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Raj Patel © 2000

 

 
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If you weren't in Washington this weekend, you could be forgiven for thinking that the World Bank demonstrations were nothing more than the actions of a bunch of white, middle-class college students, more interested in Lollapalooza than loan restructuring. In Tuesday's New York Times, E. M. Brown,s Op-Ed recognises "[the protester's] Birkenstocks and tie-dye shirts and their idealistic rhetoric. Seven years ago, as an idealistic Ivy League undergraduate, I, too, was a radical". Similar reports in Newsweek ("Rebels without a clue") and in the Washington Post (telling of how DC was "pock-marked with humorless little bands of adolescents") portray the protests this weekend as a misguided failure wrought by a bunch of breathless, impetuous, frivolous, clueless kids. This is a distortion so widespread and so systematic that it's hard not to wonder who exactly is kidding whom here.

There is some truth in the accusations that people were interested in having fun. On Sunday, demonstrators on the streets of DC protested in the sun, enjoying some unexpectedly clement weather, chanting, singing, and facing down mounted police on the Ellipse outside the White House. Resistance needn't be funereal. But on Monday around three thousand demonstrators sat through driving rain for over ten hours, before six hundred were voluntarily arrested and subsequently brutalised by DC's finest. It was only thanks to the sterling work of the Direct Action Network protest team medics, and the local businesses that gave hot food and drink to the protesters, that no-one had hypothermia. This evidence suggests that there was at least a minimal level of commitment to the issues beyond wanting to create a second Seattle outside the White House.

There's also a grain of truth in the accusation that some protesters weren't au fait with the full gamut of World Bank lending policies. After all, with a budget of $29 billion, who could be? Very few people in the Bank are totally aware of everything the Bank does either. After a media event attended by comrades from Ithaca with whom I had the privilege of travelling to DC, a World Bank Vice-President confessed his ignorance of the Bank's involvement in Bolivia. This is fair enough: his area of operation wasn't Bolivia, and he can't be expected to know everything. He's only human. But when young people have similar gaps in their knowledge, they're "hopelessly idealistic". By deploying the image of "aspiring middle-class hippies cutting their teeth" to represent the demonstrations in DC, the media are able to patronise the protesters -- so young, so naïve -- while letting the World Bank off with a gentle slap on the wrists. This not only distorts the message of a good number of people on the streets, but it manages, contains, and silences some of the most important and radical moments from last weekend.

At Seattle it was hard to portray the thirty-thousand working-class union members who were there as overly privileged; their colleagues had pooled money, traded in holiday pay or had taken on extra shifts in order to send their representatives to the WTO meeting. In DC this weekend, unions were much less visible. (Interestingly, while the AFL-CIO stressed cross-border solidarity, the United Steelworkers of America touted a -- to my mind -- rather xenophobic and off-topic message about why China ought not to be allowed into the WTO). In any case, with the union's uncomfortable reminder of class division less prominent, it became possible for the media to infantilise and trivialise the actions of young middle-class people: once upon a time the Op-Ed writers were young and headstrong like that too.

The experiences reported from the streets of DC in the mainstream media were really rather different from mine, and I wonder why. It is more than a little curious that there are so many similarities between the reports in the media of record ("hysterical kids everywhere"), and such disparities between these visions and those reported by the independent media. It's not as if people on the streets weren,t saying intelligent things the reports at www.Indymedia.org testify to the intelligence and savvy of many protesters. And when protesters did bungle (nobody's perfect) they were punished cruelly by the mainstream. I wonder whether there,s not something systematic about this. One doesn't need to be a conspiracy theorist to see that social disciplining through classand race can operate in the media too. Reporters are, after all, writing from a particular social position, embedded in particular social relations.

It might be helpful to read the coverage of the protests as a simultaneous attempt to justify, but also to reproduce, a certain kind of order, and certain kinds of power structures. Granted, this isn,t a terribly original idea -- Chomsky has long flagged the media as a conflicted, and self-perpetuating set of institutions constituted in power. But thinking this way is useful in understanding an important gaps in the coverage of the event: there were many older people, many people of colour and many working class people protesting in DC, though you'd never know by reading the reports.

