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Right Tactics, Wrong Cause

Mises Daily: Friday, April 28, 2000 by

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John Maynard Keynes, the original brain behind the IMF/World Bank bureaucracy

One of the most dismaying aspects of the recent IMF/World Bank protest in Washington D.C. is the politically unsophisticated analysis offered by the mainstream media. Conservative analysis is even worse.

The event cries out for a balanced and weighed assessment of one of the most significant political debut of the 21st century: namely, the appearance of a diverse and mass anti-globalization movement that is effectively using non-violent strategy in major American cities. There is much to learn from the movement’s tactics and more to fear from its content. Unfortunately, the mainstream seems to do neither.

Free market advocates are in a unique position to counter the anti-capitalist, anti-technology philosophy of the protesters. For one thing, we realize that there are three and not two players on the political scene: anti-capitalists, the State, and adherents of a consistent free-market theory. We know that an attack on the protesters’ goals must not be a defense of the State, the IMF/World Bank, or the police because they all are enemies of individual freedom. After all, these "Bretton Woods" institutions were the brain-child of John Maynard Keynes, the century's leading intellectual force behind economic interventionism.

Despite this opportunity, no one seems to be arguing for the benefits of true globalization–-benefits such as the increased standard of living and health. Indeed, no one seems to be defining true globalization clearly: namely, it is the abolition of all trade barriers and privileges. Arguing from such a definition is the only effective means by which to counter the growing association between globalism and oppression.

The mainstream media, however, has been diverted into analyzing the anti-globalization conflict as protesters v. the police, with the police winning. For example, on Monday April 17th, a Reuters story by Mark Egan bore the headline, "Anti-IMF Protests End, Arrest Tally Hits 1,300." The D.C. police chief was quoted as saying, "I’ve never seen a police department operate as efficiently."

The rest of mainstream media seemed to agree: the D.C. police were responsible for the relative non-violence of this IMF/World Bank protest. Yet even in crediting the police for the non-violence, Egan article stated, "police allowed small groups to cross the barrier.... Eventually 400 people passed through the barricades to offer themselves up for ‘peaceful’ arrest." Over and over the media reported that most protesters sang to policemen and handed them bouquets of flowers.

Then they applauded the police who arrested people primarily for peaceful activities such as "unlawful assembly" and "parading without a permit." The New Times ran a front page story (04/17/00) congratulating the police for pre-emptively (illegally) shutting down the protest headquarters and arresting hundreds on misdemeanor charges.

Alternate news sources put an interesting slant on the spectacle. A-Infos News Service--"News about and of interest to anarchists"--reported that journalists had yelled at protesters, "What are you, wimps? Break Something!" A-Infos commented, "Hundreds of masked, black-clad anarchists adopted Gandhian tactics of non-violent resistance during the IMF/World Bank protests in Washington April 16, joining with other protesters forming human chains blockading intersections, singing songs and playing musical instruments, and greeting lines of heavily armed riot police with chants of 'everything we do, we do because we love you'."

Continuing, "The news media, frustrated at the lack of images of violence and destruction, took vengeance in the only way they knew how: they declared the event a victory for the police." A-Info concluded, "It’s hard to read the press coverage as anything but an attempt to ensure the next time around, storefront windows will once again be smashed."

Accounts from the alternate press must never be swallowed whole. And left-wing protesters whose goals are generally antagonistic to individual freedom should not be eulogized. Instead, they should be seen clearly for what they are. Most of the protesters are not fundamentally against the State because they would use that institution if it furthered their goals. The protesters are against a global free market. Unfortunately, the mainstream media doesn't get the politics or the import of the Washington spectacle.

The import: At its peak, the protest drew an estimated 20,000 politically diverse people, many of whom traveled a substantial distance and almost all of whom were non-violent. For days, people demonstrated in the streets of a major American city and volunteered to be arrested. Moreover, those arrested were not all raving radicals. They included Carol Guzy, for example, the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for The Washington Post. The non-arrested included actress Susan Sarandon and actor Tim Robbins.

