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Following the money

Special Report Writer


The dialogue had begun!

Friday evening, April 14, I had been in Washington for less than an hour, and, to unwind from my drive from Jersey City, N.J., I scooted my bike down the hill from Georgetown University, across the Key Bridge, south along the Potomac, then back, to be confronted with OUTLAW-CANCEL-QUESTION spray painted in four-foot letters along the ramp from the bridge to the Whitehurst Freeway -- to be considered by bankers and bureaucrats on their way to work each morning.

Before the November demonstrations in Seattle, and before April 12-17 in Washington, few -- even well-informed -- citizens had given much thought to the World Trade Organization, the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund or imagined them as a stealth triple-threats to both the freedom for the world’s poor and American democracy. Much less did ordinary citizens -- the overwhelming majority in or under their 20s -- imagine that they had the power to make these institutions change their policies and behavior.

Why do they care? The answer is not simple. Partly because the World Bank (181 members) and IMF (182), founded after World War II to provide development assistance and help overcome short-term balance-of-payment difficulties, see themselves as friends of the poor. Years ago World Bank president Robert McNamara redefined its mission as patron of the poor and protector of the environment. My Washington friends tell me of World Bank and IMF staff members who see their work in terms of a missionary vocation, and the World Bank 1999 Annual Report (www.worldbank.org) stresses poverty, good government, environmental protection, debt relief, and becoming a more open, transparent organization.

Their critics say that, in order to meet the terms of their loans, poor countries have been forced to cut back on health and education, thus undermining the one resource that can rebuild the country -- human potential. In some countries development money has been stolen by corrupt rulers; and in others, like Russia, IMF advice, such as the call for immediate privatization, enabled the oligarchy to grab state-owned industries and funnel their assets into Swiss bank accounts. In general, they say, IMF regulations favor bankers, weaken labor and ruin the environment. The trickle-down economic philosophy doesn’t work on a global scale either. The rising tide does not raise all boats: It raises big ones while waves swamp the little ones. Finally, the World Bank and IMF, though theoretically answerable to the people because funded by taxpayers, operate like secret societies free from public scrutiny or evaluation.

But in a number of ways unique or special to this generation -- music, concerts, cell phones, cheap travel, socially and environmentally aware high school and college teachers and the Internet -- 10,000 protesters have converged on the nation’s capital to shut down, shout down, out-talk and embarrass the spring meetings of the World Bank and the IMF.

And have a little fun too. Friday afternoon two protesters from PETA, an animal rights group, one dressed as a farmer, the other as a cow, dumped four tons of horse manure (collected at the police stables) on Pennsylvania Avenue near the World Bank Headquarters. The gesture, which the media declined to explain, was not a comment on the quality of the World Bank/IMF discussions, but an attack on their lending policies, which force debtor countries racked by famine, like Ethiopia, to raise cash crops for export to pay back their loans, rather than raise food crops to feed their own people. Thus, they raise grain to fatten the beef of the First World rather than wheat to make bread for their children.

Elsewhere in the world and the city that day: On Wall Street, in fear of higher interest rates, the stock market hit bottom. The Miami Cubans holding Elián Gonzales (age 6) broadcast the boy’s “I don’t wanna go home” hostage tape video and again defied the Justice Department and refused to return the boy to his father. In Havana, at a meeting of the Group of 77, representing 80 percent of the world’s population, Fidel Castro called for the elimination of the IMF, comparing the restrictions of the bank to the crimes of Germany in World War II.

The Georgetown University Foreign Service School, fearing disruption, has postponed the Saturday night annual Diplomatic Ball at the downtown Corcoran Gallery, and restaurants surrounding the World Bank and IMF have closed till Tuesday. An economist, Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, has argued that for African famines the food is there, but few countries have the infrastructure, the political stability and the courage to distribute it. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian famine is on the front pages again.

* * *

Fr. Joe Rozanski joined the Franciscans at 14. His vocation, however, did not come into a clear, dramatic focus until his 10 years in Brazil when he saw liberation theology at work, and when, as he left to return to the United States, fellow Franciscan Leonardo Boff told him to study economics when he got home. This Saturday morning, in the basement of Washington’s Sacred Heart Church on 16th Street, he sits at the center of a workshop group of 20 members of Pax Christi from Florida, Pennsylvania, New York and the District of Columbia and suggests a spirituality of nonviolent protest that will motivate them for the days ahead.

