Tactics, Wrong Cause
of the most dismaying aspects of the recent IMF/World Bank protest
in Washington D.C. is the politically unsophisticated analysis offered
by the mainstream media. Conservative analysis is even worse. The
event cries out for a balanced and weighed assessment of one of
the most significant political ‘debuts’ of the 21st century:
namely, the appearance of a diverse and mass anti-globalization
movement that is effectively using non-violent strategy in major
American cities. There is much to learn from the movement’s tactics
and more to fear from its content. Unfortunately, the mainstream
seems to do neither.
Libertarians are in a unique position to counter the anti-capitalist,
anti-technology philosophy of the protesters. For one thing, libertarians
realize that there are three and not two players on the political
scene: anti-capitalists, the State, and free market advocates. They
know that an attack on the protesters’ goals must not be a defense
of the State, the IMF/World Bank, or the police because they all
are enemies of individual freedom. Despite this opportunity, no
one seems to be arguing for the benefits of ‘true’ globalization benefits
such as the increased standard of living and health. Indeed, no
one seems to be defining ‘true’ globalization clearly: namely, it
is the abolition of all trade barriers and privileges. Arguing from
such a definition is the only effective means by which to counter
the growing association between globalism and oppression.
The mainstream media, however, has been diverted into analyzing
the anti-globalization conflict as protesters v. the police, with
the police winning. For example, on Monday April 17th,
a Reuters story by Mark Egan bore the headline, "Anti-IMF Protests
End, Arrest Tally Hits 1,300." The D.C. police chief was quoted
as saying, "I’ve never seen a police department operate as
efficiently." The rest of mainstream media seemed to agree:
the D.C. police were responsible for the relative non-violence of
this IMF/World Bank protest. Yet even in crediting the police for
the non-violence, Egan article stated, "police allowed small
groups to cross the barrier.... Eventually 400 people passed through
the barricades to offer themselves up for ‘peaceful’ arrest."
Over and over the media reported that most protesters sang to policemen
and handed them bouquets of flowers. Then they applauded the police
who arrested people primarily for peaceful activities such as "unlawful
assembly" and "parading without a permit." The New
Times ran a front page story (04/17/00) congratulating the police
for pre-emptively (illegally) shutting down the protest headquarters
and arresting hundreds on misdemeanor charges.
Alternate news sources put an interesting slant on the spectacle.
A-Infos News Service
"News about and of interest to anarchists" reported
that journalists had yelled at protesters, "What are you, wimps?
Break Something!" A-Infos commented, "Hundreds of masked,
black-clad anarchists adopted Gandhian tactics of non-violent resistance
during the IMF/World Bank protests in Washington April 16, joining
with other protesters forming human chains blockading intersections,
singing songs and playing musical instruments, and greeting lines
of heavily armed riot police with chants of ‘everything we do, we
do because we love you.’ The news media, frustrated at the lack
of images of violence and destruction, took vengeance in the only
way they knew how: they declared the event a victory for the police."
A-Info concluded, "It’s hard to read the press coverage as
anything but an attempt to ensure the next time around, storefront
windows will once again be smashed."
Accounts from the alternate press must never be swallowed whole.
And left-wing protesters whose goals are generally antagonistic
to individual freedom should not be eulogized. Instead, they should
be seen clearly for what they are. Most of the protesters are not
fundamentally against the State because they would use that institution
if it furthered their goals. The protesters are against a global
free market. Unfortunately, the mainstream media doesn’t ‘get’ the
politics or the import of the Washington spectacle.
The import: At its peak, the protest drew an estimated 20,000 politically
diverse people, many of whom traveled a substantial distance and
almost all of whom were non-violent. For days, people demonstrated
in the streets of a major American city and volunteered to be arrested.
