The movement for global justice after Porto Alegre and New York City
February 15, 2002 | Page 8
AT THE end of last month, New York City played host to the World Economic Forum (WEF)--a meeting of the world's most powerful corporate executives and government officials. More than 1,000 miles away, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, 40,000 people came together for the World Social Forum (WSF)--to show the alternative to a world run by these fat cats.
The meeting of the WSF, plus the week of protests in New York against the WEF, marked an important step for the global justice movement. Socialist Worker talked to KATHERINE DWYER and MEREDITH KOLODNER, who took part in the anti-WEF protests in New York, and PAUL D'AMATO and AHMED SHAWKI, who participated in the WSF.
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KATHERINE: The most important thing about the anti-WEF protest in New York was that it reestablished our right to protest. And this came in the face of all kinds of police threats and intimidation.
To take one example, we were driving near the Waldorf-Astoria where the WEF was meeting, and we honked our horn in solidarity with a group of workers walking a picket line.
We immediately got pulled over by police, who said that you can't honk your horn in New York City unless it's an emergency--and if you do that again, you'll get a fine. This in a city where honking your horn is a favorite pastime.
That's just a small example, but the entire city and police force was clearly geared up for repression of demonstrators.
MEREDITH: The fact that the World Trade Center towers fell in New York gave Rudolph Giuliani--the hated former mayor--an opportunity to become a national hero. This was very demoralizing for people who felt like he had destroyed the city by attacking social services and city workers for years.
So the protests also reestablished the fact that there are thousands of people in New York who disagree with what the government is doing. Thousands turned out to send the message that while the WEF says it's in solidarity with New York, we're not in solidarity with the WEF's corporate agenda--which is linked up with New York's new mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and the policies of George W. Bush.
That was incredibly important, because there's been a lot of media talk about how the global justice movement is dead, the left has been destroyed, and now we're all on the same side supporting the U.S. "war on terrorism."
The demonstration not only blew that idea away with respect to protesting the corporate agenda, but it was also as much an antiwar demonstration as it was a global justice demonstration.
If it had been called as an antiwar demonstration, I'm not sure you would have had that response--because people aren't as confident yet. But it was called as an economic justice demonstration, and so people came out for that--and across the board, they were against the war.
In terms of organizing the event, we helped move the process along by initiating a discussion about making the centerpiece of the week of protest a permitted march.
Previous global justice demonstrations have had a lot of direct action involved. But in this case, because of the climate in New York, a lot of activists concluded that the most important thing now was getting as many people as possible out on the street--and that a permitted march was a tactic that could accomplish that.
That wasn't to the exclusion of direct action--but to say that we need everyone possible who's against WEF's agenda to come out, regardless of their ability or willingness to get arrested.
And we argued to build the march around an open and accessible message--rebuild New York for people not profits--instead of attaching a long list of demands that required people to be against imperialism, to be against capitalism.
That didn't happen without a debate. But it was important that we made the case--because it made the protests more successful.
PAUL: In Porto Alegre, there were several debates reflected in the different forces that were there. There were debates within the parliamentary current, which was bigger than at last year's WSF--there were several ministers of the French government in attendance, for example. This group didn't necessarily oppose the U.S. war drive.
But if you look at the WSF's final statement, it was a strong statement against U.S. intervention and the war in Afghanistan--and against the war spreading to other countries like Iraq.
What was clear in a lot of the debates was a pressure from the left. While there were lots of different opinions and currents, the event overall represented a step forward in terms of linking the issues of the war and the issues of globalization that have traditionally been a part of the global justice movement.
AHMED: I think that the most important thing about Porto Alegre is that it represented the first meeting on an international scale of the global justice movement, which had been significantly set back by September 11--set back politically in terms of who had the initiative.
In the U.S. and other countries, ruling classes that were faced with defending their agendas now felt they could go on the offensive by pledging to uphold "traditional values" and "the sanctity of human life."
In the U.S. in particular, where the Bush administration had been isolated on many issues--from the international treaty banning land mines, to its walkout from the United Nations racism conference, to the question of global warming and the Kyoto treaty--September 11 gave the U.S. ruling class the excuse and the alibi to say that now everybody has to get in line behind us.
The global justice movement didn't "get in line" behind the U.S. state, but it was set back. Thus, the demonstrations against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meeting, set for late September 2001, were called off because it was seen as an "inappropriate" time to demonstrate in Washington, D.C.
And there was a mixed feeling--either that the global justice movement shouldn't take a position on the war or that the more politically conservative elements of the movement, like the AFL-CIO, explicitly got behind the U.S. war effort.
But it wasn't going to stay this way--because the war that the U.S. has undertaken has little to do with getting justice for the people who died in the World Trade Center and has much more to do with advancing precisely the economic, geopolitical and military aims that globalization is a part of.
For example, Susan George, leader of the French global justice group ATTAC, wrote in The Nation: "The emotions the [September 11] atrocities awakened in all the rich Western countries caused me briefly to entertain the naive hope that their leadership might finally recognize the gravity of the situation and provide an appropriate response. I should have known better. Those who hold our futures in their hands are not serious. They see no farther than the noses of their bombers." But for a time, she was uncertain about how to respond to the war.
One of the speakers in Porto Alegre, James Petras, put the war in Afghanistan into perspective. He said, "Don't talk to me about war. When you have 5,000 to 20,000 victims on one side, and one dead on the other, that's not a war. That's a massacre."
Secondly, the collapse of Enron brought back home the fundamentally rotten character of capitalism in the U.S. today. This was already expressed after September 11, with government handouts to the airline industry but no money for airline workers. But I think Enron generalized that sentiment.
Lastly, the WSF took place in Brazil, which shares a border with Argentina, a country hailed as the star pupil of the "free-market" economic model advanced by the U.S.
Argentina pegged its currency to the dollar and sold nearly half its economy to multinational corporations. But yet, for two or three years, it's been suffering an acute economic crisis that, in the end, produced the rebellions of December 19 and 20.
That's why the slogans from New York had enormous resonance in Porto Alegre--where all of the delegates wanted to know how the demonstrations were going. Everybody is conscious that the impact of September 11 in North America was particularly devastating to the movement--and that the movement finding its feet again in the U.S. is especially critical.
All of the Brazilian newspapers had pictures of the New York City protest, with the signs saying, "They are all Enron, we are all Argentina." Everybody understood what that meant.
Put most simply, two months ago, people felt September 11 was the horizon. But leaving Porto Alegre, people feel like they can ask, Is Argentina's crisis what we want for the world? And better yet, is Argentina's rebellion something we can work toward?