The religious highlights took place earlier in the week: the meetings on Jubilee 2000, the ecumenical plea to forgive the poor nations their debt, and the Religious Working Group’s Economic Way of the Cross, where about 100 pilgrims, though the roaring motors of the police motorcycle escort and the helicopter overhead seemed determined to drown out their prayers, processed from the Capitol steps to the World Bank and IMF.

Judy Coode, who works for Maryknoll in Washington, was there because to her the World Bank is not an abstraction. She has seen, traveling in Panama, how the American lifestyle is sustainable only by our world domination. She judges that American Catholicism’s sin is now idolatry: patriotism has corrupted its spirituality.

Halfway through the procession, a jogger stopped to ask what was going on, read a handout and took up the big cross and carried it.

Nor are the World Bank and IMF abstractions to John Kelly, a Florida University ’94 graduate now in campus ministry at the University of Miami. His sweatshirt reads, “Fry fish, not people.” In a visit to Haiti he saw how, when forced to downsize the government in order to finance its loans, Haiti privatized government services like public power and communications. This put thousands of people out of work with no safety net. They can’t even feed their prisoners, who must depend on their families to bring them food.

* * *

It is early Saturday afternoon and about 400 youths hunker down on the floor of a ramshackle auditorium called the Wilson Center, apparently an abandoned church, with enormous dead organ pipes towering along the front wall on either side of a stage. In front, volunteers hold up a huge map of Washington, broken down into pie slices, as target areas for the next day’s actions. No media, the speaker says; but I sit quietly taking my notes.

They are both mad and delighted to have something to be mad about. At 8:30 that morning the police raided their warehouse headquarters and training camp, the Convergence Center, on the pretext that it was a fire hazard, and confiscated their giant parade puppets, equipment and food. “Free the puppets!” they say. “Give us back our stuff!” Crammed into this hall, insofar as the movement has leaders, are the leaders, spokespersons for a collection of clusters or affinity groups from all over the country.

Many of them grew up with no interest in politics but somehow got their first brush with social issues through the back door -- in song lyrics or at rock concerts where Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth or more radical groups had set up booths and were handing out literature. The better colleges offered courses that “helped them connect the dots” says Fordham graduate and Columbia Journalism School student Eileen Markey, who was a reporter in Cambodia between schools.

They saw the threat of corporate power and control. Adults complain that this generation does not watch the news; but they don’t watch it because they don’t trust the corporate media to tell them the whole story, says Markey. They react against the GAP, against designer duds made in sweatshops, against the Disneyfication of their culture. Organized over the Internet, they have “flown below the radar screen” into this assembly. When they express their approval, rather than yell they raise both hands and wiggle their fingers -- a deaf sign language symbol for yes. Each leader stands in turn to report, “Our cluster, A, has 93 members, 30 arrestable. We need more volunteers to face arrest ...”

* * *

Palm Sunday, dawn, a soft drizzle falls on the Potomac and its town. The city sleeps. But not the 80 blocks surrounding the White House, IMF and World Bank, awaiting the arrival of delegates to the meetings that are scheduled to begin -- at what hour the protesters have not been told.

On the way, in I pass the big buses and police escorts lined up outside the posh Four Seasons and Doubletree Hotels on M Street where the delegates are staying. The police have strategically blocked off the area in a way that isolates the protesters in areas like Farragut Park and various intersections where they can make their noise while the cops slip the delegates in by a safe route. There’s speculation that maybe they’ll fake it and not come in at all, and hold their sessions at the Watergate, CIA Headquarters or the Pentagon -- all allegedly conducive to their ideology.

It is a quality of youth to stay cheerful in the rain. Many have manned the barricades -- arms linked, singing, chanting -- since 5 a.m. They dance, beat drums, parade, spread out on the sidewalks, caucus in small groups to plot disruptions. Though salted with a fair number of grandparent figures and a few in wheelchairs, as a group they are very young, skinny and white and wear black. Some sport green or gold or purple hair, shaved heads or locks to their shoulders, and rings in their ears, lips and noses. Most could be the boy or girl next door, but wearing the cheapest, grungiest clothes they could find, plus maybe a gas mask or a bandana to either ward off tear gas or pepper spray or hide their identities from police or press cameras.

The self-described “anarchists” swagger around like teen-age ninjas in black duds and ski masks. It’s political theater and I guess we’re supposed to feel scared. When they’re home alone, what do they do?

Maybe they just do their homework or cram for their SATs -- or play those video games where you get to chop off your opponent’s head and pull his guts out.

