WASHINGTON -- There are no easy measures of success or failure for protest
demonstrations. Concessions by entrenched powers are seldom choreographed to
illustrate the precise impact of street-level challenges to the status quo.
Thus the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Civil Rights did not bring an
immediate end to the state-sponsored segregation that defined the American
South. Nor did 1969's moratorium marches, which repeatedly filled the streets of
Washington with hundreds of thousands of anti-Vietnam War activists, cause
Richard Nixon to instantaneously pull the plug on American adventurism in
But today it is broadly accepted that demonstrations on the streets of the
nation's capital moved the center of political gravity in the 1960s and early
What history will say of this spring's Mobilization for Global Justice, and
the related protests of the last week, won't be known for a good long time. But
there is no denying that a movement no one would have predicted even six months
ago succeeded in shaking up official and unofficial Washington. Nor should there
be any doubt about the value of this series of loosely linked demonstrations
seeking relief of debts that prevent progress in developing countries, opposing
the Clinton administration's efforts to grant permanent most-favored nation
trading status to China, and challenging the pro-corporate bias of World Bank
and International Monetary Fund lending and development policies.
"If you think about where the dialogue was on a whole host of these issues
just a few months ago, and then look at it today, you can see that we are
changing the direction of the debate,'' says Multinational Monitor editor Robert
Weissman, who worked with Essential Action and dozens of other groups to
organize the mobilization, which ended Monday.
Weissman is a savvy activist, who is justly cautious about claiming symbolic
victories. But he had plenty to crow about following the culmination of a week
of hastily organized protests that had a total organizational and promotional
budget of around $120,000.
Consider the record:
l Jubilee 2000 campaigners rallied April 9
to demand cancellation of international debts with interest payment requirements
so oppressive that governments of impoverished nations must pay off bankers
rather than provide food, shelter, health care and education. President
Clinton actually sent a letter to the organizers of that event, embracing the
cause. Members of Congress stepped up efforts to provide U.S. funding for debt
relief. And World Bank officials said they would support more -- through
certainly not enough -- debt cancellation.
l Labor unions and environmental and human
rights groups rallied April 12 in opposition to the Clinton administration's
efforts to end annual reviews of trade between China and the United States.
Granting China permanent most-favored nation status was referred to by one union
leader as "the international sweatshop development and growth act'' because it
would ease the way for multinational corporations to expand their use of Chinese
prison labor camps to produce goods for U.S. consumption. Within days of the
rally and lobbying by thousands of union members from across the country, House
Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., who had been wavering, broke with
Clinton and sided with labor's position on the issue.
l Throughout the week, AIDS activists from
Philadelphia ACT-UP campaigned aggressively to focus attention on the failure of
the World Bank, the IMF and the U.S. government to address the growing AIDS
crisis in Africa. The World Bank's Development Committee on Monday
issued a communique promising major new initiatives against AIDS, while the
Clinton administration is scrambling to adjust Africa trade policy to better
respond to the crisis.
l On April 16, activists from around the
world filled the streets to challenge World Bank and IMF policies that place a
greater emphasis on creating new sources of cheap labor and resources for
multinational corporations than on ending poverty. They argued that,
for all the official talk of noble purposes, the World Bank and the IMF have
done more harm than good in much of the world. On April 17, no less a figure
than U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers admitted: "The overall benefits of
(World Bank and IMF) aid have been disappointing, particularly in the poorest
countries.'' Too often, Summers added, "there remains a gap between the banks'
policies and development aspirations and actual results on the ground.'' At the
same time, IMF officials claimed -- in the face of understandable skepticism --
that they are going to place a new emphasis on anti-poverty initiatives.
If that's a record of failure or misdirection, please let's see more of the
Perhaps the best measure of the success of the protests came in the rapid
response of conservative commentators with a history of defending the interests
of multinational corporations. Rush Limbaugh and Tony Snow raced to their radio
studios to dismiss the activists as "know-nothings'' and "Marxists.''
The Wall Street Journal editorial page wrote off the protests by organized
labor, mainstream church groups, human rights organizations and thousands of
newly energized students as "underwhelming.'' The protesters were nothing more
than "global village idiots,'' the Journal editorialists suggested; the
demonstrations in Washington, the paper added, represented nothing more than an
alternative spring break that allowed "ragtag packs of well-to-do kids'' to let
off a little steam before final exams.
The Journal editors somehow missed the presence of environmental activists
who had traveled from as far away as India and Nigeria to join the protests,
along with church leaders from Latin America, Chinese dissidents such as Harry
Wu, steelworkers from Gary, retirees from Santa Barbara, veterans from Portland
and anti-sweatshop activists from Madison. It should come as no surprise that,
to the defenders of all things corporate and conglomerated, those who campaign
for economic and social justice really do "all look alike.''
To those who actually witnessed what went on in the streets and in the
corridors of political and economic power in Washington last week, however, it
was impossible to dismiss the protests. Indeed, Tuesday's Washington Post
concluded: "By grabbing media attention, the protesters managed to put before a
broader public a debate (over) whether globalization, the rapid integration of
national economies, is enriching a few nations by impoverishing others.''
Says C. Fred Bergsten, an economist who served on a congressional commission
that studied the World Bank and the IMF: "Both are trying to deal directly with
the most cogent and legitimate concern of the critics, including the critics in
the street -- that they are not addressing themselves to the alleviation of
No single week of activism is going to make right all the wrongs of the
world, and this past week certainly did not. Indeed, the coalitions that will
make up this movement are still getting to know one another, and still getting
to know their potential.
Yet, by any honest measure, this mobilization has tipped the balance in the
direction of global justice.
© 2000 The Capital Times