GW students join rally on the Mall to protest foreign debt

A crowd of several thousand people gathered on the National Mall Sunday to rally for the cancellation of debts owed to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

The focus of the rally was Jubilee 2000, a festival supporting the cancellation of foreign debt impoverished countries are obligated to repay to international banking institutions. The concept of Jubilee comes from the Judeo-Christian Old Testament.

Relieving impoverished nations of their debts will allow more money to be allocated toward environmental conservation, shelter and food, protesters said.

Religious activists, including representatives from the Washington Theological Institute and the New England Methodists, were on hand to protest.

Solicitors handed out fliers supporting or protesting many different causes – from advocating the boycott of all items produced in sweatshops to the support for Mexican Zapatista rebels.

The fight to eliminate international debt took center stage as GW students joined other students from Howard, American, Catholic and Georgetown universities in a march from Howard University to the Mall. Students carried placards vowing to break the chains of debt.

Musicians Dar Williams and Mary Black performed at the rally. Jon Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, and Gene Sperling, White House chief economic advisor, spoke at the event. Sperling read a letter written by President Bill Clinton, a major proponent of debt reduction, that addressed the need for 100-percent debt relief to the United States from the poorest countries.

Ricardo Navarro, El Salvador’s chairman of Friends of the Earth, an environmental protection group, also spoke at the rally. Speaking in Spanish, Navarro advocated the release of foreign countries from debt.

This is really important for next week, said the Rev. Richard Harding, from the New England Methodist Church. It’s a good response, a good beginning to the international movement to lift debt. We are letting Congress know that the American people want the debts lifted.

Activists said Sunday’s turnout provided little indication of what to expect during planned rallies against the IMF and World Bank next weekend.

Today’s rally wasn’t planned to be that big, said junior Michelle Bollinger, a member of the A16 Coalition, an activist group on campus. We’re focusing on next week. The A16 coalition draws its name from the date of the planned protests, April 16.

Organizers for next weekend’s protests plan to form a human chain running from the World Bank on 19th and F streets to the Capitol steps several miles away.

Next week will be in the same spirit, and it will be growing and growing until Monday, GW freshman John Mayer said. They may have been hoping for more people (today), but everyone who came out is happy to be here.

It’s great that people travel as far as they have – some change is going to happen.

Ten GW students from the newly formed GW A16 Coalition participated in the march. The group has organized a series of four teach-ins to educate GW students who wish to participate in the April 16 event but are unsure why students are protesting, Bollinger said.

Speakers at the teach-ins will include members from Students Against Sweatshops and American Lands Alliance, an environmental protection organization. Professor Angela Hewitt, who teaches English at GW, and Ahmed Shawki, a senior official of the International Socialist Organization, will also educate students about the IMF and World Bank issues.

Bollinger said college students are important to this week’s protests because they add energy to social movements.

Navarro told students it is important to demonstrate peacefully next weekend.

Some people here in Washington are worried about the violence we may cause, he said We are a peaceful people.

Sperling asked activists to become unified in their goal for global debt reduction.

At home, each one of you would have been an unknown soldier, Sperling said. Here, you are a foot soldier, but we have much farther to go.

-Tim Donnelly contributed to this report.

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