel police tactics really accounted for the sizable haul. In massive numbers, police coaxed protesters into what amounted to carefully constructed traps, with walls of police officers in riot gear on three sides. Once the police corralled the protesters into the trap, a fourth wall of riot-gear-clad police would swing the door shut. From that point, hapless demonstrators were trapped, and the police arrested them at their leisure.

The main event began at noon Saturday on a grassy hillside at the foot of the Washington Monument, where a few thousand protesters gathered for three hours of speeches, music and preparations for a march several blocks uptown later in the afternoon. Near one side, a group called the Eco-Bloc was busily putting the finishing touches on a massive cardboard and burlap Trojan Horse representing "World Bank Aid," festooning it with signs for Citibank and Halliburton and various other titans of global finance. Onstage, anti-globalization bands took turns playing, Michelle Shocked performed and speakers, such as headliner Ralph Nader, took turns riling the crowd on a variety of loosely stitched together issues and themes.

At any anti-globalization protest, it's difficult to look beyond the clichés. There's the very white college student with the "Kill Whitey" patch sown onto his army fatigues; a seemingly endless number of people handing out copies of the black-and-red-splashed Socialist Worker - which, in case you didn't know, bears a striking resemblance to the New York Post -- and placards with messages like "U.S. Imperialist Butchers, Hands Off Iraq!" Strip out the signs and placards and you could have very easily mistaken the proceedings for a Grateful Dead concert from earlier decades.

Between music acts and speakers, the organizers of the day's events ginned up the crowd with call-and-response slogans: "More world/ less bank," "They say privatize/ We say democratize" and so on. And the excitement for the day was supposed to take place after the march when autonomous "affinity groups" would try to "quarantine" or, in other words, surround, the International Monetary Fund building a few blocks from the White House. At around 1:30 p.m. an event organizer told me the quarantine would probably be pushed back until at least 5 or 6 p.m. There were so many groups who wanted to speak, with so many different demands and agendas, that the rally on the Mall was running much later than expected. With more time on my hands I decided to find out what the deal was with the bandannas.

The first few bandanna-clad men I approached refused to talk to me. Justin, a 21-year-old college student who had driven to D.C. with 18 classmates from Austin, Texas, said the bandannas were partly to hide your identity, but also to show solidarity with the larger community of protesters as well as the individual affinity group. I pointed to a member of the United States Park Police standing at the edge of crowd videotaping and asked if that was what they were worried about. It was. But the bandannas weren't as effective as they once were. The government, Justin told me with some urgency, has secret technology to identify you just by photographing your eyes.

I asked him Justin if he'd been at any of the protests the day before, and it turns out he had just missed getting arrested early Friday morning in a downtown "snake march" -- a free-form, nonpermitted march through city streets in which protesters go for as long as they can before they get caught by the police. Justin's group had gotten snagged, but just as he was about to be arrested, a police officer on the line offered a handful of protesters the chance to leave if they made a run for it. He slipped through that noose, but did get arrested at the big roundup at Freedom Plaza a couple of hours later.

For those arrested in D.C. on Friday, the rest of the day meant sitting in a police bus through the morning and the early afternoon with their hands cuffed with the plastic straps police reserve for mass demonstrations. Then, they spent nine or 10 more hours at a processing center with one wrist tied to an opposing ankle. The arrestees from Friday morning I talked to had all gotten out around midnight or 1 a.m. on Saturday.

I was trying to figure out more about the planned quarantine of the IMF building later in the afternoon, and I asked Justin if he was going to take part. He didn't seem enthusiastic. A police officer had knocked him on the back of the head with a baton on Friday morning, he said. He leaned over and pointed to the spot on his head, offering me a chance to feel the proof for myself. I rubbed my paw over the backside of his scalp. I couldn't feel anything, though I don't doubt he'd taken a whack. Being arrested once seemed to be enough for Justin. But the bigger reason for not participating was more mundane: He didn't want to risk getting arrested again because his group needed to hit the road Saturday night to get back to Texas in time for Monday classes.

At about 3 p.m., the crowd marched several blocks to Farragut Square at the corner of K Street and Connecticut Avenue. At the new venue, a white United Rentals truck was the stage for the familiar mix of political speeches and folky, anti-globalization ballads. "Coke is the drink of the despots" ran the refrain to one song. Or was it "death squads"? I kept straining to make it out every time the singer warbled it, but I couldn't quite be sure. (A check on the Web on Sunday revealed the answer: It was "death squads.") In between singers and speakers, event organizers gave the crowd occasional updates on their negotiations with police to allow the march to move on to the vicinity of the IMF building for the attempted quarantine.

