Standing Up For Democracy

Protesting the World Economic Forum in NYC

By Cat Allison and Clara McCarthy

Between January 31st and February 4th, approximately 25,000 activists descended upon New York City to protest the World Economic Forum (WEF). They brought puppets and gas masks, calls for a truly democratic world and catchy chants mocking global elites.

The WEF has often taken a back seat to such favorite activist targets as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. The World Economic Forum was founded in 1971 by Europeans to deal with the problems of the "world communist threat," global recession and Europe's integration into the world economy following post-WWII rebuilding efforts. The Forum provided a space for the European corporate community to network and brainstorm business strategies in the face of a volatile international market. Now expanded to include multinationals and non-European elites, the WEF is an exclusive club of and for the world's richest corporations, including Microsoft, Monsanto, Nike and until recently Enron, and the politicians and intellectuals they influence. The WEF is the "think tank" for the IMF, World Bank, and WTO, dictating the basic structure of global economic, political, and cultural relations in what has been described as neocolonialism or neo-imperialism.

By 1982, the exclusive closed-door meetings were held annually in Davos, Switzerland. Driven out of Davos by local and international protesters, this year the WEF came to New York City, where they felt the recent tragedy would deter significant protest. Encouraged by increasing divisions in the anti-globalization movement stemming from September 11 and the US war in Afghanistan, they also enlisted the aid of the NYPD (which provided 40,000 police officers) to take advantage of public sympathy for the police force. Fortunately, reports of the movement's death are highly exaggerated. Several global justice groups initiated a call to action. Focusing on presenting a creative rather than destructive demonstration, the goal of the convergence was to let the world know that the globalization movement was alive and well, with a festive street presence and a conference at Columbia University bringing together globalization activists from around the world.

The alternative events of the weekend began with the conference. Presenters had a broad focus, from global coalition building to skills needed by protesters in the coming weekend. There were presenters from Malaysia, India, United Kingdom, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Montreal, and Australia. Workshops educated participants in the history of the WEF and the impact of the global elite's style of globalization on labor, sustainable development, human rights and the environment. Speakers exposed the corporate bias of US foreign policy. Legal, media, medical and tactical trainings were available for those planning to take their politics to the street.

On Thursday and Friday, activists revved up with rallies and protests, from a rally at the Gap, to a pagan Peace Vigil in Washington Square Park, to a Working Family Rally. The police presence was excessive, often with lines of cops surrounding the gatherings. There were minor confrontations, with six people arrested.

On Saturday morning activists arrived at the starting positions of the main march apprehensive of police threats to confiscate backpacks and wooden drumsticks, arrest groups with more than three people wearing "masks," and use fire hoses for crowd control. Puppets, soccer games, and radical cheerleaders boosted crowd morale despite the encroachment of police and police barriers. Several times while protesters were just standing around waiting to march, police rushed the crowd using pepper-spray and handcuffs to push people back and pen protesters in more. The arrests were violent, usually involving six or seven officers tackling one protester. One elderly man had his face slammed into the ground and was dragged. Beyond the individual instances of brutality by the police, the NYPD relied primarily on their intimidating presence and the rumors of repressive tactics that had circulated among activists beforehand.

Unfortunately, on Sunday the atmosphere eroded further. Several hundred protesters who showed up for the Anti-Capitalist Convergence snake march and the Animal and Earth Liberation Fronts' march were completely surrounded by an undiminished police force. Large groups were rounded up merely for stepping out in the street. Over one hundred people were arrested, including two Indymedia reporters and five street medics, with charges as silly as blocking pedestrian traffic.

The protesters displayed persistent creativity in the face of a police state. The large, energetic presence showed that the global justice movement has not been silenced by the appeals to blind patriotism by the corporate media or the Orwellian actions by governments that have used the September 11 tragedies to further their jingoistic and imperialistic goals. As in the Seattle WTO meetings, WEF organizers adopted global justice rhetoric to try to salvage their public image without implementing real reform. Participants in the conference and the protest returned to their communities with a greater understanding of the challenges ahead for the movement, as well as a renewed drive to continue building it both

locally and globally.