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World Economic Forum Protests Pose New Challenges for Anti-Globalization Movements

by Kenny BrunoCorpWatch
January 29th, 2002

An activist prepares to protest the World Economic Forum in New York.
Activist prepares to protest the World Economic Forum in NY. AP Photo Archive/R. Mecea

NEW YORK -- Three international meetings, being held in New York and Brazil in the coming days, mark the first major test of the anti-corporate globalization movement since September 11th.

The World Economic Forum

The World Economic Forum (WEF), a cocktail party on steroids for elite business and political leaders usually held in the mountain resort of Davos, Switzerland, is set for January 31st - February 3rd. This year, the WEF decided to move the gathering to New York City, in what it says is show of solidarity with the victims of the September 11th attacks. Some European groups argue that the real reasons for the move are the growing controversy in Switzerland over hosting the summit, the protests mounted by anti-globalization groups and the draconian methods of the Swiss police that turned Davos into a snowy fortress last year at this time. In other words, European observers suspect that the WEF, a symbol of corporate globalization par excellence, has been chased out of Davos, and the move to New York is merely an attempt at putting a positive spin on recent events

The World Social Forum

At the same time as the World Economic Forum meeting, the second annual World Social Forum, a counter-Davos summit, will take place in Porto Alegre, Brazil. This gathering of tens of thousands of participants under the slogan "Another World is Possible" is meant to bring alternatives to neo-liberal orthodoxy to life. Instead of just protesting the WTO, WEF and similar bodies, world-wide social movements are coming together to imagine other options and to begin to create them. Last year's Porto Alegre meeting caught a wave of enthusiasm for combining resistance and re-invention, and the organizers expect this year's meeting to be larger and better organized.

Preparations for the Rio + 10 Earth Summit

Finally, from January 28th - February 8th, the United Nations holds the first substantive preparatory meeting for August's World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg - the 10th-year review of the Rio Earth Summit. Non-governmental groups from all over the world will converge in New York to attempt to re-ignite the spirit of Rio, a spirit that has been overshadowed by corporate globalization over the last 10 years. A key moment linking the meetings will be when UN Secretary General Kofi Annan crosses town to visit the WEF, to follow up on a proposal for a "Global Compact" with business he made two years ago to the Davos summit.

Street Demos and Counter-Summits

Mr. Annan's coziness with big business leaders will be just one possible spark for protests from the social movements gathered in New York. In addition to the official meetings, there are counter-meetings, peaceful demonstrations and street theater in New York. The Public Eye on Davos, a 4-day event focusing on the World Economic Forum, takes place across the street from the United Nations. Students at Columbia University are organizing a Globalizing Justice conference for the same week. Local New York affiliates of the World Social Forum are hosting a day called "Another World is Possible." Think-tanks Public Citizen and the International Forum on Globalization are challenging the WEF to a public debate. And anti-capitalists, pro-democracy groups, students, parents and others are planning to take to the streets in a mass, peaceful protest.

The protestors are keenly aware that the New York public is in no mood for mischief or confrontations with City police, who remain heroes of the highest order in the city and nationally. All the groups signed-on to the protests have taken pledges of non-violence. Yet all are aware also that a few window smashers or agents provocateurs can ruin the peacefulness of the entire demonstration. Articles in the New York press report that the authorities are preparing for violence. Much of the corporate world would like nothing better than to see street protests turn ugly, so as to be able to dismiss the entire anti-globalization movement, say organizers. Such a move would also divert attention from Enron, Argentina, and other recent excesses of corporate power and neo-liberal deregulation.

For these reasons, the atmosphere on the streets is expected to be very tense. The media are likely to focus on whether there are broken windows or tear gas, how many blocks are "frozen" by the police, and whether the protestors are unpatriotic or anti-American. The challenge for protestors will be -- through all this -- to convey the message that the WEF is undemocratic, discredited and not welcome in New York. They hope to convince the public that the WEF is not a poverty alleviation program, but rather represents the failures of globalization. And that citizens can invent, are inventing, the alternative.

September 11th changed priorities for many people around the world, and especially for Americans. But opposition to globalization has not gone away, because the inequalities and suffering caused by globalization have not gone away. The protests are not unpatriotic, they are part of the freedom the war on terrorism is supposed to protect, say organizers. The movements for democracy, environmental protection, labor rights and human rights remain vital, they say. The challenge for activists will be to demonstrate, through words and actions, that the commitment to non-violence and other anti-corporate, non-commercial values underlie these movements.

Kenny Bruno coordinates CorpWatch's Corporate-Free UN campaign.