This article is the last in a three-part series
Residents and visitors to downtown D.C. saw the neighborhood temporarily transformed into a well-contained battleground this past weekend.
At the center of it all were the annual spring meetings between the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, whose conferences went on uninterrupted while the scenes of a pacifist insurrection played out in the streets.
Helicopters hovered low over the heads of thousands of protesters, mostly white 20-somethings sporting T-shirts, pins and banners of more than a dozen social and political causes. They were well-organized despite their varied interests, and the majority of their actions held true to their axiom of non-violence.
Though a group of self-proclaimed anarchists clad in black attire and facemasks tried to push through the steel barricades blocking the streets, an equally organized and well-fortified police force kept the violence to a minimum. A handful of quickly subdued acts of aggression included an overturned dumpster that was spray-painted with the words smash the state and thrown into the middle of G Street.
Sarajevo it wasn’t. Last weekend’s protest failed to accurately portray to the riotous outbreaks in the city that spawned its nickname, Seattle II: The Sequel. In truth, few expected that it would be anything more than what its organizers intended – a mobilized effort to shake things up while raising awareness for issues pertaining to globalization and world poverty.
All we wanted was to make people around the country and around the world understand what groups like the World Bank and the IMF are doing and why people like us won’t stand for it, said Alex Belinger, a 26-year-old protester.
He went on to list some criticisms of the bank, including its handling of debt-collection in third-world countries and implementation of unfair structural adjustment programs. He calls the bank a tool of the wealthy nations of the world that helps maintain a hegemony for countries like the United States.
We won the battle here this weekend because our message was heard by people around the world, he added.
It is clear the three central players in the protests, the World Bank/IMF, the D.C. police and the protesters themselves, all have different takes on how the weekend panned out. Some refer to it solely in terms of conflict, using words like winners and losers as quickly as they attach themselves to such victories.
On the second day of the protests, an article in The Washington Post ran with the headline, Police, Protesters Claim Victory.
In it, both sides justified their claims to triumph. Police gave thanks for a day free from serious violence, and protesters said they succeeded in getting their message to the public through the help of the media.
On the Monday evening news, D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey added to the debate, saying, in the respect that (the protesters) were unable to close down the meetings, we won. An unattributed rebuttal can be viewed on a sidewalk near 17th and I streets, where, painted in black, the words, we are winning underscore a lone anarchy symbol.
Many of the protesters, who in the days leading up to the meetings confidently stated their belief that they would repeat the success of the Seattle protesters and shut down the meetings, found new claims to victory after the reality of an impenetrable police blockade set in.
Teena, a 23-year-old protester whose clothes were adorned with anti-WTO and IMF pins sums up the attitude of many of the protesters.
We already won just by being here, she said. It doesn’t matter that they had their meetings because they know that we’re down here, and they know that the public is not going to ignore their unfair lending policies and discriminatory and harmful economic practices.
But in a battle in which the goal is eliminating poverty, claims to victory may seem presumptuous in the face of a persisting, global economic crisis. To some, like the World Bank’s Media Relations Representative Chris Walsh, a greater opportunity could possibly be found if the protesters and the bank were able to work together on the same team.
If they say that poverty reduction is what they’re fighting for, then we’re on the same team by definition, Walsh said. I feel that if they had succeeded in shutting down the meetings, the only people who would have lost would have been the poor.
If there’s a message to be taken from the World Bank/IMF protests, it might easily be the need for improved communication between the bank and the groups who so passionately oppose their actions.
For Walsh and others at the bank, the need for an open forum between protesters and bank officials could facilitate progress in the two groups’ wars against suffering in the developing world.
Stressing the need for the two sides to work together, Walsh and other bank staff said they are eager to sit down and meet with any group or individual willing to contact the bank and set up a meeting.
We want to talk to these people, and we always have, Walsh said. Our doors are open to them year-round.
Speaking at a University debate sponsored by the International Affairs Society, another World Bank official, Sudhir Shetty, made similar statements. The principal economist for the Africa region, Shetty admitted the bank could do more to consider new development ideas, but said they are always looking for new ways to hear ideas and development suggestions.
While the bank officials continually make statements inviting the protesters to join their fight against poverty by voicing their concerns and suggestions for change, many demonstrators said they feel the bank and the IMF are not sincere in their call for an open forum.
Everything that I’ve heard come out of the bank about the protests sounds like the same typical, phony promises you’d expect to hear from a politician during an election, said Jeremy Tueller, 28. Of course they say they want to talk with us, but they also know that there isn’t a way for them to sit down with all of these people out here and hear us out. They say they want a debate, then why don’t they invite any of the protesters into any of these, or any other meetings?
Walsh maintains that, although the security practices of the World Bank prohibit people from just coming into meetings off the street, protesters and other concerned citizens can easily contact the bank by telephone or through their Web site.
That’s not enough for people like Cindy, a 20-year-old protester who came down from Penn State University to join her peers in the fight against the bank and the IMF.
I don’t think they have made any efforts to really hear our side, and that makes it all the more clear that they are just bureaucratic institutions that only care about maintaining free trade and global markets for the benefit of their wealthiest member nations, she said. If they wanted to, they could have come outside and faced the crowds and tried to meet with any of us, but they didn’t even do that.
The last of the police barricades have been put back into storage and most of the protesters have bundled up their puppets and placards and returned home. Streets have been reopened and the police have left their corner posts, erasing any trace of what was, for one faintly tumultuous weekend, a temporary police state. Someone returning to the city after a weekend away might be hard-pressed to find evidence that the protests or the meetings occurred at all, were it not for the scattered remnants of graffiti that serve as more permanent reminders of the protesters’ cries for justice.
Of course, all sides involved, including the police, are reveling in their accomplishments of the past weekend. Depending on what their goals were, they may deserve congratulations for a job well done. There were no riots. The meetings went on as scheduled. The message of the protesters was heard and, perhaps most importantly, no one was seriously injured or killed.
At the bank, the mood is generally positive, as Chris Walsh describes an overall feeling that people are ple
ased with what happened.
He points to what is, in his opinion, one of the meetings’ most significant accomplishments – the pledge that the bank would commit unlimited money to fight AIDS in poor countries – as proof that the meetings were successful.
But, as both sides realize, the successes and failures of the weekend will ultimately have little immediate impact on the global situation they are trying to improve. Thirty-four million people are still living with AIDS worldwide. Two billion people live on less than $2 a day. Hundreds of millions of people lack the basic levels of health, nutrition and education needed to help a country grow economically and reduce poverty.
And while it might be impossible for the two opposing sides represented in D.C. last weekend to forget their differences, some people understand that every view must be heard and taken seriously if they hope to achieve any dreams of a world free from poverty.
But perhaps what stands out above all can be found in the words of protester Alex Belinger, who made it clear that, regardless of what happened April 16 and 17, both sides have work to do before any of those hopes are realized.
No matter what happens today, tomorrow or in the next few years, poverty is going to be a problem that plagues our world, he said. I think one of the most important things about an event like (the protests) is that they show us how much further we still have to go.