I admit it: I slept in
I went to Washington, D.C., for the protests against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, but when my cellphone rang at some ungodly hour with word that the new plan was to meet at 4 a.m. Monday morning, I just couldn't do it.
"Okay, meet you there," I mumbled, scribbling street intersections with a pen that had run out of ink. There was absolutely no way. Bone tired after 13 hours on the streets the day before, I decided to catch up with the demos at a more civilized hour. And so, it seems, did a few thousand other people, allowing the World Bank delegates, bussed in before dawn, to get to their meeting in bleary-eyed peace.
"A defeat!" many of the newspapers pronounced, eager to put this outbreak of messy democracy behind them and concentrate on more newsworthy subjects: Oprah's new magazine, for instance, and the fortunes of Pets.com.
Canadian expat-in-Washington David Frum couldn't get to his computer fast enough, declaring the protests "a flop," "a disaster" and, for good measure, "a flat soufflé." In Mr. Frum's estimation, the activists were so discouraged by their inability to shut down the IMF meeting on Sunday that they took to their beds the next day rather than brave the rainy streets.
Ahhh, the desperate cries of a man waking up -- no matter how early in the morning -- to the realization that history is passing him by.
It's true it was tough to drag butt out of bed on Monday, but not because of the rain or the scary cops. It was tough because, by then, so much had already been accomplished in a single week of protests. Shutting down a meeting is good activist bragging rights, no doubt, but the real victories happen around those dramatic moments.
The first sign of victory came in the weeks before the protest, with a rush among former World Bank and IMF officials to come out on the side of the critics and renounce their former employers. Most notably, former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz said the IMF was in desperate need of a large dose of democracy and transparency.
Next, a corporation gave in. The protest organizers had announced that they would take their calls for "fair trade" as opposed to "free trade" to the doorstep of the Starbucks coffee chain, demanding that it sell coffee grown by farmers who are paid a living wage. Last week, only four days before the planned protest, Starbucks announced it would carry a line of fair-trade certified coffee.
And, finally, the protesters defined the terms of debate. Before the papier-mâché was dry on the giant puppets, the failures of many World Bank-financed mega-projects and IMF bailouts were outlined in newspapers and radio talk shows. More than that, the critique of "capitalism" just saw a comeback of Santana-like proportions.
The radical anarchist contingent The Black Bloc renamed itself the Anti-Capitalist Bloc. College students wrote in chalk on the sidewalks: "If you think the IMF and World Bank are scary, wait until you hear about Capitalism." The frat boys at American University responded with their own slogans, written on placards and hung in their windows: "Capitalism brought you prosperity. Embrace it!"
Even the Sunday pundits on CNN started saying the word "capitalism" instead of just "the economy." And the word makes not one but two appearances on the cover of yesterday's New York Times. After more than a decade of unchecked triumphalism, capitalism (as opposed to euphemisms such as "globalization," "corporate rule" or "the growing gap between rich and poor") has re-emerged as a legitimate subject of public debate. This kind of impact is so significant that it makes the disruption of a routine World Bank meeting seem almost beside the point. Sure, the delegates won a tactical victory by making it to their meeting. But having to wake up at 4 a.m. and sneak under cover of darkness and police escort is itself a profound public-relations defeat for an organization whose president, James Wolfensohn, says he comes to work every day "thinking I'm doing God's work."
Besides, the protesters may have been kept from disrupting the meeting by police barricades, but rarely have barricades been less effective: The World Bank and the IMF, though protected physically with astonishing force and brutality, were shaken to their very core.
The agenda of the World Bank meeting, and the press conference that followed, was hijacked utterly. The usual talk of deregulation, privatization and the need to "discipline" Third World markets was supplanted by commitments to speed up debt relief for impoverished nations and spend "unlimited" sums on the African AIDS crisis.
Of course, this is only the beginning of a long process. But if there is a lesson of Washington, it is that a barricade can be stormed in spirit, as well as in body. And Monday's sleep-in wasn't the nap of the defeated, it was the well-deserved rest of the victorious.
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