Really, though, the fix was already in. What stood out at the Farragut Square rally wasn't the protesters but the police. City officials had thoroughly contained the demonstration inside the park with a dense band of police officers. If you were an onlooker outside the police ring you could not get in, and if you were a protester inside it you could not get out.

At about 5:45 p.m. the crowd began to stream out of Farragut Square down I Street, pushing a scattering of press photographers and scribbling reporters in their wake. And as might have been expected, the protesters were being marched into a trap. At the corner of 18th and I streets, rows of riot-gear-clad police officers three to four thick blocked the ways north and west. Media reports widely noted the massive police presence, which effectively threw a big wet blanket over the weekend protests. But seeing it up close was something. The D.C. police wore segmented body armor that included thigh guards, shin guards, feet guards, forearm guards, upper arm guards, shoulder guards, thick torso guards, visored helmets and neck guards. The look was very "Robocop," or like some sort of black-plated lobster.

Whatever they looked like, they didn't look like anything you'd want to walk into, and the marchers happily marched down 18th Street into the pen the police had prepared for them. A few minutes later there was a brief backward rush of demonstrators suddenly afraid they were about to be trapped again and arrested as hundreds had been in the illegal marches on Friday morning. But they missed the point: Even if the police had been entitled to make mass arrests as they had the previous morning, they probably wouldn't have tried. The police presence was so strong and the demonstrators' so feeble, the police just didn't care. They held their ground and waited for the protesters to get tired and go home. No one ever got to the IMF headquarters.

So where was everybody?

Well, there's the uncomfortable but undeniable fact that, as the world changed post-9/11, so did the attractiveness of the anti-globalization movement. Suddenly, there was a more well-known rival criticizing the West for its laissez-faire economics, its secular commercial culture and its military power: radical Islam. Sure, there's no moral equivalence between the two. But even the most earnest protester (i.e., not the kid with the "kill Whitey" patch) realizes that the anti-globalization movement now shares the stage with that other global opposition movement decrying American hegemony. And today that ugly and far more lethal contender for the stage seems more potent and relevant to almost everything that is happening in the world today.

Despite the demonstrators' unruly ways and scattershot claims, some of their most specific demands are reasonable and increasingly popular: the demand for debt relief for the poorest nations and for greater transparency and openness in IMF and World Bank meetings. Indeed, many mainstream economists and political commentators now echo the protesters' claims that the often draconian austerity measures the IMF demands from developing countries as the price of loan bailouts are not only ruinous to vast numbers of people but simply counterproductive and misguided. On each of these points, over the last half-dozen years, international institutions like the IMF and the World Bank have begun to reform. And certainly some of that movement is attributable to the voluble and insistent demands from protesters like the ones who descended on Washington over the weekend. So, perhaps, they have a little less to protest than a few years ago.

Some expected that the coming war would have provided more energy to the movement. But instead, seeing the fairly uninspired crowds that turned up, it's probably safe to assume the opposite happened -- that the likely war against Iraq had stolen the attention of people normally sympathetic to these issues. In fact, with larger antiwar protests planned for October in Washington, you can't help but assume a number of college students are saving their energy, and money, for a later day.

Not that there wasn't opposition to war with Iraq. Speakers denounced it, as did hundreds of handmade signs and placards. But it didn't dominate the events as one might have expected given the atmosphere in Washington, the United Nations and to varying degrees throughout the country.

Here, though, it was just another line item along with debt relief, the environment, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the IMF, the World Bank and water privatization. On Sunday, protesters did converge on Dupont Circle for an anti-Iraq war rally, where they heard speakers and watched antiwar improvisational theater before marching up Connecticut Avenue to the official residence of Vice President Dick Cheney for a final antiwar sendoff. But on Sunday, the atmosphere was almost entirely different from the day before. The crowd was laid back and the police were even more so.

After the march toward the IMF petered out on Saturday evening, I wandered back to Farragut Square where the protesters had been chanting and protesting an hour before. When I got there what struck me most was how clean it was. There seemed to be less trash left behind than there would be on an average weekday. That was fitting for a group so consciously pure in its advocacy of environmental causes and not despoiling the planet. But it was an impressive display of discipline and responsibility nonetheless. Hours later, though, I wondered if the meaning wasn't a different one: Like the protests themselves, the crowd had loudly come and gone without leaving much of a lasting trace.

Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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