Today's protesters take on world
From worker rights to the environment, global concerns shape activists' agenda.
When she was 15 years old, Daisy Pitkin joined her first protest against a road slated to run through an Ohio marsh where eagles nested. Today, the senior at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., is still crusading - this time against the "undemocratic" policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
She and thousands of other activists will descend on Washington this week for protests that may mark the first time since the Vietnam War that so many are willing to go to jail to make a political point. "I'm hoping to avoid the tear gas this time," says Ms. Pitkin, who joined in the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle.
In some ways Pitkin is typical of the protesters who are now showing up at meetings hosted by global organizations - and shows how activism in America has evolved in the past 30 years.
Like her predecessors in the 1960s, she and her cohorts tend to be young, idealistic, and concerned about the environment. But in addition to an anti-establishment ethos that mirrors demonstrators of previous generations, today's social activists voice deep forebodings about the growing power of global corporations. In an age of unprecedented interdependence, their cause is the world, rather than the civil rights of one country.
Like the '60s, "These protests are less about self - such as a labor dispute - and more about something global and idealistic," says Alexander Bloom, a professor of American history at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. In the 1960s, students started with protests for civil rights. By the end of the decade, it had turned into an antiwar and anti-establishment movement. "They were about to become inheritors and part of the establishment, and turned it down - these people are doing the same thing."
While those joining the caravans traveling to Washington this week have individual concerns - ranging from worker rights to protecting the natural resources in developing countries - they are united in their opposition to the globalization that has swept the US and other countries in recent years.
"We are opposed to this tremendous concentration of power that is unaccountable and causes enormous destruction around the world," says Mark Weisbrott of the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. On Monday, seven protesters were arrested outside the World Bank headquarters as they protested bank loans for oil, natural gas, and mining projects.
In some ways the world institutions, such as the WTO and the IMF, are perfect foils for a whole variety of protesters, says Mr. Bloom. "You have people concerned with the environment, labor, the antisweat-shop movement and the notion that these institutions represent some kind of invisible corporate power."
For example, in Seattle, during the WTO protests, labor unionists marched with Sierra Club members dressed as turtles and antigenetic-farming protesters in butterfly costumes.
"Groups that normally have nothing to do with each other seemed to realize they had greater power when their numbers were counted together," says Nancy Snow, an assistant professor of political science at New England College in Henniker, N.H.
Ms. Snow says it's refreshing to see students who are not trying to become dotcom millionaires. "These are people who want to live simply and want their leaders to pay more attention to the environment," she says.
One way this message has been getting through to students is a traveling road show, which was in New York recently. About 200 people gathered in the East Village for political theater, rock music, and 90 minutes of training on "jail solidarity." Today's protesters come equipped with their own video cameras - thanks to their distrust of mainstream media, which has been swept by the same mergers they abhor in the corporate world. Instead, they rely on the Internet to get their message out.
"People have to realize that after Seattle, we have the power to challenge these institutions," says Liz Guy, a political activist.
This view was evident last weekend, when the vanguard of the protesters showed up on the Mall in Washington.
"The World Bank, IMF, and WTO in some of their practices have really hurt people," says Joel Gysan, a clean-cut young man from Falls Church, Va. "They go in with good intentions, but end up hurting poor countries in favor of rich countries."
That kind of message attracted Hans Wenger and Ann Shenk Wenger, a Lancaster, Pa., middle-aged couple who had never participated in a demonstration before. "We probably came to this issue from a spiritual point of view," says Ann. "We think the world has a moral responsibility to free poor nations from debt."
The IMF says it's open to discuss the issues. It recently met with 15 groups, such as Oxfam, to explain how it puts together a program to salvage a troubled economy. "We have been stressing the need for dialogue and want to have it around the table, not on the streets," says William Murray, a spokesman for the IMF.
This coming weekend, however, the activity will be on the streets. "In some ways what they want to do is similar to what they did in Seattle," says Norman Ornstein, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "In Seattle, they made it look as if the official process was in disarray - they made the government act and look foolish."
But the Washington police say they have learned a lot from the Seattle experience. For months they have been training for this event. Exactly how they plan to cope with the protesters, however, is a secret, since the police don't want to give protesters time to figure out ways to beat them. "Rest assured a lot of planning has taken place," says Peter Laporte, director of emergency services in the district.
Just as the Washington police watched the Seattle effort, other police forces will be observing the IMF/World Bank protests. Organizers say the next target will be the political party conventions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles this summer.
* Neil Irwin in Washington and Guillaume Debr in New York contributed to this story.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society