"When protest becomes effective, governments
become repressive." Tom Hayden summed it up in an axiom
three decades ago, while describing his own trial on
conspiracy charges for organizing protests against the
The Seattle protests last December knocked the
millenium round of WTO negotiations out of commission,
and demonstrators have faced increasingly hostile
government actions ever since. This is especially true for
those who have kept to their principles of non-violence and
no destruction of property-- which includes almost everyone
who showed up in Washington DC last April to protest the
International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and in
Philadelphia last week for the Republican Convention.
The city of Philadelphia upped the ante with the arrest
last week of John Sellers on conspiracy charges, and the
setting of bail-- for misdemeanor charges-- at one million
dollars. A higher court reduced the bail, which was more
typical for a murder suspect than someone who is accused of
conspiring to block traffic, to $100,000 on Tuesday. But the
message was clear.
Sellers heads the Ruckus Society, a group that has
trained activists in the techniques of non-violent civil
disobedience. The group was instrumental in organizing both
the Seattle and Washington, D.C. protests. He was apparently
singled out not for anything he had done in Philadelphia, but
for who he is. The use of special punishments on the basis of
a person's political identity certainly contradicts the principle
that we are "a nation of laws, not of men."
Philadelphia is not alone. In Washington DC, the
police went so far as to close down the meeting center of the
organizations that were planning the protests. This was a
flagrant violation of civil liberties more commonly seen in
countries like Indonesia or Burma than in the United States.
(Philadelphia police staged a similar, almost certainly illegal
raid last week on a warehouse used for making puppets and
other protest props, "preventively arresting" 70 people).
Washington police also rounded up hundreds of people on
the street one night, including some unlucky tourists, and
launched "pre-emptive strikes" against people who looked
like they might be on their way to a demonstration.
Although there were some scuffles between police
and a few protestors in Philadelphia, it is important to
understand that police abuses have not been committed in
response to violence or even property damage. In Seattle, for
example, a handful of people on the fringes of the protests
broke windows and overturned trash bins. But the police
mostly ignored the window-breakers and let loose their tear
gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets on the thousands of
It may seem inflated to compare these protests to the
much larger demonstrations of the Vietnam era, but the
Seattle and DC demonstrations were enormously effective.
The WTO has yet to recover from the collapse of its
millenium round, and last April's protests in Washington
gave millions of Americans their first glimpse of the IMF and
the World Bank. These two organizations head up a creditors'
cartel that controls the major economic decisions for more
than 60 countries. They are the most powerful financial
institutions in the world, and they have relied on public
unawareness for 55 years to maintain-- and regularly abuse--
The protestors have solid moral authority for invoking
the long-standing tradition of non-violent civil disobedience.
Martin Luther King once compared such infractions to an
ambulance going through a red light on its way to the
hospital. The issues raised by the protestors certainly have
the moral urgency that King was describing.
Fifteen million Africans have already died from
AIDS, and our government's policies (together with the IMF,
World Bank, and WTO) could cost the lives of millions
more. Extracting the maximum debt service from these
devastated countries, and protecting US patent holders from
the spread of affordable, generic anti-AIDS drugs, appear to
remain as these institutions top priorities.
At home, we now have nearly two million prisoners
languishing behind bars, hundreds of thousands convicted on
drug charges for which no civilized society would incarcerate
These are among the issues that the mostly young
people whom Philadephia Police Commissioner John
Timoney described as "a cadre of criminal conspirators" have
sought to bring to public attention.
Million dollar bail, conspiracy charges, illegal raids,
and police abuses are unlikely to be any more effective than
tear gas and pepper spray in discouraging these protests. Nor
will Mayor Street's threat to prosecute low grade
misdemeanor charges "to the full extent of the law." He
should take a lesson from Washington, DC and release the
protesters still being held in Philadelphia's jails.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic
and Policy Research in Washington, DC.