Nine Lessons From the Worldwide Protests Against the World Bank, IMF, WTO and Global Capitalism

Dada Maheshvarananda
A colorful banner carried at the World Bank protests in Washington, DC, said, “Life is not a commodity: Shut down the IMF”. This points out that capitalists tend to treat people and the world as economic objects.PROUT   states unequivocally that the very first priority of any economic and political system must be the welfare of all. Any society which allows a human being to suffer for the lack of the minimum necessities of life must be changed.

In Brazil, for every dollar spent on education and medical care, the government spends two dollars on interest payment for the national debt. Brazil has already paid back more than it ever borrowed; yet it owes still more. Why? The October 1998 issue of Forbes magazine carries an article about Brazilian government bonds. For a minimum investment of $125,000, the investor will earn 25% interest per year. As the article explains, this is “a fabulous return.” Wealthy investors who buy these bonds are loaning dollars to the Brazilian government so that it can repay old loans to international banks. No jobs are created with this investment, no goods are produced, and common Brazilian taxpayers are paying a 25% return to these millionaires and billionaires, money that they cannot spend on health or education or other services.

This is exploitation, and it contributes to hunger and poverty throughout the Third World. P. R. Sarkar, the founder of Proutist Universal, put it bluntly when he said, “In the interests of living beings as a whole, capitalism must come to an end.”

Proutists have actively participated in the protests against global capitalism that have taken place in Seattle, Prague, Melbourne, Buenos Aires, Belo Horizonte and Quebec. As a participant in the organizing committee of the protests against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington, DC in April 2000, I would like to share with you some lessons that I think we can learn from this growing wave of international protests.

Lesson 1: “Unite the moralists.”

This strategy is fundamental. The word “moralist” does not connote people who are merely honest and law-abiding; it means those who stand up against injustice and exploitation, who courageously protect the weak, who actively struggle to make a better world. By this definition, the more than 500 different non-government organizations, including Proutist Universal, who joined the alliance against the World Bank and IMF in April 2000, make up a coalition of moralists. Proutists should continue to create alliances with those who are fighting global capitalism.

In every protest, three different tactics take place. First there is a process of education and consciousness-raising. In the weeks leading up to the event, leaflets, posters and community radio interviews inform the city’s population of the protests. Lectures and symposiums are organized in the universities, high schools, churches and community centers in which experts explain exactly why these institutions are so problematic. For example, Susan George of the Transnational Institute said, “When people ask me, ‘But what would you put in the place of the IMF and World Bank?’, I am tempted to reply, ‘What would you put in the place of cancer?’ Because the only living organism in nature that sustains unlimited rapid growth is a malignant tumor that eventually destroys its host. We must close down these institutions before they destroy our planet.” Every activist and protester is encouraged to learn about global capitalism and be able to explain to others what are its flaws.

The second tactic is a legal march and rally. Organizers negotiate with the municipal authorities and police for permission to assemble in a large park and march through selected city streets. The goal is to attract the largest possible numbers from every section of society to emphasize to the world via the media how widespread is the discontent.

The third tactic is not a legal one. Whenever global economic institutions meet to make economic and political decisions in an undemocratic manner, protesters try to physically obstruct the meetings from taking place by blocking the access roads. In Washington, DC, for example, this meant coordinating more than 30 human blockades on every street and alleyway leading to the World Bank and IMF buildings in the city center. This can be an incredibly powerful action by people who risk arrest because of their beliefs, and it leads us to the second lesson.

Lesson 2: Nonviolent direct action (civil disobedience) is a revolutionary tactic that creates pressure on the powers that be

Brent Blackwelder, the President of the Friends of the Earth, one of the largest environmental organizations in the US, explained why this tactic is so compelling. He said that for 20 years his organization and others have brought dozens of experts with scientific studies from around the world to the leaders of the World Bank and IMF to testify about the ecological destruction, social disruption and poverty caused by the big dams and other harmful projects that they sponsor. For 20 years both the institutions and the media have ignored these experts. Only now when tens of thousands of young people are protesting in front of TV news cameras are the bank heads beginning to listen.

The organizing committees offer nonviolent training workshops to help prepare new participants to deal with the police and potential violence. The alliances try their best to discourage violence against property or the police. In Washington, they successfully avoided such violence; hence the media coverage and public opinion was much more favorable than after Seattle. However, we should remember that rage against injustice is a natural expression of revolutionary movements; we should try to channel that collective anger, not avoid the protests.

