News & Politics

Thousands Join Festive But Serious D.C. Protests

Were the IMF/World Bank protests successful? The official spin was that D.C. Cops provided business-as-usual conditions for the financial institutions, and therefore the protests were a non-event. Organizers disagreed.
April 16, 2000 -- For weeks, the organizers of the World Bank and IMF protests, confident after the watershed Battle in Seattle, had made like Babe Ruth and pointed to where they thought the anti-corporate globalization movement's next home run would be: Washington D.C. on April 16th.This morning at about six am, hundreds, and then thousands, of activists occupied sixteen intersections around the Bank building in an attempt to prevent the meeting from taking place. The corner of Pennsylvania and 21st was blocked by about thirty people with their arms locked inside metal pipes. Puppets, representing the Bank as a loan shark, danced among the protestors. Giant papier mache figures representing various failed or destructive World Bank projects from Guatemala to Paraguay to India to Cameroon swayed in the early morning drizzle. A Trojan Horse occupied one intersection. A huge pink "capitalist pig" wove through the crowd with a globe in its mouth and the words "World Bank" emblazoned on one side and "IMF" on the other. American Indian Movement drummers gave the crowd a jolt of energy with their drums and chants. The mood was somehow festive and serious at the same time. No one had slept last night. No one seemed tired.But the openness and bravado of the organizers made it easy for the Washington police, working with the FBI, to put a crimp in the plans. The authorities, with the equivalent of a PhD from Seattle U. in How Not To Handle A Protest managed to allow the World Bank meeting to take place, in part by whisking many delegates through in the pre-dawn hours (at least four delegates, including a representative of the European Union did not make it through the blockades). By late morning it was clear that the meetings would proceed today.The authorities had made their move days earlier. They shadowed and harrassed known activists. On Saturday morning they shut down the organizing center on what activists say was a flimsy pretext and confiscated equipment, leading one legal advisor to quip that "D.C. is now safe from puppets."Last night police arrested more than 600 demonstrators for marching without a permit. Passers by were also reportedly swept up and detained. They remained in jail throughout today's protests and legal observers said some sat handcuffed in buses for hours without food, water or access to bathrooms.As in Seattle, there was tension on the streets today, and occasional mild violence. That violence was almost invariably initiated by police. In the late morning, an AP reporter was hit on the head by a police baton and was bleeding on the street. At a nearby corner police repeatedly donned gas masks an prepared tear gas canisters, but then put the equipment away five minutes later. If they were trying to scare the protestors, the tactic backfired: each time a gas canister appeared, a cry went up and dozens of protestors came running to provide reinforcements.In addition to the planned non-violent civil disobedience, thousands gathered today for a permitted rally and march at the Ellipse. Organizers said the crowd was 20 thousand strong. Washington DC police counted ten thousand demonstrators. The endorsers included the AFL-CIO, though labor presence was fairly light. The crowd contained people from ACT UP, Students for a Free Tibet, Ralph Nader groups, and many others.The rally gave a sense of completeness to the harder hitting protests nearby, as speaker after speaker articulated the reasons for these protests. Humorist and filmmaker Michael Moore pointed out that that Wall St. and the Banks were making many people's lives miserable. Green Party Presidential candidate Ralph Nader decried the "structural injustice" of the Bank and IMF, which allow "corporate managed trade that suppresses local self-reliance and democracy."So, were the protests successful?The police spin was that they provided business-as-usual conditions for the Bank, and therefore the protests were a non-event.Organizers of the protests, as well as long term observers of the issues, did not agree with that assessment. David Korten, author of When Corporations Rule the World told Corporate Watch called the protest "a breakthrough in the awakening to corporate rule."Andrea Durbin of Friends of the Earth noted how far the movement has come since just six months ago. "People are coming together on previously obscure institutions." She has a point. One sign combined the obscure with the profane, saying "SAPs Suck." SAPs are IMF Structural Adjustment Programs.The protests also reverberate outside the United States. Activists in the South are struck by the rapid growth in awareness inside the US of issues that they have been fighting for decades. "People in Nigeria and around the world are following these events very closely because they are about how ordinary people here in the US are beginning to take up their fight against the repression of the IMF, World Bank and global corporations," noted Nigeria human rights activist Oronto Douglas.Most of the young protestors in the streets seemed to agree with the grizzled veterans. At about 2:00 pm, most of the blockades had broken up voluntarily. Joining the permitted parade, one young person from the D.C. area avowed that he was "somewhat disappointed." But a companion, from North Carolina, said the day had "gone great." An hour or so later, hundreds of protestors took a spontaneous and high-spirited march down 14th Street. Three 17 year old high school students from neighboring Silver Springs Maryland were willing to risk not only arrest, but punishment from school authorities who threatened to shut down their "sexual minorities club" if they attended the weekend protest. They said the choice was easy. If there was a sense of disappointment or failure, it was hard to discern.Perhaps today's protestors were simply more realistic than the media. The bar for a successful protest had been set as high as the Seattle Needle, with help from the bungling police department there. Some media, noting correctly that this was the follow up to the WTO demonstrations, then reduced the measure of success of today's protests simply to whether they shut the IMF down or not.Perhaps that's an appropriate perspective for the police chief. But this movement will not be measured by whether it stops meetings from taking place, but by its influence on the institutions and the people affected by them.The World Bank will meet again. But it will be difficult for it to again meet in secrecy. "Until the voices of ordinary people are heard at the World Bank and IMF we will continue to disrupt their meetings," said activist Nadine Bloch of the Ruckus Society.Or as David Korten told Corporate Watch, "This is a movement that will not be put down."China Brotsky and Julie Light also contributed to this report.