APRIL 19, 2000

Searching for Answers about Globalism -- in the Streets of D.C.

There was plenty of passion and moral rectitude at the IMF/World Bank protests, even if much of it seemed misguided

At Ground Zero of the boisterous demonstrations this weekend in front of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C., I immediately noticed two colors: white and black. White was the predominant skin color of the 10,000 or so young protesters, most of them college-age and very middle class. Then there were the D.C. police, most of them African Americans, standing cross-armed at the barricades, holding the demonstrators back. The protesters, arms linked in a human barricade of their own, were shouting, cursing, and generally denouncing the IMF and World Bank for failing to alleviate world poverty. The cops, stone-faced in response, would probably have been glad to direct them to Northeast D.C. -- about 20 blocks east of here -- where there's plenty of poverty, too, only much closer to home.

While the rectitude of the demonstrators may have been misguided, there was certainly plenty of passion behind it. Their goal was to call attention to global injustice, corporate greed, and the failure of international aid agencies to include developing countries in the West's economic boom. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, was their point. And they knew this because, as beneficiaries of an unprecedented period of U.S. economic growth, they were definitely in the former category.

These youngsters didn't have any solutions, really, only beliefs -- held with all the conviction that their higher education and privileged backgrounds would allow. They are convinced that the world financial system is screwed up. Some wanted changes in the way international lending institutions behave. Some wanted outright abolition. At the least, the protesters wanted a dialogue. "The IMF is part of the system of impoverishment. Its policies have bled countries dry," asserted Danny Kennedy, director of Project Underground, who flew in from San Francisco for the week to help organize teach-ins and nonviolence seminars for the demonstrators.

SPRAYED AND BEATEN. After a week of such teach-ins and seminars, Sunday morning, Apr. 16, found this group unbathed, toting bedrolls and sleeping bags, seething from the arrests of 600 of their friends and co-demonstrators the night before. For them, it might as well have been the killings of students at Kent State or Jackson State all over again. "The revolution is indeed going to be televised," a youth leader had predicted at All Souls Church near Malcolm X Park the night before.

This angry group wanted to make sure of it. At 8:30 a.m., the protesters readied to surge police lines in front of the IMF. Many of them wore a look of determination, a look that said they were in a mood to court trouble. Dressed all in black, one small group of demonstrators wore bandanas across their faces like outlaws from an old Western and called themselves "anarchists." They targeted the barricades on the northern perimeter of Pennsylvania Ave., a few blocks from the White House, where a phalanx of policemen stood shoulder-to-shoulder. The protesters surged forward, only to be repelled by police wielding pepper spray. Some were beaten back with batons.

This only made the protesters angrier. So they regrouped and circled around Pennsylvania Avenue waving signs that read "Spank the Bank" and "Defund the Fund." Strident young women wore T-shirts that said "IMF = Loan Shark" and "Cancel the Debt." A teenage boy, his blonde hair matted into dreadlocks, stopped to play the guitar.

ALL-DAY CLASH. The procession began to feel almost festive -- until some of the self-described anarchists beat bongo drums to rile the crowd. A young man, lacking a more sophisticated noisemaker, began vehemently, almost comically, banging on a pot with a fork. The tension grew.

Once again, the black-clad anarchists stormed their way past the barricades, from the west this time. But first, they took a moment to cheer, scream, and spray-paint electrical boxes with anti-IMF graffiti. I watched as one of them smashed the rear window and slashed the tires of a car on 21st and G Streets. Then they commandeered a trash dumpster, which they rolled down the street towards the barricades.

The police moved in once more. The clashes continued all day and into Monday, Apr. 17, despite a heavy rainstorm, until police finally used tear gas to disperse the protesters. Finally, the two sides agreed to a more civil procedure: The demonstrators would cross police lines peacefully, and the police would immediately take them into custody. In all, 1,300 were arrested over three days.

UNINFORMED. As the spectacle unfolded, the demonstrators clearly grew more interested in making a scene and less interested in making their point. This followed its own internal logic: Many in the group came to Washington with one ideal -- concern for the environment, for example -- which was subsumed into the overall cause. In fact, some of the protesters I spoke with made good points: 50 years of international development have left far too many people still living in poverty, and local people should have input in trade decisions, rather than adhere to rigid World Trade Organization standards that may force them to go against their values.

But mostly their views came across as frighteningly uninformed. "Poverty increased 60% in Indonesia after the IMF came in," claimed one of the organizers during an interview with CNN. That phrase was quickly absorbed and repeated as if it were a mantra by the stringy-haired teens in the crowd.

Well, just a minute. The cause-and-effect was missing from this argument. Isn't it just as likely that poverty could have increased 80% if the IMF did not come in with a rescue package after the 1997 currency crisis? The IMF acknowledges that it made mistakes in its bailout of Indonesia. But it did not cause the spectacular flameout that ended 31 years of dictatorial rule in that country.

HELPLESS? Yes, it's tragic that 1.2 billion of the world's 6 billion people live in poverty. Maybe the World Bank and IMF are not as effective as they could be in helping them. But these organizations didn't make people poor or destitute, either. As James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank says: "Blaming us for civil strife and poverty is like blaming the Red Cross for war."

So why do increasing numbers of poor people around the world ignite such passion with this crowd, especially when there are so many injustices much closer to home? My theory: It's about privilege, guilt, and a feeling of helplessness in the face of the global forces that are rapidly changing the world -- from the rise of the Internet to the destruction of local cultures and traditions. This group wants answers to the problems that accompany change. Let's all hope we can find them.

Prasso is Asia Editor of Business Week. She traveled to Washington to cover the IMF meeting