Nonviolent direct action puts the WTO, World Bank, IMF, etc. on the defensive. It discourages delegates from attending international meetings. During the protests in Prague, the World Bank announced that their 3-day meeting had suddenly finished in only two days and so they were all going home early! The next meeting of the World Trade Organization will be held in Qatar in November 2001, because that tiny military state in the Persian Gulf is the only country that has offered to host their meetings after the Seattle protests two years before. This pressure is also forcing bank officials to defend their policies to the press and to claim that they now want dialogue with their opponents.

By joining a coalition or protest, one does not officially or individually have to take part in direct action. There is always a point where one can choose whether to continue participating in the legal protest march or to cross the line and break the law.

Lesson 3: The mainstream media can be utilized to convey the ideas of PROUT to the public

During the 1999 annual meeting of the World Bank and IMF in Washington, only 25 dedicated protesters held signs on the sidewalk at the site. But following the “Battle of Seattle”, 40,000 protesters converged in the center of US political and economic power in April 2000 to “shut it down”. Because of this tremendous mobilization, no less than 1,200 journalists representing every major news media in the world officially registered at the World Bank to cover what had previously always been a very un-newsworthy business meeting.

The organizing committee of the mobilization printed 15,000 booklets called “Action Guide” that included a page that I contributed on media issues. The following is excerpted from that guidebook:

“One of the goals of the protests is to raise the consciousness of people both locally and around the world about the exploitation of global capitalism. The most powerful means to do this is through the media: TV, radio, newspapers, and magazines. Of course all large, popular media organs are owned and controlled by huge corporations, and thus many try to devalue and marginalize us. But through our solidarity, our actions and our words, we can utilize this moment in history to convey a radical and inspiring message to the people of the world.

“Everyone should be a spokesperson to the media, ready to explain our actions to journalists and answer their questions. The average “sound bite” that TV or radio uses is only seven seconds long, and the print media usually publishes no more than two or three lines when quoting someone. This means that everyone should first study the issues and the Frequently Asked Questions. Then choose and memorize a couple of clear, short messages about why you are here that you can repeat when you suddenly find yourself in front of a journalist or microphone.

“If possible, introduce yourself and smile. Ask the name and organization of the journalists if they didn’t identify themselves. Never lie. Be careful about questions that belittle you and your cause. For example, ‘Are you disappointed with the low turnout today?’ In that case, follow this ‘ABC’: ACKNOWLEDGE the question, BRIDGE away from it, and COMMUNICATE your message. So to the above question you might reply, ‘Not at all, because every person here represents hundreds of people in the Third World who are being impoverished and exploited by the undemocratic, unaccountable institutions such as the IMF, WTO and World Bank for the benefit of transnational corporations and the super rich.’”

The number of journalists covering the IMF/WB summit continuously increased in the days leading up to the meetings, and most of them moved back and forth between the different groups, interviewing the bank officials, the police spokespeople and the protesters. The Media Subcommittee of the Mobilization, despite being swamped by the incredible quantity of journalists, was very effective. For example, the CNN news team repeatedly interviewed Rob Weissman from Essential Action at the media desk. He was so articulate, clear and well-informed about the issues, that when the CNN coverage then switched over to the President of the World Bank, he ended up sounding confused, emotional and defensive!

So although the mainstream media is reluctant to air material critical of the capitalist system, the tremendous size of the protests attracts them. If we carefully prepare creative, clear and inspiring messages and signs, we can utilize the media interest to broadcast or publish our progressive ideas.

Lesson 4: Protest organizing committees delegate responsibility to those who work hard

These protests are not led by superstars, nor do they follow instructions from any one organization. Instead the coalitions are very democratic in nature, and make all decisions by consensus. In the first of the weekly planning meetings in a large classroom at George Washington University I attended two months prior to the Washington protests, I discovered during the introductions that the 90 people who came represented 41 different organizations! This diversity continually increased to include a very broad base of ecologists, animal rights activists, women’s groups, socialists and union leaders.

The organizers’ level of effectiveness was truly impressive. There were veteran leaders with decades of experience leading nonviolent actions since the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. There were also young people aged 17 and 18 who co-chaired meetings and led excellent training workshops in consensus decision-making, facilitation skills, nonviolent protest tactics, street first aid and legal rights. Young people are joining this movement and being given leadership positions according to their ability and willingness to work.

