The Whole World Was Watching

New York Stages a Peaceful Protest Against the World Economic Forum

NEW YORK -- The suspense was thick in New York City last Saturday, February 2nd, as the World Economic Forum met for the third day. Would there be violence in the streets? How would the NYPD react? How many arrests? How many broken windows? How much tear gas?

Behind these questions lay more serious issues: Had the anti-corporate globalization movement survived Septemebr 11th? Would the World Economic Forum, meeting for the first time outside its birthplace of Davos, regain its luster and legitimacy?

The first week of February posed a test to the anti-corporate globalization movement and its targets. Parts of the movement got an A for attitude, but other parts skipped the test altogether. Surprisingly, the police passed. The WEF, well, they flunked as usual.

A Few Facts

First, let's get some basic statistics on the record. Saturday's march, the main anti-Davos event, drew between 7,000 and 25,000 people, depending on whose estimate you believe. There were 4,000 police, on horseback, bicycle, motorcycle and on foot. There were some 48 arrests the first day, all for minor infractions, and many of those were pre-emptive arrests by police purporting to have information of imminent illegal activities. On Sunday, there were about 150 additional arrests, many having nothing to do with the anti-WEF protests, and none for violent acts.

This was not one of those actions that turn into a running street fight with police. My son heard one cop say he was hoping to use his billy club, but I heard another complain how he hated the riot helmet and hoped not to use it. At the end of the afternoon, there was some tension between the crowd and the cops, as they divided the marchers into separate "pens" for no apparent reason. The pens, a tactic refined by New York law enforcement over the last two decades, shut protestors in behind metal police barricades.

There were also plenty of smiling cops, and friendly interactions between police and demonstrators. There were complaints of police misbehavior, but it was a far cry from the police riots in Seattle, Washington. D.C. and Quebec City. New York's Finest were, by and large, fine.

And why shouldn't they be? The march was characterized by a festive atmosphere, samba bands, extravagant puppets, cooperation, a diversity of messages, and no violence. A single female officer guarded a vulnerable Starbucks, which was hit by nothing stronger than a chant of "Starbucks Sucks" from the crowd.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the march was that it was organized without labor and without significant national organizations. A fairly ragtag group of young, under-funded and unaffiliated activists pulled this one off without help from groups like Global Exchange, Rainforest Action Network, Ruckus Society, the Teamsters, Steelworkers and AFL-CIO. These groups had decided to sit this one out, either out of fear of violence, respect for a still grieving NYPD or the decision to travel to the World Social Forum taking place simultaneously in Brazil. Left on their own by the folks who brought out the numbers in Seattle, our local anti-capitalists kept it lively, friendly and non-violent.

Don't Let the Facts Get in the Way of a Good Story

This did not fit well with the narrative told by a hyped-up press over the previous week. The standard story told of a threat of street violence and police crackdown so severe you'd think the War on Terrorism had moved back from Kandahar to the New York theatre, with young anarchists in the role of the "evil ones." Just as physicists measuring quantum particles affect their behavior, the press coverage of this event changed its nature.

Bombarded by the message that this was a dangerous game of Wild Anarchists v. Police, most older folks, children and plain regular folk stayed home. This left the field to the reputedly radical wing of the movement, and kept the march far smaller than it might have been without the hyped threat of violence.

When violence did not materialize, the story line fell apart, and press coverage of the event was less prominent than coverage of the anticipated violence. Unable to adapt to what had actually occurred, much of the press reported it as a victory for the police. In fact, it was the protestors that had shown enormous sensitivity and discipline. As a result of this discipline, some of the people who had traveled to New York had plenty of left over energy for some less traditional marches on Sunday. Those led to additional arrests, but still no violence.

A Few Suggestions for the Future

Here's a proposal to spend that energy more productively, should the WEF dare to return to the Big Apple next year. Let's not let the miles of TV cameras sit there idle, as they did for the first days of the conference. Let's do photo ops every day, every hour. Let's hang more banners, and do more street theatre. Let's sit-in at the Waldorf Astoria. Let's stage mass arrests. Let's crash the decadent parties at the Four Seasons and Chez Whatever. Non-violent does not mean non-disruptive. Non-violent civil disobedience is so much more effective than breaking a few windows.

A few broken windows helped the media rewrite anti-globalization history as a series of violent protests, but what rocked the WTO in Seattle, let's remember, were determined, completely non-violent blockades.

The most radical elements of the anti-corporate globalization movement -- its soul -- have proven they can be non-violent in New York City. With the unions, the national environmental groups, the fair trade and human rights groups, adding their voices and bodies, WEF Chief Klaus Schwab will hightail it back to Davos in no time flat. Let him dialogue there.

Oops, I said the verb: dialogue. One of the irksome distortions of the World Economic Forum spinmeisters is that the WEF is about dialogue, while its adversaries are "confrontational." By this they mean events like the Public Eye on Davos, a series of panels offering differing views from the Davos neoliberal consensus. Every single panelist for four days stayed and took questions and comments from the floor. But when the Swiss President came to open the meeting, he left the room immediately after his remarks, in which he praised the WEF, globalization in general, and, of course, dialogue!

Even more absurd was the media officer for the WEF, who said that the people who really cared about the poor were inside the meeting figuring out solutions. So now it takes $25,000 and an invitation from a Swiss gazillionaire to qualify to dialogue. Let's all try to dialogue about eradicating poverty the next time we're invited to a super-exclusive party with superstar entertainment, superb champagne and obscene amounts of food. Meanwhile, the rich and famous dialoguers should come to the Public Eye on Davos, which is free and open to the public. Or they can go to the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, which is bigger and will someday surpass Davos in glamour.

And as for Davos coming to the Hudson, I've changed my mind. Angry at the cynical spin that brought the WEF from the alps to the skyscrapers, I had wished it would just go away. The ostentatiousness is sickening. Aren't they embarrassed, after Enron and Argentina, to be shoving their excessive wealth in our faces? But now, short of closing up shop altogether, I hope it returns here next year.

Next year, let's give them a real New York welcome.

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

AMP Section Name:World Financial Institutions
  • 110 Trade Justice

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