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USA: Diverse Globalization Foes Head for DC

by Manny FernandezWashington Post
September 5th, 2001

Dave Zirin and Pete Capano have never met, but they share a common struggle.

Zirin has been organizing meetings with his Latino neighbors in Washington's Mount Pleasant community, talking to them about fighting the Goliaths of globalization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Capano has been spreading the word about the two institutions in Lynn, Mass., arranging a bus caravan to head to Washington with fellow union members eager to give the world's bankers an earful.

Zirin is 27 and a D.C. public elementary school teacher taking a year off in large part to devote more time to fighting global capitalism. Capano is 43 and an air-conditioning mechanic at a General Electric Co. plant in Lynn. He took a 12-hour bus ride to Quebec in April to protest a summit of trade leaders, and it turned into a family outing -- his 16-year-old daughter marched alongside him.

"We used to look at it as a bunch of old union guys trying to save their jobs, but it's really more than that now," Capano said. "It's sort of becoming one large movement against globalization the way it's practiced today."

Zirin and Capano are but two faces of a population that defies categorization -- anti-globalization protesters. As the gulf between the rich and poor widens nationally and abroad, the racial, economic and age diversity of the demonstrators has increased. There is no stereotypical globalization buster; those who rally against the gatekeepers of global finance are as likely to wear wedding bands as they are to wear nose rings.

Tens of thousands -- no one knows how many -- plan to turn the nation's capital into a melting pot of dissent at month's end to show opposition to the IMF and World Bank during their annual meetings. The issues sparking such a turnout center on the lending policies of two international financial institutions that organizers say strangle developing countries with debt and benefit multinational corporations at the expense of the impoverished and the environment.

The international move to change those policies has grown in size, sophistication and diversity, building strength by attracting union organizers, churchgoers, environmentalists, high school and college students, left-leaning activists, neighborhood leaders and anarchists.

"This is the early stage of the first-ever global revolution," said Kevin Danaher, co-founder of Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based group at the forefront. "It's a values revolution, shifting from money values to life values."

Protesters are drawn for various reasons. Some have spent a lifetime in social activism, protesting the Vietnam War in the 1960s and South African apartheid in the 1980s. Many newcomers were stirred by something they read and then researched. What unites them is a sense that something has gone wrong and that it can be traced directly or indirectly to international economic bodies such as the IMF, the World Bank or the World Trade Organization.

Danaher said: "There are two basic world views: Their world view is that you subordinate society and nature to the economy. And we say, subordinate the economy to society and nature. It's understandable that bankers would have trouble with this concept."

The IMF and World Bank dispute such arguments. Officials have said that the demonstrators' characterizations are grossly inaccurate, and they point to a program that provides billions of dollars in debt relief to impoverished countries as one of many ways that they help reduce poverty.

The protesters' arguments have shaped a movement that has its own intellectual culture and jargon. Activists think up jokes and write chants. The Internet serves as their bulletin board, telephone and door-to-door fundraiser. They post scores of e-mail manifestos about where the movement is or isn't headed. These are bookish dissenters, speaking not of the Man or the System, but of the Economy. Virtually everyone knows the names of the IMF managing director and World Bank president, and some could write informed essays on the effect of bank user fees on primary health care in Tanzania. Some have.

Nathan Wyeth, 16, has been busy lately, juggling conference calls with fellow student activists and attending organizing meetings. It's easier to handle in the summer, when he doesn't have homework, he said. Wyeth is a junior at St. Albans School for Boys in Northwest Washington and a national coordinator of the student-run arm of the Sierra Club.

"These rules are being written for the new global economy, with these trade agreements being written with corporate interests at heart, and they're written to facilitate the movement of money and to facilitate corporations doing business," said Wyeth, who got involved after developing an interest in environmental issues about two years ago. When the Sierra Student Coalition organized a trip to the Quebec demonstrations, his mother told him the only way he was going to spend a weekend at an international protest was if she went with him. He took her up on the offer, and he was back in school the following Monday.

Jen Cohn, 24, manages her class work and organizing similarly. Cohn is a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania who is helping set up health clinic tents for protesters who might suffer from dehydration or might be injured in run-ins with police.

"Use of chemical weapons -- any police weapons, whether it's tear gas or rubber bullets -- is a public health issue and should be addressed as such," said Cohn, who has worked for several years in the HIV/AIDS community.

Cohn traveled to Washington in April 2000 to demonstrate during the city's first major battle over global capitalism, the A16 protests, named after the main day of the demonstrations. She said a police officer sprayed her with pepper spray. "A medic came and washed out my eyes," she said, adding that she was grateful for the help of someone she never saw again.

Daniel Holstein, 26, is a Washington waiter who lectures co-workers about the perils of free-market theory. Holstein, an organizer with the Mobilization for Global Justice, one of the main protest coalitions, has participated in demonstrations involving D.C. General Hospital and the commission that sponsors presidential debates. He sums up his philosophy: "Life is not about the endless pursuit of money. Period."

Spreading the Word

Wyeth, Cohn and Holstein are just a few helping to plan this year's round of demonstrations, organizing that is now in high gear in Washington. Anarchists seeking capitalism's extinction, Unitarian Universalists concerned with social justice and high school students who, like Wyeth, are still taking driver's education courses have been spreading their messages.

