Police Close Down Washington to Keep World Bank/IMF Open

The April 16-17 mobilization to shut down the World Bank/International Monetary Fund meetings in Washington did not have the sort of visual fireworks associated with the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization. Nevertheless this, the second round in the street campaign against globalization, was a great success.

True, the mobilization did not succeed in shutting down meetings. That would have been a tall order in the nation's capital. But close to 40,000 people came out to try. Newspapers carried such astounding headlines as, "IMF Meets As Planned." For the second time in less than six months, thousands of people came together to physically shut down a meeting of elite, unaccountable international organizations. Without a massive police presence to protect these institutions, the headlines would have been quite different.

Self-important finance ministers had to sleep on air mattresses, rise before 4:00am, and be herded onto busses to slip into IMF and World Bank buildings under cover of darkness. "We know the delegates were driving around in busses at 4:00 am because we saw them," noted David Taylor, a Mobilization for Global Justice organizer. "Our goal was to disrupt the meetings, and we were successful in doing that." According to news reports, many delegates decided to "rough it" and spend the entire weekend inside the meeting sites.

Taylor added, "Prior to...Seattle, no one knew what the WTO was. The same here. We were able to raise awareness of the labor and environmental impact and the neo-imperialist policies of the IMF and World Bank. And now they know that no matter where in the world they go there will be people there to confront them and make their lives uncomfortable."

The authorities had to take drastic measures to ensure business as usual. To avoid the public relations fiasco of the nation's capital under a blanket of tear gas and to ensure the meetings went ahead as planned, the police closed downtown Washington themselves. A huge area surrounding the IMF and World Bank was sealed off, including access to the White House and Lafayette Park. All non-essential employees were told to stay home. Fifteen hundred cops from dozens of agencies worked 30-hour shifts.

CONSTITUTION SUSPENDED

And for good measure, the Constitution was suspended. The day before the mobilization, the police raided and closed the Convergence Center, protest headquarters. Claiming fire code violations, they confiscated all the puppets, banners, and medical and other supplies inside. On the streets, more than 600 arrests were made the same day.

Even with all of the added obstacles, protesters were out in force by 5:00 am the next morning. They forced several busloads of delegates to travel around the city in search of a way in to their meetings. The meetings were delayed for several hours on Sunday, and protesters controlled the perimeter of the sealed area for the entire day. The police were completely tied-up protecting the core area they sealed-off, and they essentially handed over the rest of the city to the protesters. That day, only 40 arrests were made.

On Monday, April 17, participants' numbers were greatly reduced and the police were able to surround and arrest groups of demonstrators. A final march ended with protesters negotiating to cross police barricades into voluntary arrest.

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Over 1,300 protesters were arrested during the weekend, more than double the number arrested in Seattle. All but a few facing felony charges were subsequently released after paying a $5 fine for a traffic infraction.

LABOR IS CRUCIAL

Three points stand out from the Washington experience. First, there is now a sizeable and increasingly coherent movement in the United States willing to confront globalization through radical direct action. Second, the government is willing to curtail freedom of assembly and expression to ensure that the architects of globalization meet unimpeded. Finally, labor is crucial to the coherence and longevity of this movement.

The AFL-CIO signed onto the mobilizations after extensive pressure from concerned members. "It is very important that the AFL came on board," David Taylor explained. "At the WTO meeting, people could have been mobilized for a lot of different reasons, and there were questions about whether the AFL-CIO was being protectionist. But support of protests at the IMF--which does not affect workers in the U.S. as much--shows that the AFL is on the side of global justice."

Likewise, labor's presence helps prevent the media from marginalizing the concerns of working people. "There were a lot more labor people at the permitted rally, but they didn't isolate themselves from direct action. I saw USWA members holding lines and doing blockades. I saw SEIU members holding the line at the protest," noted Taylor.

Still, while the endorsement of the AFL was significant, there was relatively little organized union presence.

The next steps are going to be crucial for both the position of labor and the future of this new movement. The next major actions in the U.S. will most likely be the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. The AFL-CIO will probably be reluctant to get involved in these actions, yet they will be the best venues to pound home the message that labor is not going to stand for this brave new economy.

If Clinton and Gore succeed in pushing through Permanent Normal Trade Relations for China before the conventions, perhaps labor leaders can be dragged along. If this new movement can impact the conventions or the cities they are held in, the movement will have legs for several years. But labor must be present if it really hopes to change the terms of the debate.