>The Boston Phoenix >December 28, 2000 - January 4, 2001 >The year of the protest >2000 brought us tear gas, rubber pellets, black ski masks, and giant >puppets. Will it continue? >by Kristen Lombardi > > History will find it fitting that 2000 neared its end in a burst of >anti-capitalist dissent. The news that Seattle had erupted in mini-riots on >November 30 called to mind the destruction that occurred there 365 days >earlier, when anti-free-trade protests paralyzed the city's downtown. To >commemorate the historic 1999 event, protesters went after a popular >corporate target -- Starbucks -- smashing windows and spray-painting walls >at nine of the chain's coffee shops. >The raucous affair pretty much sums up 2000. Y2K might not have sparked the >end of civilization, but it brought us street riots all the same. The past >12 months witnessed one rowdy protest after another in cities across the >nation, from Seattle to Washington, DC, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. >Even places known more as sunny vacation spots than as hotbeds of political >activity (hello, West Palm Beach) became home to mass marches and >demonstrations. > >To be sure, a certain amount of public dissent could be expected -- it was, >after all, a presidential-election year in which no incumbent was running. >Still, people took to the streets with a passion and ferocity that this >country hadn't seen since the late 1960s. What made the 2000 protests so >unusual was that they weren't rooted in a single issue like Vietnam -- an >issue that divided the country and touched the lives of virtually every >American. Under the loose rubric of curbing "corporate globalization" -- >the year's hottest political buzz-phrase, referring to the unchecked >expansion of global capitalism -- activists spoke out against everything >from old-growth forest destruction to Third World debt to racism, sexism, >and homophobia. In retrospect, it seems, a spirit of protest once again >became the national Zeitgeist. > >Technically speaking, of course, the mother of all recent protests took >place at the tail end of 1999, during the now-famous World Trade >Organization (WTO) meetings in Seattle. As many as 50,000 >environmentalists, labor leaders, human-rights advocates, and self-styled >anarchists shut down the city with demonstrations, giant papier-mch sea >turtles, and vandalism. Police responded with tear gas, rubber pellets, and >mass arrests. > >The tumultuous affair began on November 30, 1999: armies of demonstrators >linked arms to block access to the Seattle convention center, where WTO >delegates were trying to start a round of global-trade talks. Coverage of >the event riveted the country. Newscasters broadcast dramatic footage of >anarchists in black ski masks kicking in windows at the Gap, of cops in >full riot gear tossing tear gas into the crowds. By the time the protests >ended, activists everywhere had been inspired. In shutting down the WTO >talks, the demonstrations proved that ordinary people who mobilized could >make a difference -- and this intoxicating notion set the tone for 2000. No >sooner had the World Series of demonstrations ceased than organizers looked >to re-create the magic. > > And they did. Yet for all the comparisons that were made between >2000-style outrage and the social unrest that punctuated the 1960s, >observers often missed one crucial point. Yes, the Greens, unionists, >black-clad anarchists, and other advocates who spilled into the streets >this year had much in common with their '60s counterparts -- both >identified serious societal problems. But '60s protesters could say what >they were for -- namely, peace. Protesters today couldn't do the same, at >least not without ticking off a list of causes ranging from the inspired >(stop the environmental scourge of globalism) to the tired (free Mumia >Abu-Jamal). Their crusade's lack of coherence -- not to mention their >penchant for parading around with puppets -- prompted many critics to >dismiss them out of hand. > >That would be a mistake, however. These activists not only highlighted the >downside of American economic success (which, after all, is due largely to >free trade), but also thrust prosperity's price into the American media >spotlight -- which is no small feat in our hyperactive, attention-deficit >culture. That protesters drew scores of once-apathetic young people into >the political process -- witness the strength of Ralph Nader's presidential >run -- has proven their biggest achievement yet. And it's one that could >pave the way for long-term political action. > >Flush with the success of Seattle, activists spent the year crisscrossing >the country from one major event to another. And like their '60s-era >counterparts, who used mischievous, attention-grabbing tactics like taking >over university buildings, the 2000 rabble-rousers tried to shut down city >neighborhoods that hosted nefarious gatherings -- though they never quite >succeeded in doing so after Seattle. >In April, some 10,000 activists flocked to the nation's capital to protest >a joint meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which regulates >international currency and helps countries in debt, and the World Bank, >which funds development projects around the globe. Loosely organized by >groups like the Ruckus Society, in Berkeley, California, and the San >Francisco-based Global Exchange, protesters arrived a week early for >teach-ins and marches. Their ultimate goal, though, was to stop the >meetings on April 16 (dubbed "A16" by activists). Yet unlike Seattle's >police force, which was overrun by protesters, DC's finest were prepared >for the demonstrations -- perhaps too prepared. The day before A16, police >raided a DC warehouse known to activists as the "convergence space." >Claiming that the demonstrators possessed Molotov-cocktail ingredients, >officers then confiscated the activists' art tools -- the