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Published on Thursday, April 20, 2000 in the Madison Capital Times
Protests Succeeded In Shaking Up D.C., Mobilizing Forces
by John Nichols
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 Southeast Asia.

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 1970s.

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 same.

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 poverty.''

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


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