Email and cell phones are the primary means of communication. An unused warehouse was converted into a sophisticated convergence site that became ever more crowded with these classes and meetings leading up to the event. A couple of old hippies in the group Seeds for Life organized many teenage volunteers and cooked and served free vegetarian food to hundreds and later thousands of activists there. Artists worked every day constructing huge puppets that captured the imagination of all who saw them during these street protests. As Kevin Danaher of Global Exchange pointed out, “The young people today are redefining the political party, making a REAL party with singing, dancing, drum circles, chants, giant puppets and street theater!” One of the chants I liked the most was, “We want puppets, not a puppet government!”

Proutists, though few in number, tend to have a lot of energy and spirit. If we attend the organizing committee meetings and volunteer to help with different tasks, we very quickly find ourselves in leadership positions. For example, Raghava, Dhruva and Madhava started helping out at the Independent Media Center and quickly became key people in that exciting operation.

Lesson 5: There is a great need for debate about future alternatives to capitalism

The International Forum on Globalization organized the most sophisticated teach-in at the United Methodist Church two days before the protests. They brought together 32 international experts and authors who outlined how extensive global capitalist exploitation is and how it causes so much suffering around the world. Yet only David Korten, author of “The Post Corporate World”, actually discussed what kind of economic system should replace it.

During the teach-in before the protests against the World Bank meeting in Prague, Dada Krtashivananda was scheduled to give a lecture about Prout. Unfortunately, one man who represented an organization that contributed a substantial amount of the funding for the event managed to convince the Czech coordinators to cancel Dada’s lecture because, in his opinion, Proutist Universal was a sect that claimed to have all the answers. There was no dialogue or collective decision-making; one man just effectively vetoed this speaker. In South America, I have also encountered some macho, authoritarian leaders who try to bully organizing committees into doing what they want. I believe the best way to overcome this type of narrow-minded reaction is by our regular presence and work. Whereas the orange uniform that I wear and the radical model that Prout advocates are certainly startling at first, the majority of activists gradually come to respect us as they get to know us.

Leaflets, posters, thought exhibitions, books and magazines that detail how the Prout model works should be available at every major protest. We should also utilize the question and answer sessions at the end of the teach-in lectures to ask the speaker’s opinion about a specific proposal of Prout.

Lesson 6: Yoga and meditation are practices that many activists want to learn

Members of the Training Subcommittee asked me if I would be willing to lead yoga and meditation sessions at the convergence site. So we chose the first period in the morning and during the evening dinner hour to schedule 90-minute sessions of yoga and meditation for activists. These became very popular and up to 50 people attended each session. The young people felt better after a session of yoga stretching, and they loved chanting and meditating in silence. Afterwards we each shared why we had come. Our common dream of making a better world inspired us all. Later, during the protests in the streets, many of the participants came up to me and expressed how grateful they were for those calming experiences and how they felt it had helped them stay centered in the face of potential violence.

In other radical conferences and symposiums, Proutists have chosen a grassy area in front of the main building to do collective meditation during the lunch break. It is important for one or two Proutists to stand in front with leaflets and sometimes signs explaining why in the struggle for social justice, meditation for inner peace is also important.

Lesson 7: Whereas the police serve the rich, they are not the enemy and we should make efforts to communicate nonviolently with them

Police officers in every country of the world are trained to make people follow the law through fear. They threaten people with arrest, big fines and long prison terms if disobeyed. The riot gear that police use in front of protesters is intimidating at first sight and their tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons, batons and rubber bullets are all extremely painful. Michael Meacher, environment minister of the United Kingdom, said after the WTO meeting, “What we hadn’t reckoned with was the Seattle Police Department who single-handedly managed to turn a peaceful protest into a riot.” Whether the police show restraint as they did for the most part in Washington, or whether they brutally attack and arrest protesters as they did in Prague and Melbourne, depends in large part on their leaders, and it differs from country to country, from city to city, and even among different officers in the same city.

Two days before the Washington protests, a dialogue was arranged between a few of the organizers and the police. Bette Hoover of the American Friends Service Committee invited Raghava and myself along with one of our lawyers and a student. We met for two hours with Assistant Chief Terry Gainer, second-in-command of the Washington, DC Police Force.

We knew from the newspaper stories that the city government had already spent $2 million on riot control training and weapons in preparation for our protests. Not only would tens of thousands of police officers be working overtime during that weekend, but also every agent of the FBI, CIA, Secret Service and the State Department.