paint, >turpentine, and brushes used to construct the movement's signature giant >puppets. > >The day before the A16 action was supposed to occur, police also swooped in >and arrested 600 people on K Street. For every protester hauled in and >charged with parading without a permit, there was a DC resident observing >the activities or a commuter on the way to work who ended up pinched as >well. Police were embarrassed when it was later revealed that they'd netted >a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post photographer in the sting. > >Their methods were crude -- and their intent all too apparent: the police >had done their damnedest to rid the streets of as many protesters as >possible, locking them up in jail until the crucial IMF/World Bank meetings >were completed. In the end, though, the Washington affair may have >solidified the budding movement against corporate globalization. What might >have happened if the DC police had played by the rules? Would the action >have collapsed under the weight of its unmet expectations? Indeed, despite >the hype, nowhere near the number of protesters who had descended on >Seattle showed up in the nation's capital. Even if police hadn't locked up >so many, the demonstrators probably wouldn't have succeeded in shutting >down the city and blocking the meetings. But ironically, the DC cops may >have given protesters a unifying goal -- that of "fighting the Man," as >their '60s brethren used to say. After the gross injustices committed by >the DC police, who could blame activists when they seized the opportunity >to strike back at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in >Philadelphia and Los Angeles? > >The four-day Republican National Convention, held at Philadelphia's First >Union Center July 31 through August 3, boasted its share of bold, >Seattle-style stunts. Activists wearing George W. Bush and Al Gore masks >duked it out in a staged mud-wrestling match. They parodied Bush's >"compassionate conservatism" with a makeshift homeless camp dubbed >Bushville. They poked fun at corporate America with an 80-foot float >christened Corpzilla. Even conservative political columnist Arianna >Huffington showed up to object to the lack of debate over substantive issues. > >Activists continued to challenge authority -- in far more peaceful, >productive ways. They called attention to police brutality by marching to >the LAPD's Rampart division, which is now under investigation for >widespread abuse of citizens. Hours later, they gathered outside police >headquarters to protest the criminal-justice system. But activists had not >come to take on the police. They came to say that Democrats were just as >guilty as Republicans of pushing a domestic policies that promote the >almighty buck over every other consideration. They even put Gore to the >test, organizing a well-attended march against his investment in the >Occidental Petroleum Corporation, whose Colombian operations threaten to >wipe out the indigenous U'wa people. Rallies and teach-ins went on without >a hitch all week -- although ultimately they had little effect on the >convention itself. > >Despite the failures in LA, protesters remained undeterred. No sooner had >the political conventions ended than they set their sights overseas. In >late September at least 8000 activists arrived, as eager as ever, in the >Czech Republic to try to shut down a meeting of the World Bank and IMF in >Prague. They failed -- but this time they blocked all exit routes to the >city's convention center, trapping delegates from 182 countries inside for >six hours. > >Prague turned the anti-corporation protest into a bona fide worldwide >institution. American activists joined Italian, British, and German >advocates who had long spoken out against globalism. By doing so, they made >their commitment clear: they weren't about to stop until policymakers took >their complaints seriously. > >Locally, too, protest fever hit hard. In late March, thousands of >biotechnology bigwigs flew in to the Hub to attend the Bio 2000 conference >at the Hynes Convention Center, where 2500 chanting demonstrators met them. >Protesters made sure to dress in costumes, many of which resembled >regurgitated fruit, to symbolize the dangers of genetic engineering. Comic >flair aside, the protest's high point came just before dawn on March 28, >when four merry pranksters, hoping to send Bio 2000 attendees down, dumped >30 gallons of what they claimed were genetically altered soybeans in front >of the Hynes. The activists were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. >Passions erupted in Boston again on October 3, when Bush and Gore squared >off at the UMass Boston campus for the first of three presidential debates. >The barricaded lawn outside UMass was dubbed the "protest pen" by the >media, and rightly so. Thousands of protesters turned out, ostensibly to >object to Green Party candidate Ralph Nader's exclusion. But drums were >beaten for everything from ending capital punishment to campaign-finance >reform. Nader and Gore supporters went mano a mano over who backed the >better candidate. As the dust settled, police arrested 16 people, some of >whom were caught throwing an eight-foot steel fence at passing cars. > >The fracas surrounding the first debate was more than appropriate, given >the rage over the political process that has ensued since Election Day. No >sooner had November 7 passed than Jesse Jackson led the rallying cry >against voting snafus that had resulted in thousands of African-Americans' >being denied the right to vote in Florida -- in a year when blacks went to >the polls in record numbers. The AFL-CIO brought in scores of union members >to boost Democratic demonstrations over the Florida recount; it bused in >hundreds for a December 6 demonstration on Capitol Hill, during which >demonstrators decried action from the Florida State Legislature, which was >preparing