On Saturday, February 2, approximately 12,000 demonstrators gathered in New York City to protest the meeting of the World Economic Forum. Since September 11, mainstream commentators and even a few activists had been singing dirges for the so-called antiglobalization movement. Dissent was deemed unpatriotic in wartime, and insensitive to our national tragedy. Protesters were likened to terrorists, not only by the FBI (whose list of domestic terrorists really does include a few nonviolent direct action groups) but also by the New York City media, including the Village Voice.
Given this climate, many activists anticipated the New York events with some distress. In the days leading up to Saturday’s march, they worried that the police would treat them brutally, or that activists confronting the Ground Zero heroes would be dismissed as dangerous thugs. They were also anxious about the troublemakers within their own ranks. Members of anarchist groups have been known to commit acts of symbolic vandalism, and to taunt and provoke the police, tactics historically tolerated by their fellow protesters but regarded far less indulgently since September 11. “I don’t want them to make our side look bad,” said one member of Reclaim the Streets, a direct action group. On Saturday morning, the mood among demonstrators was nervous. A young man from Worcester Global Action who gave his name only as “Andy,” spoke for many when he said, “I hope it will be a great day of peaceful protest–no violence from the police–or from us.”
But the crowd’s anxieties quickly gave way to exuberance. An unofficial Reclaim the Streets march through Central Park included a samba band and tango dancers, in solidarity with the people of Argentina. Indeed, Enron and Argentina emerged, appropriately, as twin symbols of the injustices of capitalism. A giant George W. Bush puppet, its mouth stitched shut, bore the word “Enron” on its forehead. Billionaires for Bush and Bloomberg camped it up as usual, shouting “WEF: Wasn’t Enron Fun?” Some marchers banged on pots and pans, traditional symbols of resistance in Latin America, while others carried pan-shaped signs that said: THEY ARE ALL ENRON. WE ARE ALL ARGENTINA. Such inventiveness–as sure a sign of the movement’s endurance as Saturday’s impressive numbers–was on display all day. The old sense of irony and fun was back, spawning slogans like “Bad Capitalist, No Martini.”
Any store that had been a target of anticorporate vandalism in the past–Starbucks, the Gap–was heavily guarded by police, but no one had designs on them anyway. Still, a policeman at the scene estimated that about 100-150 protesters were arrested, although official activist and police numbers were much lower. There was some police violence, including pepper-sprayings, but activists said they had expected much worse. (At least sixty more demonstrators were arrested on Sunday while dancing, arms linked, through streets and sidewalks in the East Village in a nonviolent action called by the Anti-Capitalist Convergence. Some of those arrested were injured by police.)
The Saturday demo emphasized the themes that have always preoccupied this global movement: worldwide economic inequality, the unchecked power of corporations and the dearth of political democracy. Steve Duncombe, a New York City Reclaim the Streets activist, observed a “rhetorical shift” away from an “anti”-everything politics that simply rejects existing arrangements. With the now-ubiquitous slogan, “Another World Is Possible,” activists are attempting to imagine–and to create–an alternative.
The interesting question, of course, is what this other world might look like. At the rally, Columbia student Yvonne Liu of Students for Global Justice said, “We are not an antiglobalization movement. We are against corporate-led globalization. We are a global justice movement.” Her corrective was greeted with robust cheers from the crowd. Other speakers spoke hopefully of a world organized into small confederations, eating food grown locally, a vision that understandably inspired eye-rolling from some of their fellow protesters. The good news is that questions of vision can come to the fore again, now that the question of the movement’s continuing life has been so joyously settled.
The movement has recovered not only its ability to organize a major march but its optimistic spirit as well. As we passed La Dolce Vita hair salon on East 60th Street, a woman watched the march from the open window, her hair encased in plastic wrap. A protester shouted to her: “Come on down! La dolce vita is out here!” A fellow demonstrator smiled in surprise, realizing it was true. “That’s right,” she said. “The sweet life is here in the streets.”