A stranger -- a man with gray hair in a green go-to-meeting suit and tie -- is spotted maneuvering through the crowd. A cry goes out. A bullhorn shouts: “A delegate!” A dozen protesters swarm around and pursue him down the street. He keeps smiling but moves faster, trying to not break into a run. “You have every right to be here,” he says. “I just wanted to see what was going on.” Is he a really a delegate? Or just a guy in a suit? He is gone.

Six hundred were arrested the night before for marching without a permit, and hundreds more are ready to go to jail today; but by 9 a.m. the meeting is well underway. The armies of the drizzly dawn must regroup for the afternoon.

* * *

By noon the sun has broken through and the nation’s capital is basking, almost baking, in a pre-summer glow. Thousands of tourists, including parents with teenagers looking at colleges, put up with the disruptions and get a new insight into democracy at work. They know it is democracy because among the 10,000 youths swarming together on the streets and on the Ellipse south of the White House and north of the Washington Monument, many of the young men have taken off their shirts and written “This is democracy” on their chests and other slogans, like “Don’t Feed Fat Cats,” on their backs.

They know it is democracy because a triumphant parade leaves the Ellipse and marches through the streets with their liberated puppets -- depicting Corporate Clinton and gross World Bankers -- drums, and tambourines, all chanting, “This is what democracy looks like.” From 10:01 till 6:30, 58 speakers, organizations, and entertainers have about two to 20 minutes each to inspire the crowd, which moves among the tables set up by the Green Party, various Socialists, Kurds who display posters of Turks brandishing severed Kurdish heads, and those who would free Tibet and free Mumia Abu Jamal.

On one street corner a Czech journalist who looks like Jesse Ventura argues with a long-bearded protester, who tells him that “most of this crowd come from families making $4,000 to $8,000 a year and are here so their grandchildren can have clean water.” The Czech misunderstands, replies that $8,000 a month is good living.

At West York and 18th Street, in front of the Octagon House, where James Madison lived after the British burned the White House, a foot from a police barricade and line, protesters lie on the street, linked in an unbreakable chain by each holding the other’s ankles under his or her arms. A protester tells me the police have generally been good; but she personally witnessed a cop use his baton to bang two young people on the head -- and she gives me his name. I write it down and ask hers. “I’m Peacemother,” she says.

* * *

Why, tactically, I ask, do the linked demonstrators on the ground block this street when, in effect, it is already blocked by the police? Surely no one will seek to come through. “Well,” she says, “here you are asking me about it.” Which seems to be the main point of the whole week. The meetings took place; but for much of the week much of America -- on the networks, the talk shows, PBS, C-Span, the newsweeklies, opinion magazines, daily papers and Internet -- talked about “globalization” and its shortcomings. Not all talk was on the same level. Daniel Schorr grumped about “globalphobia” and Rush Limbaugh compared the peace-loving, law-abiding Miami Cubans with the lawless wackos and weirdoes, “an endless parade of human debris” soiling our capital’s streets by their presence. The World Bank and IMF talked to themselves, but heard enough noise from the street to resolve to do something on debt relief and spend more to fight AIDS in Africa. Like the World Trade Organization after Seattle, they are a bit less the faceless forces they were a year ago.

Four Emory students told me they were satisfied, they had learned a lot, which they would share back in Atlanta. Pax Christi leader Dave Robinson learned three things: 1. A great variety of groups, religious and non-religious, can work together. Three years ago you couldn’t get 50 people to an event like this. Today, 10,000. 2. New techniques -- like the “lock boxes,” barricades strengthened by arms linked inside long plastic tubing, and the “pile up,” where 20 people pile on top of each other to prevent one from being arrested. 3. They can do all this nonviolently.

Paul Villavisanis, a young, Pax Christi, ninth grade teacher from St. Augustine, Fla., I suspect may speak for his generation in more ways than we have been aware. He wears a “Lift Sanctions against Iraq” sweatshirt, but, unlike many, he has never been to Latin America or Africa. Still, like many, he wants to be part of something larger than himself. He has educated himself on social issues by scanning the Internet and watching videos and he assigns Elie Wiesel’s Night and Thoreau’s Walden to his class. But he keeps asking himself, “What can I do?” So he comes to Washington in the rain and sun, with a line from W.H. Auden’s “September 8, 1938” running over and over in his head: “All I have is a voice ... We must love one another or we die.”

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is author of The American Journey of Eric Sevareid (Steerforth Press).

National Catholic Reporter, April 28, 2000