The religious leader who facilitated the meeting insisted that each person practice active listening, repeating what the previous speaker had just said to his or her satisfaction before expressing a new opinion. Each side presented the various problems we were facing in the climate of escalating tension. We outlined the nonviolent training that was being offered to every participant to try to prevent violence and complained about the increasing harassment and searches of activists around the convergence site and in the nearby parks. Chief Gainer expressed his concerns about the masks worn by some activists and their fear that the photos and names of some officers would be posted on the Internet for some kind of reprisal. He clarified that they would take no action against the convergence site, though of course building code regulations were up to the fire department.

He expressed that whereas every group has the right to protest, they could not allow people to sit in the streets and block the access to the meetings. Their duty was to keep the streets open for the safety of everyone, and he mentioned that a baby might die in an ambulance while it takes a long detour around the protesters on the way to the hospital. We pointed out that a baby dies every two seconds in the Third World due to hunger and preventable diseases that are increasing in part because of the policies of the World Bank and the IMF.

Of course we disagreed with us about the validity of direct action protest. Though there was no immediate benefit of this meeting, we each felt that it had value and gave a human face to the opponents. It is important to remember that the police are not the enemy; we are fighting to change the capitalist system. In every protest we should refrain from verbal or physical abuse of the police.

The next morning at 8:45 I was sweeping the room in the convergence site in preparation for my meditation class when someone informed us that fire marshals had come and ordered everyone to clear out of the building for an inspection. Naively I thought it must be some kind of fire drill and left my notebook and guitar behind. When I stepped out the front door of the building, I saw 300 police officers lined up waiting to go in. They emptied the building fast, and the whole street was closed off.

An hour later we spotted Chief Gainer behind the police lines telling the press that the fire marshals found a “Molotov cocktail”, which was a plastic bottle of thinner and a rag used for painting, plus “materials”, a recycling bin of used glass bottles! He did not walk over to say hello to Bette or me even though he could see us. Clearly the police had planned this huge raid long before our meeting in order to throw the protesters off balance a day before the protests, just as they had in the 1971 Mayday protests against the Vietnam War. Only this time their strategy didn’t work. Within ten minutes the organizers were shouting directions to a church eight blocks away that became the new convergence site.

Lesson 8: Nonviolent direct action radicalizes those who participate

Direct action protests are unforgettable experiences. Those who take part are forever changed. Practicing revolutionary tactics makes people revolutionaries, just as living a radically healthy yoga lifestyle transforms individual lives.

Police are trained to use violence. Though protesters may use nonviolent direct action as a tactic with moral force, this does not mean that violence will not occur. On three separate occasions in Washington I witnessed police officers moving in to arrest protesters, and once a bus full of police in riot gear arrived at an intersection to clear it out. Yet each time, young people came running from all directions to support their companions, shouting “Shame! Shame!” Each time, when the officers were outnumbered by more than ten-to-one, they backed off. These were powerful lessons in solidarity, that “The people united can never be defeated.”

Frei Betto, a Catholic friar in Brazil who was a political prisoner for four years during the dictatorship there said, “It is interesting that the ones who decide what tactics we use are not we but the powers that be. Though we should utilize all legal and legitimate avenues to protest injustice, in the end, it is the government who decides whether or not we will be able to continue to be nonviolent.” Nelson Mandela, a lawyer, tried everything in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, until he was finally compelled to take up arms to free his people. He was imprisoned for 27 years, and during all that time he refused to renounce the people’s right to armed struggle in the fight for freedom.

Lesson 9: The protests are growing and becoming global in nature

About 10,000 people, including some Proutists, protested at the World Economic Forum meeting in Melbourne in September 2000. The Independent Media Center and the Internet is spreading this global campaign, and young people are at the heart of it.

This popular force is extremely powerful. The Communist government in Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union ended when the people rose up and said, “Enough is enough!” The dictator Ferdinand Marcos fled the Philippines for the same reason. People organizing in the streets can prevail even against the police and the military with all their violent arms. People power is indeed a tremendous force.

The Central Committee of Proutist Universal has resolved to continue participating in and to continue to project Prout’s message in these protests.

A final image: at the protests, a young woman protester tied butterfly wings to her back along with the sign, “Give hope!” This, I believe, is our most important mission, to offer hope that we can change the world and construct a society based on the welfare and happiness of all.

Dada Maheshvarananda is a monk and activist. He can be reached at www.priven.org

Copyright The author 2011

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