The Victimhood

The police were disciplined; the protesters were organic. The police had one purpose; the protesters had many. The police said little and did much; the protesters said much -- and did little.

The day began earlier for the policemen than for the protesters. Arriving as early as 4 a.m. -- from Boston and Virginia and Chicago and elsewhere -- they formed a perimeter around the International Monetary Fund and World Bank stretching from 15th to 20th streets and from Constitution Avenue to I Street. By 9:30 a.m. they looked bored ("Where are they at?" asked a Baltimore policeman) and hungry ("We haven't been told much; we haven't even been told what time lunch is. We gotta eat!" said a D.C. Metro policewoman). Another Baltimore policeman offered me five bucks to buy him a cheeseburger. I declined. Nerves and fatigue occasionally showed through: "Have a good night sir," said the D.C. Metro policewoman as I walked away. It was 10 a.m. And not a protestor to be seen.

But they were there, assembling in a slower and less orderly fashion than the police. By noon, they had gathered at Sylvan Theater, just southeast of the Washington Monument. They were international socialists, anti-water privatization activists, environmentalists, pro-Palestinian marchers, anti-war protesters, Greenpeace warriors, AIDS health workers, clean-energy advocates and groups of unaffiliated young white kids in the appropriate uniforms: piercings, ragged clothing, dreadlocks, bandannas and backpacks.

The young predominated but not to the exclusion of others. Off to one side sat four Colombians holding a banner proclaiming the injustice of paramilitary violence against Colombian unions. The crowd was also sprinkled with the occasional 60-something ex-hippie and a few professional-looking 30-somethings in pants and staid shirts.

If the connections between the issues seemed obscure, that's because they were. As a speaker told the participants, the proper political metaphor for the day was "ecology."

"Ecology tells us about how everything is interconnected," she said. Later speakers rounded off this social analysis by explaining how the IMF or the World Bank is at the center of the political ecosystem. And that's about as far as the analysis went.

Some protesters were better informed than others: "I'm against structural adjustment -- where they fix up buildings and then charge really high prices. It's outrageous," proclaimed Alicia, a 19-year old Puerto Rican who lives in Massachusetts and said she was at the rally to represent her Latin American sisters and brothers.

"If debts were alleviated, then poor countries could put their money into their own economies," argued Alicia's 22 year-old companion, Elizabeth, who said she simply "felt the need to be in D.C."

Others came to town to learn. "These are really complex issues. I try to keep myself open to both sides," said Matt, with an uncertain glance at his companion Eric. The two 22-year olds had driven from Philadelphia, mostly for the anti-war protests.

At 3 p.m., when protesters began to march north from the monument, there had been little contact between police and protesters. But an overhead view from one of the circling police helicopters would have revealed a near militarization of the city's downtown area. Clumps of about 40 police officers in full riot gear were sprinkled around various city corners; about 50 mounted police stood on the Mall just south of the White House lawn. And of course there was the wall of riot police lining the path up 15th, across I, then down 19th and into the IMF-World Bank complex.

As it turned out, once the rally turned into a march, it looked more like a Halloween parade than anything potentially violent. There were caricatures of businessmen and George W. Bush and ghoulish hooded figures and the Statue of Liberty on stilts. Colorful banners, a "Mobilize Monster" and a large papier-mache businessman with bloody hands joined the group. A group of marchers arguing for debt-forgiveness to free up money for AIDS research had joined the larger rally earlier in the day -- bolstering the total number of protesters to somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000.

As the protesters marched north, they passed curious tourists, rows of concession vans selling hotdogs and T-shirts and amused bystanders -- presumably lawyers -- at the American Bar Association building. Then they turned the corner onto I Street, and headed toward Farragut Square.

In the square, the Halloween parade morphed into a Woodstock re-enactment. A few flaming effigies, a failed attempt to burn a flag and a lot of music with barefooted circle-dancing -- they all stole the scene from a speech that was inaudible anyway. It was 5 p.m., and the march was slowly losing members. But the last leg was still to come.

The march eventually moved down I Street, passing rows of riot police guarding empty corporate office buildings and closed storefronts. At 19th Street the police line -- three thick, 20 wide and backed by more mounted police -- curved toward the IMF and World Bank buildings a block and a half south. The protest was corralled into a small enclosed park, barricaded by cement pylons stacked with 8-foot fences and barbed wire. Behind this insurmountable barricade stood hundreds more riot police.

Outmatched marchers dutifully funneled into the barricade and became . . . well, a globalization protest. They chanted, they screamed, they beat drums, and they sort of stood around.

The only scuffle came when protesters strung caution tape around a corner Starbucks. Ten riot police arrived, followed quickly by 10 mounted police to guard the storefront. In belligerent tones and with brusque gestures, the police rustled the protesters off the sidewalk, giving particular attention to about 10 anarchists who had found their way into the crowd.

And then the whole thing was over. The 9 p.m. press conference at the Institute for Policy Studies was poorly attended, but Mobilize for Global Justice spokeswoman Charity Ryersol proclaimed the day a huge victory. "We were very successful in getting our message out," she said. "The IMF and World Bank are losing legitimacy. To meet, they need to have police and blockades."

But one wonders if the police and blockades aren't also how the protesters acquire their legitimacy. If ecology was the overriding metaphor, then "We are all Palestinians" -- one of the day's T-shirt logos -- marked the rally's political temperament. The protesters seek moral legitimacy for their actions by claiming the status of victims, arguing that we are all victimized and oppressed by corporate evil-doers ("Market Refugee" proclaimed a T-shirt). Attracting huge numbers of menacing-looking riot police is certainly one way to lay claim to victimhood.

The problem with being victims, however, is that a victim seeks protection, not freedom. A victim seeks more regulations to restrain the actions of others and third-party intervention on his behalf -- both of which many of the day's participating nongovernmental organizations are more than happy to be involved in, and something many of the day's participants often ask of international bodies such as the United Nations. Regulation and intervention, however, are not freedom; they simply replace one regime with another.

Saturday's march was hardly Seattle -- raising the question of whether the movement that began in that city three years ago may be finally petering out, or at the very least be in desperate need of new direction. The rally's organizers claim that the need for a police presence signals the declining legitimacy of international financial institutions; but one suspects that post-structural adjustment economic crises have really been responsible for most of the discrediting.

Charity Ryersol said the marches "inoculated the ministers with the truth." But if she and the other organizers actually believe that, then they aren't being truthful with themselves. After this weekend's display, their movement is badly in need of structural adjustment.