The most illustrative lacuna in the reporting of the demonstrations in DC was the total silence about the presence of around four hundred representatives from Act Up! Philadelphia. The group were fiercely well organised. They had hired buses down from Philly, and printed a number of banners decrying the IMF and Bank's policy on HIV/AIDS. They had well articulated and well theorised arguments about the links between sexuality, HIV/AIDS, the politics of health-care provision. They knew exactly why they were there, and understood the Bank and IMF's complicity in the decline of health care systems in the South. The majority of the people in the Act Up! protest were people of colour.

It isn't hard to understand why this group weren't seen by the reporters, despite being highly visible, and well organised. Queer people of colour showing solidarity with comrades in the South suffering the dismantling of health care systems (and not just with people with HIV/AIDS) is radical politics at its best. It shows that it is possible for solidarity to cross borders, and for subjugated groups to identify in struggle with one another, despite living in ostensibly very different places. With a message as explosive as this, it is easy to see how a media establishment deeply implicated in contemporary circuits of power might "overlook" this kind of protester.

Admittedly though, despite a number of overseas representatives and US groups, the protests were a largely white, middle-class affair and it is important to ask why this was the case, too. First, non-violent protest is, for many, an unaffordable luxury. While we were walking to the protest, a woman of colour on her way to work pulled up next to us in her car, rolled down the window and said "Thank you, you're doing this for us". We were also doing it for ourselves, but it's an illustration of the fact that this kind of protest has an opportunity cost that many in society can, in the short term, ill afford.

Second, voluntary arrest is a possibility only for those with the privilege of power. While it may be rare for white middle-class people to get arrested, other groups routinely encounter the police and the justice system, and with much less choice about how the encounter is structured. Hundreds of people from the Bank protests are bearing witness to the brutality of this system; most in the prison system never had the choice. Third, not enough work was done by activists after Seattle to reveal the links between the global economy and the lives of marginalised and exploited groups in the US. Finally, unions and marginalised groups have in the past been suspicious of other activisms, and would do well to begin reaching out themselves: they are very capable of working to build bridges with other concerns, and are not without agency here.

There was a real feeling, as we sat in the rain on Monday, and as our comrades were arrested, that there is a genuine possibility for progressive social change. But there is a long way to go. There remain important silences, and important bonds of solidarity and understanding yet to be built in the US movements against international capitalism. As in Seattle, many of the groups protesting in DC had rich alternatives to the IMF and Bank's vision of world order. Local currencies, alternative farming practices, and new radical models of government are among these alternatives. Work remains to be done to communicate the relevance of these alternatives to people who weren't lucky enough to be able to attend the protests in DC and Seattle. Bear in mind, though, that it has only been four months since the WTO meetings last year. The sort of community level activism and solidarity that is necessary for these alternatives to become real and meaningful is a long, slow, unglamorous and un-newsworthy struggle. We can't expect miracles, but with commitment, compassion and a little luck, we won't need miracles at all.

Right now, hundreds of protesters, young and old, black and white, rich and poor, are still in jail in DC. Reports of their captivity are horrifying. They have been subject to threat of rape and torture, and many have been beaten, both inside the jail and out. It is important to remember that the protesters aren't in jail because they are ignorant. They are there because they believe that the government that brutalises them also brutalises people in the South, and that no-one, whether in the US or elsewhere should suffer such indignity. The fact that not all protesters on the streets were able to be policy experts doesn,t mean that their actions are apolitical. The anger and meaning of their protests cannot be delegitimised by the absence of an Ivy League education to back it up. Street politics refuses to conform to the categories of party politics. By capitulating to the representation of the protesters as mindless pranksters, by kidding ourselves that these protesters are trivial, we rob them of the very dignity and politics they are there to defend, and to work towards universalising.

So, if you,ve a moment, please call the DC Prosecutors office on (202) 727-6248 to demand their release. It's possible to show the sort of solidarity that our comrades in jail showed, even if you couldn't make it to the DC. Thank you.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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