In new Big Apple, what's a protester to do?

Demonstrators at World Economic Forum may find city less tolerant of divisiveness.

New York City is ready to reclaim its status as Capital of the World at the same time it braces for more trouble.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) - that exclusive salon of international heads of state, corporate captains, and intellectual glitterati - opens here tomorrow. And arriving with it will be thousands of antiglobalization protesters who pledge to disrupt the forum by flooding the streets outside Waldorf-Astoria with militant demonstrations just as they did in Seattle, Washington, and Genoa, Italy.

But it will be much more difficult for the protesters to make their mark this time. They are descending on a city still reeling from the devastation wrought by the Sept. 11 attacks. As a result, there's little or no tolerance for violence of any kind - particularly against a police force that's been honored for its Sept. 11 heroism.

"I can't think of a protester making a bigger mistake than to be out of line with New York Police while they're here," says Tim Zagat, the restaurant guide maven who was key in bringing the WEF to New York. "They'll end up with a gigantic black eye in the eyes of the world."

The World Trade Center attacks have changed more than just the expected tenor of the protests. They've also transformed the nature of the globalization debate. For the protesters, Sept. 11 increased the urgency to draw attention to corporate and economic policies they contend breed the poverty and discontent that foment terrorism.

A shifted focus

At the exclusive economic gathering itself, the focus is now just as much on strengthening alliances between like-minded countries to fight terrorism, as it is on combating the global economic downturn.

"Before Sept. 11, globalization did seem to be the big issue. Nation-states appeared to be withering away in the face of powerful global markets," says conservative commentator David Brooks. "But since [the attacks], national and democratic governments are pretty important again."

The most concrete impact of the terrorist assault on New York is that the conference is here at all. Indeed, if the twin towers were still standing, the confab would have been tucked away in the isolated slopes of Davos in the Swiss Alps, which has hosted the event for the past 31 years.

Last spring, Mr. Zagat and his wife had tried to convince its leaders to bring "Davos" to New York, but to no avail. After the attacks, however, the WEF leaders decided to come as a "sign of global solidarity with the people of New York."

And the city is more than grateful. "New York will always be the place the world meets. We're thrilled they're here," says Dan Doctoroff, deputy mayor for economic development and finance.

But the protesters take a more cynical view. They believe the WEF organizers chose New York precisely because its traumatized state might discourage demonstrations. "This is blatant opportunism on the part of the richest corporate executives anywhere," says Brian Becker, co-director of the International Answer Coalition, an umbrella group that is organizing the protests.

The protesters are also outraged by a decision announced Monday to invoke an 1845 law that prohibits three or more protesters from wearing masks. For years, antiglobalization demonstrators have donned costumes and large-scale puppets to illustrate their contention that corporations exploit the world's poor and working people.

They don't plan to change now. "This facial-cover prohibition is not about security. It's out-and-out political repression," says Larry Holmes, also of the International Answer Coalition.

The police tactics have outraged many people on the left. But some also worry that the protesters may behave in a way that could damage the larger movement's goals. "The island of Manhattan is still a place of mourning, and you have to conduct yourself ... with a certain kind of dignity. You can't afford self-righteousness," says Paul Loeb, the author of "Soul of a Citizen."

The wrong event to target?

Other cultural observers, like Mr. Brooks, wonder why the protesters have targeted the WEF at all. It's tended to be more of an intellectual gabfest aimed at finding new solutions to global problems and, in the worlds of the conference organizers, "furthering the public good." This year, topics include "reducing poverty and improving equity" along with "redefining business challenges." Human rights activists and religious leaders will be there with the captains of industry.

But that's not enough to mollify many of the political activists who feel the underlying values in the world's economic system still need a radical overhaul. "If you look back at our history, justice issues have never been considered 'in season,' " says the Rev. Graylan Hagler, a longtime activist. "It's like Frederick Douglass said, 'Power never concedes anything without a demand.' "

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