Moreover, those arrested were not all raving radicals. They included
Carol Guzy, for example, the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer
for The Washington Post. The non-arrested included actress
Susan Sarandon and actor Tim Robbins. Nor is the political carnival
over. Organizers of the protest announced their intention to hold
similar demonstrations in Philadelphia and Los Angeles later this
year when the Republican (Philly) and Democratic (L.A.) political
conventions are held. (Memories flash of the 1968 Democratic convention
Cheri Honkala, Director of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union predicted
that as many as 30,000 people might hold a sit-in on the opening
day of the Republican convention (July 31 to Aug. 3). Honkala offered
a refreshingly savvy political analysis: "Let’s put it this
way. It’s going to be a hot summer in Philadelphia. City union contracts
are up, the kids are out of school and there are people hurting
in America who are going to come to Philadelphia to make sure somebody
knows about it." Honkala was only one of approximately 500
protesters who journeyed from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. in
order to address everything from sweatshops to AIDS research.
All in all, the Washington protest was eerily reminiscent of the
early anti-Vietnam war movement, including on-street ‘festival theatre’
with giant puppets instead of ‘guerilla theatre’ with live actors.
The in-your-face festive atmosphere carried a familiar message to
the young: it is fun to rebel! The IMF/World bank protests in Seattle
and Washington may well be signaling a broad and powerful grassroots
backlash against the ‘materialism’ of the ‘80s and ‘90s, during
which the world’s rich are said to have institutionalized their
exploitation of the world’s poor. As protester Dorothee Benz declared,
"We sent a message that business as usual will not happen at
these neocolonial, neoliberal institutions any more."
In analyzing the Washington protest, however, the media overwhelmingly
casts its spotlight on two aspects of the protesters: their eccentric
behavior and the extreme range of their ideas. Indeed, the reports
of the dress and behavior of protesters again resemble those from
the late ‘60s. Current reports miss the significance of the anti-globalization
movement just as surely as older ones didn’t ‘get’ the early anti-war
movement. For example, much was made of the bare-breasted women
who ‘paraded’ in Washington, one of whom had the slogan "Make
love, not debt" written on her chest. A Reuters story (04/14/00)
snidely reported, "A truck bearing the slogan WWW.MEATSTINKS.COM
emptied a four-ton load of manure....The driver, dressed in a cow
costume, was arrested....’Stand back; this is a crime scene,’ one
policeman told onlookers near the manure pile." A group of
demonstrators assembled outside the Mexican embassy and shouted
"Viva Zapata!" Such accounts seem too silly or extreme
to take seriously.
Yet what they are showing is the diversity of expression and causes
that are coming together to transcend their differences in pursuit
of a common cause: anti-globalization. They are showing the strength
of this movement.
The Conservative press has been more virulent in its dismissal of
protesters. On the popular Intellectual
Capital site, James Pinkerton aka "Beltway Man"
variously described the protesters as: "pasty wastrels
taking time off from...Vassar," "potbellied, gray-bearded
relics in Grateful Dead t-shirts," "daughter-age rabble-rousers,"
"flabby [middle-aged] women baring breasts." Again Pinkerton
does not realize that he is describing the incredible potential
of the protesters: they are an incredibly diverse mass of people
who are willing to be arrested together. Moreover, for every person
willing to go to jail, there are almost certainly dozens or hundreds
of others who sympathetically support their actions.
Anti-globalization is able to unite groups that seem to have no
common bond. The protesters include vegetarians, anarchists, animal
rights radicals, feminists, poverty crusaders, AIDS activists, labor
unions, socialists... In an article (04/17/00) entitled "Finance
Protesters a Diverse Bunch," Associated press writer Will Lester
captured both the diversity and the commonality in two quotations.
"I’m completely opposed to corporate-sponsored globalism,"
said a 54-year-old professor. A member of the Untied Steelworkers
added, "The one commonality is a feeling of anti-corporate
control." In the ‘60s, anti-war protests included nuns, drugged-out
hippies, concerned mothers, noted authors, war veterans, civil rights
activists entertainers and professional radicals all marching as
one. Any sane person should dread a leftist movement that can unite
people from all strata of society and bring them out on the street
in the tens of thousands.