to call a special session to name the state's 25 electors. And a >parade of Democratic officials traveled from DC to Tennessee to Florida to >demand an accurate tally of all ballots. > > But when it came to sheer, unbridled rage, the Republican camp -- with >its rent-a-mob partisans -- truly outdid everything the year had witnessed >up to that point. Of course, the act of protesting was about the only thing >the GOP demonstrations had in common with those of the youthful Y2K >activists. Overwhelmingly, Republicans spilled into the streets not out of >idealism or a desire to better the system, but because their political >party had appealed to their economic self-interest. W. attracted them with >the very item that made their counterparts recoil in disgust: the dollar bill. > >And the Bush camp -- which, as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, paid >party operatives to travel to Florida and protest -- got its money's worth. >As soon as the recount of Florida ballots commenced, far-flung GOP >followers poured into the Sunshine State and proceeded to lash out in mass >gatherings orchestrated by the Republican Party. In Broward County, a crowd >of angry GOP protesters chased down one Democratic official who was >suspected of stealing a ballot; it turned out to be a sample. The day >before Thanksgiving, demonstrators in Miami-Dade County showed their >gratitude by screaming, pounding walls, and waving fists while storming the >offices of the election commission. Amid the vitriol and confusion, some >GOP protesters shoved, kicked, and punched Democratic spokesman Luis Rosero. > >When the Florida Supreme Court handed down its December 9 decision to allow >14,000 contested ballots to be recounted, hundreds of Bush loyalists >flocked to Gore's DC residence -- only to turn their jeers into cheers less >than 24 hours later with the US Supreme Court's ruling to halt the count. >Spontaneous outbursts soon shifted to the front of the US Supreme Court, >where hundreds of Republicans and Democrats spent December 11 in a partisan >shouting match while the nine justices heard legal arguments on the Florida >recount. The clamoring grew so intense that DC police in riot helmets >separated the two sides with metal barricades. > >The election outbursts provided the perfect end to a perfectly tumultuous >year. But the very people who had expressed the most vigorous dissent over >the previous 12 months were conspicuously absent: the young activists. This >could be because many of them voted for the anti-corporate Nader, derided >as a campaign spoiler. Maybe Y2K activists were nursing their wounds after >their man had been blamed for the election fiasco. (Under other >circumstances, it was Patrick Buchanan who might have been the spoiler: he >won crucial votes in four states -- Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin >-- that, had they gone to Bush, would have won the Republican 30 additional >electoral votes and thus the presidential election.) Maybe their >anti-establishment mindset simply prevented them from taking up the fight >for a major-party candidate. Whatever the reasons, in retrospect it may be >that, ironically, Republicans and Democrats who engaged in spontaneous >outbursts (as opposed to the meticulously planned "actions" by the Ruckus >Society, complete with training sessions on how to avoid arrest by secoring >oneself to a fence with a U-lock) will be credited with preparing the >ground for immediate change. After the mess that was the Florida recount, >who doesn't believe that the next crusade on Capitol Hill will be an >attempt to overhaul the way we vote? > >After such a spirited 2000, 2001 seems destined to carry the fiery flame >forward. True, we probably won't see the numbers we saw during the last >great period of activism, the 1960s. For one thing, today's protesters >embrace such a buffet of causes -- everything from environmental damage to >sweatshop labor -- that they confuse the rest of us. And a confusing >message makes for a tough sell with mainstream audiences. >Still, the seeds for widespread mobilization were planted with the >remarkably odd coalition of activists that organized demonstrations this >year. Labor leaders, environmentalists, death-penalty opponents, gay-rights >activists -- a host of advocates worked together under the anti-corporate >banner. These seeds should grow and bloom before they wither. After all, >when it comes down to it, Y2K activists are not all that different from >their counterparts in the '60s. Like their forerunners, young people spent >the year protesting because they expect their country -- their government >-- to live up to its ideals. > >Besides, the passion that characterized 2000 is bound to be fueled further >once Bush and his fellow Republicans come into power. Talk of a >Seattle-like demonstration at the January 20 inauguration has already >circulated among this year's young crusaders in more than 30 states, >including Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island. They will join Jesse >Jackson and others in speaking out against what they call the >anti-democratic US electoral system, as well as the "gross >disenfranchisement" of black voters in Florida. If the GOP's hungry >ideologues succeed in passing even a fraction of their regressive policy >agenda -- if they reverse the social, environmental, and educational gains >made under the Clinton-Gore administration -- we can expect the outcry to >be amplified. Says Boston University professor Joseph Boskin, who studies >social movements: "Conservatives in the Republican Party are nasty, nasty >people, and their nasty policies will translate into greater activism." > >And if that happens, then maybe, just maybe, we can watch the Year of the >Protest turn into a year of sustained political action. >---- >Kristen Lombardi can be reached at email@example.com.
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