Ground Zero at the World Economic Forum
By Dara Colwell, AlterNet
Posted on February 4, 2002
s is New York tradition, the velvet rope was firmly in place last week outside the Waldorf Astoria. The exclusive hotel was host to the World Economic Forum — a nongovernmental organization for corporate and political chiefs and their well-heeled friends — and the rope’s “no money, no entry” policy was strictly enforced. While the local police kept the public at good distance, the crowd still made plenty of noise.
The New York protests surrounding the WEF were the first large rally for global justice since last September’s anti-World Bank/IMF protests were cancelled in Washington D.C. They went relatively peacefully, with public demonstrations almost nonexistent until the third day of the meeting. For the first time in its 31-year old history, the WEF convened outside its usual haunt, the luxury resort town of Davos, Switzerland. By shifting to New York, the WEF escaped the throngs of European protestors who regularly turn Davos into a war zone — a move activists say was no accident.
“The WEF claims it’s here to show solidarity with the city,” said David Graeber of the Anti-Capitalist Convergence, one of the organizers of the anti-WEF protests. “We feel outraged they’re cynically manipulating our grief to have a posh party.”
The World Economic Forum is a 21st-century capitalist institution if there ever was one. Funded by members from 1,000 of the largest multinational corporations, it provides an opportunity for high-powered elites (who pay up to $30,000 to attend) to make plans for future globalization measures. Its self-proclaimed mission of “improving the state of the world” is bogus, protestors contend, as the forum’s corporate-led agenda often directly benefits its membership. While the WEF issues no policies or legislation, it does advise the World Trade Organization. And all this happens over swank cocktails behind ornate closed doors.
Against a backdrop of public and police sensitivity to September’s terrorist attacks, the demonstrations in New York were unsurprisingly subdued. The main focus for those critical of the WEF were a series of workshops, led by representatives from socially conscious nongovernmental organizations and economists specializing in globalization issues. Unlike in Seattle, the only fists being raised in New York were those of international spokesmen advocating for change.
“The WEF is an elitist, feudalistic dinosaur that needs to collapse,” said Adam Ma’anit of Holland’s Corporate Europe Observatory. Ma’anit, who spoke at The Public Eye on Davos conference held across from the United Nations, added: “Last year’s slogan — provided by WEF’s sponsor McDonald’s — was, ‘Think globally, eat locally.'” Ma’anit told a room crowded with people balancing on plastic chairs, “this year, the slogan here in New York is, ‘Another world is possible.'”
The “downshift” in tactics from radical street protest to calm discourse showed that another world was possible for protestors — at least for the time being. Activist leaders didn’t opt for a multi-day street protest, largely because of the local media’s hostility to potential violence and the police department’s “zero tolerance” stance. Even the Village Voice, normally staunchly supportive of social activism, gave deference to the NYPD, portraying officers as ruddy-cheeked, “multi-ethnic centurions,” battling violent anarchists who scratched cars and “cost the poor drivers a day’s pay.”
By the second day of the WEF meeting, and with only eight arrests made at a small demonstration for fair wages outside a mid-town GAP store, the local media seemed somewhat taken aback by the lack of violence and began mocking activists. Two faux protestors appeared on the Conan O’Brien Show, kitted out in Halloween masks. “Hey man, you belong to the show!” one shouted from the audience. “You should be Conan O’Pressor.”
What most media failed to notice was that many representatives of global justice, environmental and labor groups were missing from New York. They were at the second World Social Forum, hosted in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The WSF, which parallels the WEF but focuses on developing an alternative, third world vision of globalization, attracted an estimated 50,000 participants, who danced in the streets, waving banners and chanting against globalization. “The real story is Porto Alegre, not the streets of New York,” said Mike Dolan, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, at a press conference. “That’s why my boss is there and I’m here.”
Still, this kind of traditional direct action effort took place over the weekend in New York. There was a legally permitted rally that wound its way through the city, north of the Waldorf Astoria. Gathering at Central Park’s Grand Army Plaza under Sherman’s statute, thousands of demonstrators kicked off the event as Billy Bragg, an English protest singer, sang “No Power without Accountability” in a deep Cockney accent. The protestors, dressed colorfully, chanted “Capitalism, shut it down!” and carried paper mache figures and placards against the WEF in several languages. Many were not without humor — “Bad Capitalist, No Martini” read one placard.
“We’re here today to break the ice and crack it open,” said Brian Jones, a protestor from New York. “The media and police portray us as hooligans, but we’re here to re-legitimize protest.” This sentiment was mirrored by protestor Todd Polenberg of Brooklyn. “We’re set up as the fall guys here. It’s hard to paint the WEF as evil when it’s pictured as a networking party,” he said, holding a Darth Vader mask with “Evil Empire” emblazoned across it. “Seattle galvanized the movement. It said that we mean business. There’s a sizeable contingent of Americans who are fed up with corporate globalization.”
Protestors voiced concerns over canceling the $2.5 trillion international debt owed to the World Bank. If canceled, developing countries could invest their money to rebuild their fragile economies. Protestors also expressed grave fears regarding environmental issues. For example, WTO policies currently allow multinational corporations to move wood production to developing countries in debt to the World Bank. This is leading to an annual deforestization of territory the size of Greece. One protestor, Mark Hilovsky of San Francisco, even carted a 200-year old redwood tree trunk through the streets to express his alarm over deforestization.
The crowd, which numbered 5,000, according to police, or 15,000, according to NYC’s IndyMedia Web site, was peaceful but spirited on Saturday, Feb. 2. Among the participants were 50 steel workers from Toronto, San Francisco longshore workers and New York City’s Labor Union against War. While more a theatrical display of grassroots effort than direct confrontation, the rally did end with 37 arrests. Police along the route made no comment, save that it was cold.
The next day, however, the protestor’s initial honeymoon period — especially with the media — had ended. At least 87 protestors were arrested in spontaneous protests throughout Manhattan. This upped total arrests to close to 150 in two days, and NYPD police chief, Raymond W. Kelly, called for a crackdown on “hard core protestors.” Of course, the numbers were negligible compared to the usual tumult at Davos.
This year, WEF participants included Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Desmond Tutu and even supermodel Naomi Campbell. The forum’s long-term members, including heads of Coca Cola, Microsoft and Merill Lynch, also attended what activists were soon calling New York’s “million-dollar cocktail party.” Outside the conference on Park Avenue, those roped off from the dialogue continued to assert their need to be heard. “The issue is not whether we’re one world or not — we are one world,” said Michael Letwin, President of New York’s Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, who spoke at the Saturday rally. “The question is, On whose terms?”