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by Matt Olson
Wednesday, Sep. 19, 2001 at 7:37 PM
Converting the S29 protests to a peace march could backfire. If it does we'll all be the worse for it.
When W. described America's seething anger, he may have been more right than he knew. Most Americans are angry at the perpetrators of September 11th's disasters. But many are also angry at our government for its reaction and the media for its interpretation. By and large, they are the same people who beat the drum of dissent against corporate power.
Many of them are the actors in the street theater that has followed leaders to summits across the globe and, in so doing, fostered a spreading skepticism of free trade. Participants in this movement (variously tagged as the anti-globalization, anti-corporate power, fair trade or global justice movement) looked forward to a massive mobilization against the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank later this month. 100,000 were expected to manifest their discontent, and people on both sides of the debate were waiting to see what the fallout would be.
That was before September 11. The United States is in disarray. The IMF and WB have postponed their meetings, and their activist antagonists find themselves in a precarious position. Whether they realize it, how the activists comport themselves over the next few weeks will have a profound influence on their long-term viability and the credibility of this movement.
There is no doubt that much has been gained in the last several years through protests and actions. People who had never heard of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization are now aware of them and at least a little dubious of their agenda. Those who didn't give NAFTA a second thought in 1994 are speaking out against the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
This is a tremendous gain for global justice activists. But it must be noted that this gain been met by skepticism and overt attempts smear them as terrorists in their own right. The day after the disaster conservative New York Post columnist Steven Schwartz wrote that "the antiglobalist rioters seek to intimidate world capitalism into shutting down altogether, and the distance between breaking the windows of McDonald's to achieve that end and blowing up the World Trade Center is pretty damned narrow." Herein lies the dilemma.
The violence of some activists-who got their first martyr in slain Italian demonstrator Carlo Giuliani-has drawn international attention to trade issues. But as media pundits are fond of saying, things are different now. President Bush says we are at war (despite the absence of a formal declaration by the Congress), and activists moving to oppose him risk being tarred with the same brush he uses to vilify the perpetrators of the attacks and whip the body populace into a militaristic fervor.
Many groups who were organizing protests to coincide with the IMF/WB summit have called them off to avoid bad press. The Rainforest Action Network, Sierra Club, Rukus Society and Friends of the Earth and the AFL-CIO are a few of the groups that have cancelled protests because of the events of September 11. These groups have drawn the ire of other activists and liberal commentators who accuse them of lacking the courage of their convictions. "What good is a Bill of Rights," asks Rick Giombetti in CounterPunch "when influential organizations aren't willing to stand up for their constitutional rights during a time of crisis and danger."
Groups like the International Action Center (founded by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark) have "refocused the call for our demonstration to address the immediate danger." They argue that given that the nation is rushing into an armed conflict, we should use the planned mobilizations to express our opposition to the coming police action.
But such an action could inspire a painful backlash. Perception can be more powerful than reality, and if these activists are ultimately working towards substantive change in the systems and policies of the world that promote hate, suffering and injustice, then they will have to draw in a broader base than the one they currently enjoy. Under these circumstances, timing is as important as action.
To move forward with a major organized protest at this moment, while the country's wounds are still fresh could create an immutable prejudice against the movement by the 90% of the populace that favored a quick retaliation following in the wake of the attacks. Imagine the uproar if a group of demonstrators is filmed in downtown DC at the end of the month clashing with police so soon after last weeks massive destruction, then this movement-a movement with the most important of goals-will be find itself linked with the recent violence. This will be a difficult connection to live down.
The threat is quite real. Police violence seemingly escalates with each successive summit. And Bush, who has made his disdain for those who oppose free trade apparent, can be counted on to spin any incident of violence associated with demonstrations as a violation of American unity. This is a weapon that activists would do well to keep out of Bush's hands.
Dante wrote that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who retain their neutrality in times of crisis. And these activists should not be criticized for trying to avert the long and deadly police action favored by Bush and his gang of cold war retreads. But if in promoting a message of peace activists allow themselves to be painted as unpatriotic extremists, then they will concede what the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO have been unable to wrest from them-the mantle of populist legitimacy.
If these activists are people of conscience, they should not equate strategic thinking with retreat. They need not be on the White House lawn to raise their voice in support of peace and justice. Injustice is not going anywhere, and there promises to be no lack of opportunity for people to speak their minds, be it in Washington or elsewhere.
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