Springtime for Dissent
75,000 gather in Washington
by Hank Hoffman
In These Times magazine, May 27, 2002
It was overcast and rainy here much of the April 19 to 22
weekend. But for many thousands of demonstrators antiwar and global
justice movement demonstrators, it felt like spring. Better than
expected turnout, and a refreshing sense of regaining momentum
lost, buoyed activists' spirits.
Last September 10, anti-globalization organizers were immersed
in planning for end-of-the-month demonstrations against the pillars
of Third World lending, the International Monetary Fund (IMF)
and World Bank. They expected the largest and most militant U.S.
expression of radical dissent since the Vietnam War.
The September 11 terror attacks stopped the movement in its
tracks. In the new climate of fear, whipped-up patriotism and
loosened restrictions on government repression, many were concerned
that street protest would backfire.
Thus, April's protests tested the waters. The general consensus
was that-despite heavy-handed police presence-the chill is gone,
and the water's fine.
Police estimated the crowd at the Saturday, April 20, rally
on the mall in front of the Capitol at 75,000. Many used the term
"historic" to describe the vast participation by Arab-
and Muslim-Americans- perhaps one-third or more of the crowd.
John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies
saw cooperation between the anti-war and global justice movements
as marking a "new stage." As the Seattle WTO protests
marked the coalescence of single-issue activism into a broader
anti-corporate movement, the weekend's dissent focused on the
interrelatedness of economic injustice and military oppression.
"There's a growing realization that the greatest threat
to peace and stability in the world is that there are over a billion
people who are poor, and the global economy has managed to make
the poor poorer," Cavanagh says.
The rally was originally called to protest the Bush administration's
permanent war policy, the crackdown on civil liberties and profiling
of the Muslim and Arab communities. But the Mideast crisis took
precedence. With a Palestinian flag draped from the side of the
speakers' platform billowing in the breeze, the Israeli military
occupation and its underwriting by an estimated annual $5 billion
in direct and indirect U.S. aid were condemned in equal measure.
While Saturday's rally was the largest event, it was not the
only one. Over four days, marchers organized a teach-in, lobbying,
rallies and civil disobedience in opposition to U.S. military
aid to Colombia and for the closing of the School of the Americas
(SOA) at Fort Benning, Georgia. Two thousand to 3,000 anti-corporate
globalization protesters met weekend meetings of the IMF and World
Bank for morning rallies and street theater in front of the World
Bank building. And late Monday afternoon, April 22, a few thousand
supporters of Palestinian rights, hemmed in on all sides by police,
protested outside the Washington Hilton Hotel, where AIPAC, a
pro-Israel lobbying group, was holding a conference.
There were some notes of dissonance. On at least two occasions
during the weekend, the police formed cordons around peaceful
demonstrators, arbitrarily containing them until police chose
to back off.
The Saturday and Monday rallies demonstrated that support
for the ends- if not the means-of the Palestinian cause is deep
on the left. But many were troubled by a small minority of speakers
who advocated not peace and mutual recognition, but the destruction
of Israel. When one speaker on Monday called for "unconditional
support" for any actions taken in the name of Palestinians,
some in the crowd booed.
The weekend was a success despite the fact that labor and
mainstream environmental groups were not involved. And except
for a couple of glaring exceptions-rival groups commandeered the
stage at several rallies, for example-disparate groups worked
well together. The Enron scandal, the Argentine economic meltdown
under the dictates of the IMF, the clumsy Bush administration
support for the abortive coup in Venezuela, and its failure to
articulate a path to peace and justice in the Mideast-all combined
in protesters' eyes to make the administration vulnerable on the
The inseparability of peace and economic justice was the message
whether the topic was Colombia, Palestine, Afghanistan or a potential
war with Iraq. Says Andy Burns, a young organizer with the National
Youth and Student Peace Coalition, "The fist that protects
and furthers U.S. economic interests is military domination."