Nor is the political carnival over. Organizers of the protest announced their intention to hold similar demonstrations in Philadelphia and Los Angeles later this year when the Republican (Philly) and Democratic (L.A.) political conventions are held. (Memories flash of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.)

Cheri Honkala, Director of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union predicted that as many as 30,000 people might hold a sit-in on the opening day of the Republican convention (July 31 to Aug. 3). Honkala offered a refreshingly savvy political analysis: "Let's put it this way. It’s going to be a hot summer in Philadelphia. City union contracts are up, the kids are out of school and there are people hurting in America who are going to come to Philadelphia to make sure somebody knows about it." Honkala was only one of approximately 500 protesters who journeyed from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. in order to address everything from sweatshops to AIDS research.

All in all, the Washington protest was eerily reminiscent of the early anti-Vietnam war movement, including on-street 'festival theatre' with giant puppets instead of 'guerilla theatre' with live actors. The in-your-face festive atmosphere carried a familiar message to the young: it is fun to rebel!

The IMF/World bank protests in Seattle and Washington may well be signaling a broad and powerful grassroots backlash against the 'materialism' of the '80s and '90s, during which the world’s rich are said to have institutionalized their exploitation of the world’s poor.

As protester Dorothee Benz declared, "We sent a message that business as usual will not happen at these neocolonial, neoliberal institutions any more."

In analyzing the Washington protest, however, the media overwhelmingly casts its spotlight on two aspects of the protesters: their eccentric behavior and the extreme range of their ideas. Indeed, the reports of the dress and behavior of protesters again resemble those from the late '60s.

Current reports miss the significance of the anti-globalization movement just as surely as older ones didn’t 'get' the early anti-war movement. For example, much was made of the bare-breasted women who 'paraded' in Washington, one of whom had the slogan "Make love, not debt" written on her chest.

A Reuters story (04/14/00) snidely reported, "A truck bearing the slogan WWW.MEATSTINKS.COM emptied a four-ton load of manure....The driver, dressed in a cow costume, was arrested.... 'Stand back; this is a crime scene,' one policeman told onlookers near the manure pile." A group of demonstrators assembled outside the Mexican embassy and shouted "Viva Zapata!" Such accounts seem too silly or extreme to take seriously.

Yet what they are showing is the diversity of expression and causes that are coming together to transcend their differences in pursuit of a common cause: anti-globalization. They are showing the strength of this movement.

The Conservative press has been more virulent in its dismissal of protesters. On the popular Intellectual Capital site, James Pinkerton-- aka "Beltway Man"--variously described the protesters as: "pasty wastrels taking time off from...Vassar," "potbellied, gray-bearded relics in Grateful Dead t-shirts," "daughter-age rabble-rousers," "flabby [middle-aged] women baring breasts." Again Pinkerton does not realize that he is describing the incredible potential of the protesters: they are an incredibly diverse mass of people who are willing to be arrested together. Moreover, for every person willing to go to jail, there are almost certainly dozens or hundreds of others who sympathetically support their actions.

Anti-globalization is able to unite groups that seem to have no common bond. The protesters include vegetarians, anarchists, animal rights radicals, feminists, poverty crusaders, AIDS activists, labor unions, socialists... In an article (04/17/00) entitled "Finance Protesters a Diverse Bunch," Associated press writer Will Lester captured both the diversity and the commonality in two quotations.

"I’m completely opposed to corporate-sponsored globalism," said a 54-year-old professor. A member of the Untied Steelworkers added, "The one commonality is a feeling of anti-corporate control." In the '60s, anti-war protests included nuns, drugged-out hippies, concerned mothers, noted authors, war veterans, civil rights activists entertainers and professional radicals--all marching as one. Any sane person should dread a leftist movement that can unite people from all strata of society and bring them out on the street in the tens of thousands.

Two additional elements increase the resemblance between the anti-war and the anti-globalization movements. First, well-organized efforts – though not always centrally organized. Second, a police backlash that will create both martyrs and public sympathy.