David Taylor, 23, a Unitarian Universalist, traveled from Oakland, Calif., to take part. He moved in with friends in the District last week to help the Mobilization. He now staffs the coalition's phone line.

"Our economic and political systems place more value in the accumulation of wealth than in the dignity of people," Taylor said. "I found a real contradiction between the values I was taught in my religious community and the values I saw portrayed not just by the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organization, but by our political system and the parties involved in them."

Other activists who are planning a Latin American solidarity march Sept. 29 say they have seen shared strength in calls from Kansas and Ohio, from supporters who plan to come. Online donations and e-mail requests for housing assistance keep flooding the Internet site of the Anti-Capitalist Convergence, said a member of the District-based network of anarchists who seek the abolition of the IMF and World Bank. Members of the Mobilization have met virtually every day in small and large groups to discuss logistics and to craft props, including a big cardboard dragon and various signs and puppets being built in the garage of a Takoma Park home.

The last weekend of this month is the focal point for organizers; IMF and World Bank officials decided to drastically consolidate their meeting schedule because of security concerns. The International Action Center, an organization based in New York City with offices across the country, plans a march that is to surround the White House on Sept. 29. And on Sept. 30, several groups plan to rally at the IMF and World Bank headquarters off Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Events geared toward Washington area issues are also part of the bill, including the People's Repo, a four-day squatters summit to focus on gentrification issues. Panel discussions, concerts, candlelight vigils and teach-ins are scheduled as well.

Protesters say they hope the gathering turns out to be the biggest anti-globalization demonstration in the United States since tens of thousands disrupted a summit of the World Trade Organization in Seattle in November 1999 and gave the movement momentum. Organizers said they plan peaceful rallies, but some say that a movement rooted in anti-authoritarianism is not about to start policing its participants.

Law enforcement agencies say that worries them. They say they have gathered intelligence that the Washington demonstration -- like those since Seattle that have rocked Prague, Quebec and Genoa, Italy -- has the potential for violence. They are taking unprecedented precautions, tentatively planning a nine-foot-high fence around a section of downtown Washington to keep protesters out.

Organizers have called the proposed security zone and police buildup -- including recruiting thousands of outside police -- a waste of tax money and an attempt to keep protesters away.

Activists say it won't work. And they are trying to shift focus from the police to District neighborhoods, where they seek to increase support.

Some African American leaders who fought against privatizing D.C. General Hospital have joined the global battle, the result of protesters pushing to form alliances with area activists. When D.C. General protesters shut down a meeting of the D.C. financial control board this year, IMF and World Bank protesters were there to pitch in people and attitude.

Zirin has been spending his days turning the global into the local on the Unite the Fight tour, an attempt by the Mobilization to reach out to neighborhoods.

One evening last month, Zirin and others brought the tour to a Methodist church auditorium in Columbia Heights. Zirin hoped that a half-dozen community activists would show up, but by the start of the meeting, about 50 sat in folding chairs, a mix of neighborhood leaders, health care workers, death penalty opponents and anti-capitalists.

Sonia Umanzor, of El Salvador's left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), said she wanted finance ministers to face crowds so large that they would have to use the back door to get to their meetings. After the meeting, Zirin lingered outside the church, grinning.

"You had black, white and Latinos, all in the same room," he said. "Ladies and gentlemen, the United States has a Left. Call Mom."

Zirin studied labor history at Macalester College in Minnesota but tired of reading about it and wanted to make it. He joined the International Socialist Organization at 19.

"I see this movement as a vehicle for creating a different kind of world," Zirin said.

Capano sees his involvement in much the same way: "It seems like there's this economic battle brewing within each country . . . where workers everywhere suffer the effects of the policies that they're implementing."

Capano, a leader of the electrical workers union, is only one of many labor organizers coming to Washington for the protests. The AFL-CIO, which has spoken out against the IMF and World Bank for undermining labor protections in developing countries, has thrown its support behind the demonstrations, helping to organize the massive Sept. 30 rally.

A Dramatic Shift

It will be a dramatic change from the early years, said Washington activist Njoki Njoroge Njehu. She remembers when only a few dozen gathered outside the IMF and World Bank headquarters to protest the institutions' policies in April 1999. A year later, more than 20,000 demonstrators protested on those same streets. What happened was largely due to the spirit of Seattle, protesters say. More than 30,000 demonstrators succeeded in shutting down the WTO meeting in November 1999.

For many, Njehu said, the movement runs far deeper than the television images that most people saw. Njehu, 35, says she visits her family in Kenya, and while everything crumbles -- roads, schools, reliable health care -- international debt remains. Canceling such debt for poor countries is an economic as well as moral issue, she said.

"What is at issue here is the heart and soul and the morality and values of the international community," said Njehu, director of the 50 Years Is Enough Network, a longtime critic of the IMF and World Bank.

In July, more than two months before the upcoming protests, Njehu wasn't surprised to find about 40 men and women from a smattering of ages and races at a general meeting of the Mobilization for Global Justice, of which she is a member.

Everyone gathered in a community room at a Mount Pleasant church, where the evening's handwritten agenda was taped to a pillar in the center of the room. The discussion included fundraising, logistics and the environmental racism that members of the group said was inherent in the care of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.

At the meeting, they passed around an envelope hastily scrawled with a dollar sign to raise cash for the Washington protests. And despite the talk of revolution that filled the room, they put away the chairs before heading home.

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