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Question Authority: Media Finds Protesters an Easy Target, Ignores Erosion of Civil Rights

5 February 2002

After enduring a torrent of scorn from New York's corporate media and weeks of naysaying by the poobahs of the illiberal and yea, even the liberal press, thousands of global justice activists hit the streets here on Saturday and did just what they said they'd do. They showed up in huge numbers and demonstrated peacefully, despite no end of differences among them, and no end of goading by police and journalists.

The crowd that marched on the World Economic Forum gathering at the Waldorf Astoria hotel this weekend was old and young, local and from out of town. Despite a literally suffocating police presence (long lines of motorcycle cops on Harleys hemmed in the marchers, belching fumes,) the festivities remained nonviolent, against all odds.

Leading up to the World Economic Summit, New York's tabloid press were vitriolic. A Daily News editorial warned that activists would get their &qupt;anti-globalization butts kicked&qupt; if any disturbances occurred. A predictable New York Post columnist ranted: &qupt;Arrogant Imbeciles Bite Hands that Feed the Poor.&qupt; The New York Times dedicated so many column inches (11 articles) to police preparation for &qupt;unruly protestors,&qupt; fouled-up traffic and broken windows that it was astonishing that any Times readers dared leave their homes at all. Popular Daily News columnist Pete Hamill called the protests &qupt;trivial in the Face of Terror.&qupt; And from their digs near Union Square, the editors of the Nation magazine urged activists to focus more on U.S. legislative matters and ran a finger-wagging piece about how the battles that &qupt;erupted&qupt; in Seattle have frightened supporters away.

It was against that backdrop that the umbrella organizing coalition, &qupt;Another World Is Possible&qupt; met to make a demonstration. In town, they worked solidly for the better part of two weeks. Along with the Oakland-based Art & Revolution, AWIP volunteers made puppets, rehearsed &qupt;radical rockette&qupt; moves, pulled together a Reclaim the Streets samba band. They arranged legal and medical support; found every out-of-towner a place to stay, food to eat and a pal. Not bad for a movement that's never received major funding and this year forged ahead when many of the usual-suspect NGOs would not.

Groups such as Global Exchange and the Ruckus Society, key players in Seattle, opted to go to Porto Allegre, Brazil, to participate in the alternative Social Economic Forum instead of marching in New York. Jobs with Justice, a progressive labor coalition, chose to hold their own separate protest at the Waldorf rather than endorse the AWIP initiative. &qupt;We want to tell the WEF that corporate driven economy is not working for working people,&qupt; JWJ's Simon Greer told, &qupt;but we're not endorsing any of the other rallies because of their anti-war language and because we don't want to get caught tangled up in any civil disobedience.&qupt;

The folks of &qupt;Another World is Possible&qupt; were not oblivious to the risks they faced. Having abandoned plans to protest in Washington at WTO and IMF meetings last October, the gathering of the World Economic Forum presented the most viable opportunity for activists to revive their movement. They were already grappling with change. The death of a protestor in the streets of Genoa, and the pitched combat seen in Quebec City and Prague had provoked endless debates. The attacks of September 11 radically changed the picture again.

New York is a rattled city, where many police are still in mourning. The nation is at war overseas and also at home. Being tagged a &qupt;terrorist&qupt; has serious consequences. (As the anti-globalization movement already knows: Police accused them of committing &qupt;terrorist&qupt; acts long before 9.11.)

At the &qupt;spokescouncil&qupt; gatherings that preceded the Feb. 2 protest, scores of affinity-group delegates discussed and decided on tactics. Was there total unanimity in the room? No. But there was agreement; agreement that Saturday's march would be &qupt;green&qupt; or nonviolent. Much as outsiders complain about the anti-globalizers' failure to condemn violence outright, the agreement on February 2 was reached precisely because no one called anyone else a terrorist or a washout, and nobody stormed out, alienated, condemned and furious. The coalition applied for and obtained a legal permit.