Regarding the first element: organization. The anti-globalization movement is organizing and doing a fine job of it. Of her presence in Washington, Honkala stated, "We weren’t there to carry signs but notebooks, because we wanted to study every aspect of the leadership, the crowd and the police."

Newspaper headlines may have loudly declared that the Washington police had learned from the Seattle experience, but the protesters learned as well and continued to do so. For example, in Seattle a few months earlier, several dozen anarchists deliberately attacked the property of 'guilty' multinational corporations. It was largely these attacks that justified calling in the national guard in the public’s eye. In Washington, anarchists consciously decided to avoid this tactic.

Training and preparations for the upcoming protests in Philadelphia will be particularly extensive. For example, several groups have sued the city to secure space in which to hold demonstrations. This was necessary because the Republican National Committee had been granted a monopoly--the right of first refusal--on virtually every open space in the city. Meanwhile, activists from Philadelphia and Los Angeles have reportedly attended a form of "boot camp training" conducted by those who organized the Seattle and Washington protests.

The second similarity with the anti-war movement has been the response of the police. Although the protesters have announced non-violent intentions for the future, the response of the Washington chief of police is indicative. "[I]f this same group of individuals [as in Washington] choose to visit either of those two conventions they’ve [the police] got problems." Police in both cities are making preparations. Especially in Philadelphia, they are likely to react with even less restraint than that shown by the Washington force.

Even in Washington, the police wretchedly botched the handling of protesters. Consider the imprisonment of those arrested. A-Info News reported (04/21/00), "Approximately 1,350 protesters have been arrested over the last three days....Three were charged with felonies, the rest with misdemeanors." The protest organizers had a legal team that quickly addressed the needs of the imprisoned, who negotiated as a solid block.

For example, on "Thursday afternoon authorities attempted to take demonstrators against their will to a bond hearing, where they would be summarily released on their own recognizance, limiting the strength of the solidarity effort. The women in custody took off their clothes as an extreme measure to prevent this." The police had no effective response.

The next day, A-Info exulted, "D.C, Authorities Capitulate to Protesters’ ‘Jail Solidarity’.... The capitulation of the authorities was the result of a pre-planned process of "jail solidarity", whereby prisoners withheld their names through exercising their Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, and overburdened the system with their united noncooperation. For those prisoners, cooperating in any manner, shape or form with what they considered to be a "corrupt and oppressive police state" would run counter to their conscience."

Katya Komisaruk, an attorney with the protesters’ legal team exclaimed "Solidarity is virtually unstoppable. On to Philly and LA for the Republican and Democratic National Conventions."

Police departments in those cities will face the same choice as the Washington police. 1) Remain non-violent and, so, be outflanked and rendered foolish by protesters who are far better at non-violence. 2) React with a brutality that is almost guaranteed to create a wellspring of sympathy among the otherwise uninterested public for the peaceful battered demonstrators. Ultimately, a non-violent mass protest is a strategy against which the police cannot win.

They can only appear to be 'winners' for a short period of time through the PR of a media that declares this to be the verdict. Yet this counter-strategy is a dangerous mistake because it blinds people to the power of the anti-globalization movement.

Ironically, those who have the most to lose from the leftist movement--advocates of the free market--are among those who take it least seriously. They do not seem able to look beyond the heap of manure and festival theatre puppets that characterized the Washington protest. Such near-sightedness obscures the most basic fact of that event: an ideological war is being waged. It is a war of ideas, even if those ideas are scrawled across bared breasts or if they flow from the mouth of Sarandon--(shades of Jane Fonda!)

Those who defend the free market are the only ones who can consistently attack the protesters’ ideology without defending the state. If we indulge in the luxury of complacently chuckling at the anti-globalization movement, political reality will bite us back.

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Wendy McElroy is author of The Reasonable Woman. A version of this essay originally ran on Lewrockwell.com. Send her MAIL.