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World: WEF Draws Low-Key Protests From Young And Frustrated

  • Nikola Krastev

The protests taking place on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in New York have been vastly different than the antiglobalization rallies that roiled Seattle, Prague, Genoa, and other cities over the past few years. While thousands of protesters turned out on the streets of New York near the forum site, demonstrations were mostly low-key. A heavy police presence -- combined with the sense of respect for the city's law-enforcement officers in the wake of 11 September -- left few protesters looking to stir public disorder. RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev talked to some of the people who turned out for the weekend demonstrations.

New York, 4 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Since the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States, the future of the antiglobalization protest movement has been in question.

Before the attacks, the demonstrations were large and sometimes violent, but increasingly influential. On many issues, the demonstrators had persuaded international organizations to modify their agendas to better meet the needs of the world's poor -- seen by the protesters as the main victims of economic globalization.

But the September attacks served to mute dissent as citizens of Western countries became less willing to tolerate criticism of their own institutions.

If the protests this weekend at the World Economic Forum in New York are any indication, the movement remains potent, but the numbers are smaller and the voices are quieter.

The crowds who turned out on a chilly Saturday morning to rally in midtown Manhattan were mostly young and eager to make a statement about injustice in a globalized economy. They started out with whistles, cymbals, and drums to try to lift spirits.

An improvised performance by a young man and woman -- criticizing the World Economic Forum being held nearby -- attracted a small crowd of sympathizers: "They have come to New York City to plan the fate of our planet and our people!"

Many of the protesters who spoke to RFE/RL on Saturday (2 February) said they had come to New York to rally against globalization. They criticized an international trade system they say has allowed rich countries to prosper while poverty deepens in much of the developing world.

Kim Hall, a 22-year-old bartender, told RFE/RL that the protests were an attempt to draw attention to a worsening problem: "Our presence here is more in hopes of making other people aware, [to] be like a sticky ball that grabs people in as we roll along and then eventually get the masses to realize that yes, they can make a difference [and] that together, we are powerful."

Saturday's rallies seemed disorganized at times, with the protesters often sending out a variety of messages. Kathleen Crocket, a 19-year-old student from the University of Vermont, told RFE/RL she was marching with a unit called the International Socialist Organization.

Crocket said she viewed the march as part of a rebirth of the global antiwar and anticapitalist movements. She said it was the first big public protest in a long time, so it was important to make a statement and not be afraid of the police.

"A lot of people have sort of sided with the police, but we have to remember that they are agents -- sort of corporate bodyguards, agents of repression. Hopefully we won't see too much [violence] today, but we're prepared."

But Saturday's protests, which swelled to an estimated 7,000 demonstrators, ended with no major outbreaks of violence. Police said some 40 people had been arrested on charges of disorderly conduct, unlawful assembly, and reckless endangerment. A number of protesters credited police with allowing them to gather near the World Economic Forum site, so they could be seen and heard by participants. Nearly 4,000 New York City police officers were on duty during the protests.

About 2,700 participants at the five-day forum (31 January-4 February) are discussing U.S. foreign policy, its possible role in breeding terrorism, and the downside of globalization.

The protesters' anger appeared to be directed less at the economic forum than at corporate scandals -- typified by the unfolding Enron imbroglio in the U.S. -- and massive lay-offs in many industries amid the global economic slowdown. Many expressed their opposition to the capitalist system.

Asked about the alternatives, Patrick Henderson, a 23-year-old student at New York University, told RFE/RL that even the Soviet model, if improved, could be a better model than the current free-market system.

Henderson: "A socialist system, I think -- a worldwide socialist system, I think would be better."

RFE/RL: "Something like in the former Soviet Union?"

Henderson: "No -- well, no -- I mean, sure we would have a planned economy and whatnot. I mean, I would hope for that -- you know, a more democratic socialist system than was in the Soviet Union. We want more participation, you know, so things run smoother [and] you don't have the crises that the Soviet Union had with their system."

At one point in the rally an effigy of Kenneth Lay, the former chief executive officer of Enron -- currently the focus of a criminal and congressional inquiry -- passed by. Another protester was carrying a huge cardboard sign with the words "WEF: They are all Enron -- we are all Argentina." A third protester held a sign that read: "Let the Titanic sink with CEOs on board."

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