Bracing for a hot summer of activism

Myriad groups plan rallies to protest everything from guns to globalism.

It could be a long, hot summer of protest.

In a flashback to the 1960s, advocates of change are taking to the streets. Their causes range from mothers mad about people shooting kids to college students rallying against sweatshop labor. Many are from a resurgent political left. But others are ordinary citizens with an idea and an Internet connection.

They captured attention - and political traction - this past weekend with headline-grabbing protests against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. But it doesn't stop there.

The rhetoric - and action - could peak this summer during the political conventions. Many of the groups are honing their messages and techniques for a week of street theater that they expect will be more entertaining than the conventions. "We are going to shut down the Republican Convention!" blares Kevin Danaher of the left-wing Global Exchange at a rally here. "And we are going to shut down the Democrats!"

This ratcheting up of citizens' political vocal chords comes at a time of unprecedented national prosperity.

But prosperity doesn't mean Americans are too busy to speak their minds. "If people feel institutions are not responding to their essential needs, they go to the streets," says Alexander Bloom, a professor of American history at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.

This past week may be a taste of what's to come.

About 10,000 protesters were in Washington over the weekend, opposing the policies of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Ranging from black-masked anarchists to neo-hippies, on Sunday they linked their arms together to block delegations en route to the organizations' headquarters. By yesterday, the crowds had thinned, though there were still scattered instances of police using pepper spray to clear intersections.

Way beyond posterboard

The protests, however, illustrate how groups are using both high tech and low tech to meet their goals. Web pages helped students find caravans heading to the protests. la the US Army, one site recruited "tactical and communications" volunteers.

Once in Washington, organizers, armed with cellphones and walkie-talkies, would send protesters to intersections that needed reinforcement. Bicycle messengers relayed intelligence. Demonstrators supplied their own first aid and legal observers.

To get what they call "fair reporting," the demonstrators now set up their own "independent media" press rooms.

"Those information sources are really important - they are not the captive of government sources or what advertisers want to tell you," says Joe Morton, program director of peace studies at Goucher College in Baltimore.

The publicity seems to work. After the World Trade Organization (WTO) talks collapsed in Seattle, activists took credit. "The interest has multiplied tenfold since Seattle," says Michael Moore, host of the irreverent show "TV Nation" and emcee at one of the anti-IMF events.

The action on America's streets isn't limited to antiglobalism. A "Million Mom March" will rally on Washington's Mall on Mother's Day in support of gun control. It was organized by a New Jersey mother who wanted a response to episodes of gun violence in the past year.

After months of publicity, interest has risen well above the 10,000 people she originally estimated. "I wouldn't hazard a guess how many people will actually come," says Donna Dees- Thomases, the organizer.

As many issues as protesters

Some activists quietly talk about an attempt to shut down Wall Street on May 1. Many advocates are planning street actions later this year for causes as diverse as freeing convicted killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, eliminating bioengineered food, and stopping the Strategic Defense Initiative.

A wide variety of groups reported big gains in interest as a result of this past weekend's Washington events. "It's a matter of momentum," says Angela Schindler, an activist from Nashville, Tenn., who works toward removing sanctions on Iraq.

Not all protests involve slogan-shouting youths. There is also an increase in more-passive types of protests. Next week is National TV Turn Off Week. Anticonsumer groups have spearheaded "buy nothing" days. With the high price of gasoline, some have tried "gas out" days - self enforced, of course.

The increase in protests is reflected in a big rise in the number of permitted marches in Washington. In the 1970s, there were about 700 demonstrations each year. Now, there are more than 5,000 permitted events.

"Young people are not satisfied with the future in front of them," says Don Mackle, an 18-year veteran of the Socialist Workers' Party. "So they come here."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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