How did the NYPD respond? With an overwhelming show of force -- over 4,000 officers from a slew of city, state and even federal agencies. (&qupt;One cop for every protestors' placard,&qupt; reported the New York Times.) On more than one occasion, police charged into the crowd, swung batons, used pepper spray an arrested people for minor violations. Of the 36 arrested, most came during an incident sparked, according to Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, by the fact that police had received information that a group was &qupt;about to attack the police.&qupt; The majority of arrestees were charged with violating a 19th-century code on wearing a mask.

Worse than the police violence, &qupt;was the stifling of our civil rights,&qupt; said activist Antonia Juhasz later. The police refused permission for the marchers to use a drum or a bullhorn. They required them to change their supposedly-sanctioned route at the last minute. Police pinned the parade into to a single lane of traffic, often not much wider than the sidewalk. And then there were those motorbikes.

As the crowd approached its destination, Police chief Allan H. Hoehl rejected organizers' pleas that marchers not be broken up and forced into small metal pens outside the Waldorf hotel. &qupt;Just because you've brought more people than you were supposed to, doesn't mean we have to make any change,&qupt; Hoehl told AWIP's lawyers. Final crowd estimates vary from 7,000 to over 10,000.

Some who tried to join the parade en-route, found themselves cut off. &qupt;We tried,&qupt; says Rosalyn Baxandall, a second-wave feminist author and professor. Baxandall says she made four attempts to join the protest and was blocked by police at every point. &qupt;I gave up and took the subway home. So much for exercising my democratic rights.&qupt;

&qupt;We went all the way with the police,&qupt; said Lisa Fithian, one of those negotiating. Even to the point of getting a permit for the single drum at a religious ceremony. &qupt;We came to bring our message to the delegates attending the World Economic Forum and the public. Instead we're getting a huge demonstration of police force. We don't believe this is reasonable in a democracy.&qupt;

Not everyone in the global justice movement always commits to nonviolence, but they did on Saturday, and stuck to that commitment. The next day, press reports praised the police for keeping the city safe, &qupt;while allowing people to exercise their right to protest,&qupt; in the words of Police Commissioner Kelly. Nowhere in the coverage was there any discussion of police tactics, arbitrary arrests and the constriction of the right to express dissent.

For example, Newsday, the Times, ABC News and CNN all relayed the police story that protestors were given space to gather in front of the Waldorf. Absent was any mention of the way that people were crammed into inadequate pens and videotaped and photographed by police. Scanning Saturday night reporting, activists found their message buried in discussions of violence, albeit the lack of it, and footage of violence, when non had materialized. CBS played a clip of a masked man breaking a Starbucks window -- in Genoa, a year ago.

One frustrated activist shared his thoughts Sunday night. &qupt;Corporate media coverage of the WEF shows that beliefs that the press would slander us no matter what we did were not unfounded cyncism. No mass media sources covered the issues . . . Perhaps some bystanders were struck by our colorfulness and peacefulness, contrasted with the official depiction of our movement as terrorist, but it seems many people are beyond hope . . .&qupt;

&qupt;Whose streets? Theirs apparently,&qupt; wrote this activist. Never again, he vowed to himself, would he participate in a permitted parade where police herded protestors as they would sheep. The next day the writer says he was one of those who took off on a demonstration-dance through the streets of the East Side, blocking traffic. Somebody broke a window at an apartment building said to house a corporate executive. The actions resulted in 150 arrests.

It's too early to say how the progressive press will cover the weekend's events. Media liberal Pete Hamill had no kinder words for the activists in Monday's Daily News. Will there be supportive editorials elsewhere from those who sat the AWIP protest out? I wonder. From talking to new, nervous partipants in the New York march, it's clear that the founding story of this latest mobilization has yet to get beyond a narrow slice of the public. The progressive press owe the public a better accounting of just what &qupt;erupted&qupt; in Seattle. Who first used violence? Cops or activists? How did those famous windows get broken? Just why did activists start using masks?

&qupt;It's time the press stopped questioning the movement and started questioning the state,&qupt; said Lisa Fithian, bleary-eyed in a cloud of motorcycle exhaust fumes, this Saturday.

She's right. Do you want proof that even in these times -- even in this city -- anti-war, pro-social justice folks can mobilize? You got it. Now cheer, damn it. Cheer and help this movement grow bigger, stronger and even wiser. It's time.

Laura Flanders
Published by WorkingForChange © 2002

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