Two additional elements increase the resemblance between the anti-war
and the anti-globalization movements. First, well-organized efforts though
not always centrally organized. Second, a police backlash that will
create both martyrs and public sympathy.
Regarding the first element: organization. The anti-globalization
movement is organizing and doing a fine job of it. Of her presence
in Washington, Honkala stated, "We weren’t there to carry signs
but notebooks, because we wanted to study every aspect of the leadership,
the crowd and the police." Newspaper headlines may have loudly
declared that the Washington police had learned from the Seattle
experience, but the protesters learned as well and continued to
do so. For example, in Seattle a few months earlier, several dozen
anarchists deliberately attacked the property of ‘guilty’ multinational
corporations. It was largely these attacks that justified calling
in the national guard in the public’s eye. In Washington, anarchists
consciously decided to avoid this tactic.
Training and preparations for the upcoming protests in Philadelphia
will be particularly extensive. For example, several groups have
sued the city to secure space in which to hold demonstrations. This
was necessary because the Republican National Committee had been
granted a monopoly the right of first refusal on virtually every
open space in the city. Meanwhile, activists from Philadelphia and
Los Angeles have reportedly attended a form of "boot camp training"
conducted by those who organized the Seattle and Washington protests.
The second similarity with the anti-war movement has been the response
of the police. Although the protesters have announced non-violent
intentions for the future, the response of the Washington chief
of police is indicative. "[I]f this same group of individuals
[as in Washington] choose to visit either of those two conventions
they’ve [the police] got problems." Police in both cities are
making preparations. Especially in Philadelphia, they are likely
to react with even less restraint than that shown by the Washington
Even in Washington, the police wretchedly botched the handling of
protesters. Consider the imprisonment of those arrested. A-Info
News reported (04/21/00), "Approximately 1,350 protesters have
been arrested over the last three days....Three were charged with
felonies, the rest with misdemeanors." The protest organizers
had a legal team that quickly addressed the needs of the imprisoned,
who negotiated as a solid block. For example, on "Thursday
afternoon authorities attempted to take demonstrators against their
will to a bond hearing, where they would be summarily released on
their own recognizance, limiting the strength of the solidarity
effort. The women in custody took off their clothes as an extreme
measure to prevent this." The police had no effective response.
The next day, A-Info exulted, "D.C, Authorities Capitulate
to Protesters’ ‘Jail Solidarity’.... The capitulation of the authorities
was the result of a pre-planned process of "jail solidarity",
whereby prisoners withheld their names through exercising their
Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, and overburdened the system
with their united noncooperation. For those prisoners, cooperating
in any manner, shape or form with what they considered to be a "corrupt
and oppressive police state" would run counter to their conscience."
Katya Komisaruk, an attorney with the protesters’ legal team exclaimed
"Solidarity is virtually unstoppable. On to Philly and LA for
the Republican and Democratic National Conventions."
Police departments in those cities will face the same choice as
the Washington police. 1) Remain non-violent and, so, be outflanked
and rendered foolish by protesters who are far better at non-violence.
2) React with a brutality that is almost guaranteed to create a
wellspring of sympathy among the otherwise uninterested public for
the peaceful battered demonstrators. Ultimately, a non-violent mass
protest is a strategy against which the police cannot win. They
can only appear to be ‘winners’ for a short period of time through
the PR of a media that declares this to be the verdict. Yet this
counter-strategy is a dangerous mistake because it blinds people
to the power of the anti-globalization movement.
Ironically, those who have the most to lose from the leftist movement
of the free market are among those who take it least seriously.
They do not seem able to look beyond the heap of manure and festival
theatre puppets that characterized the Washington protest. Such
near-sightedness obscures the most basic fact of that event: an
ideological war is being waged. It is a war of ideas, even if those
ideas are scrawled across bared breasts or if they flow from the
mouth of Sarandon (shades of Jane Fonda!) Those who defend the
free market are the only ones who can consistently attack the protesters’
ideology without defending the state. If we indulge in the luxury
of complacently chuckling at the anti-globalization movement, political
reality will bite us back.
McElroy is author of The