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U.S.: Washington Braces For Biggest Demonstration Since Vietnam

  • Andrew Tully

Anti-globalization protesters will be out in force when the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund hold their annual meetings next month in Washington. Police estimate that the demonstrations will be the largest in the U.S. capital since the height of the Vietnam War. Security will be tight to keep disruptions to a minimum, but the protesters may already have won one skirmish in their latest battle against the global economy: The Bank and the Fund, citing security concerns, already have agreed to shorten their meetings. RFE/RL senior correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports.

Washington, 28 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Washington police are preparing for an influx of more than 100,000 protesters next month at the annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The meetings on 29 and 30 September will be the occasion for the latest in a series of street confrontations over economic globalization. The first major protest was in December 1999, disrupting the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle. Next, the protesters targeted the World Bank/IMF spring meetings in Washington in April 2000, and the institutions' fall meetings held five months later in Prague. They also demonstrated at the Summit of the Americas last April in Quebec City.

The protests have been getting progressively more violent. Most of the demonstrators have been peaceful, if disruptive. But some have taken the opportunity to commit acts of vandalism. And police reaction to the protests has sometimes been criticized as being too forceful. During the meeting of the Group of Seven leading industrial democracies, plus Russia, in July in Genoa, Italy, a police officer shot one of the protesters to death.

Washington's police chief, Charles Ramsey, says he expects the demonstrations will be the largest since the protests against the Vietnam War during the 1960s and early '70s.

Washington's Metropolitan Police department has set aside $12.6 million to provide security for the World Bank/IMF meetings, and it will bring in more than 3,000 reinforcements from other police departments. The federal government will provide $16 million to the Washington police force to pay for the extra police, and for special equipment to minimize the impact of the demonstrations.

The equipment will include about three kilometers of tall metal fences that will be used to keep the protesters away from the immediate area of the World Bank and the IMF buildings, which are across the street from each other in the center of the city.

Like the World Trade Organization, the Bank and the Fund are supporters of globalization. This a broadly defined term that includes international trade with fewer tariffs and other restrictions, and less regulation of businesses that seek to have offices in many nations. Recent advances in communications technology have allowed governments and companies to realize globalization more than ever before.

Supporters of globalization say it offers developing countries the opportunity to trade freely in an open market on the same level as wealthier nations. They say unfettered trade will gradually reduce poverty by creating jobs in even the poorest countries.

Opponents of globalization say it merely gives large corporations and wealthy countries the opportunity to move jobs to poorer countries. They say this hurts the workers in the companies' home countries by throwing them out of work. At the same time, they say, it exploits workers in developing countries by paying them low wages. According to the protesters, the only beneficiaries of globalization are the companies and, in some cases, corrupt political leaders in the poorer countries.

At a recent (20 August) news conference in Washington, one of the protest leaders gave broad examples of what he called the victims of globalization. He is Bob Brown, director of the Kwame Ture Work/Study Institute and Library, an advocacy group for the world's poor.

"We know firsthand the devastation that the United States government and the IMF and the World Bank's policies have perpetuated in Africa, in South Africa, where we are still required to pay the apartheid debt; in Brazil, where our people live in shanties and our youth are shot down in the streets by death squads; in the Pacific -- we see it in every corner of the world."

The protest leaders also object to the Washington Metropolitan Police department's order restricting where the demonstrators can gather. They have sued the department to open access to the streets where the Bank and the Fund have their headquarters. They say the restrictions violate their right to free expression -- guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Soren Ambrose is a policy analyst with the group called Fifty Years Is Enough Network, which says the policies of the World Bank and the IMF do not help people, but hurt them.

"We are calling for access on the part of protesters to the [IMF and World Bank] buildings, the site where these meetings take place, not just a token presence, but the full force of the thousands of people in this country who in the past few years have woken up to what these institutions based here are actually doing to people around the world."

Brian Becker is the national co-director of the International Action Center, an anti-globalization movement. He said police will be unable to restrict the demonstrators to what he called "protest pits" because the American public will not stand for a curb on free speech which is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

"What's at stake is the First Amendment itself, the essence of the First Amendment."

Even if the demonstrators are not given greater access to the IMF and World Bank buildings, they already may have achieved part of their goal. Because of the looming protests, the Fund and the Bank have decided to hold the meetings in the IMF building, rather than at a hotel a mile away. And they have cut back the meetings to two days, rather than the customary five to 10 days.

IMF spokesman Bill Murray told RFE/RL that the meetings were cut back at the request of the U.S. government, which expressed concern for security in the nation's capital.

The Fund and the Bank have said they are puzzled by the anger of many non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The institutions say they have always welcomed suggestions from NGOs, and have invited them to many of their meetings. The NGOs say their access to the meeting in the past has been so restricted as to be nonexistent.

Murray says these groups are making unrealistic demands of the World Bank and the IMF.

"For a number of years we've had hundreds of NGO representatives attending our meetings, annual meetings, and we would continue to hope that would be possible. This year, because of threats of violence against the institutions, we're -- unfortunately there's going to have to be some curb put into place."

And the IMF spokesman says it is protesters' own fault that they now face limits to their demonstrations.

"We would hope that there wouldn't have to be any fences, we would hope that there wouldn't have to be any policemen outside our buildings. And in fact there weren't policemen for more than four decades outside IMF headquarters when we were meeting."

Besides, Murray says, the security arrangements are being handled by the local and federal officials. He says the Fund and the Bank defer to them, calling them "experts" at maintaining order. He said the two financial institutions, meanwhile, will focus on their own area of expertise.