Global Policy Forum

World Trade Targeted Down Under


Protesters Use Technology in War on Economic Powers

Uli Schmetzer

Chicago Tribune
September 12, 2000

Stunned Australians are learning this week just how global anti-globalization protests have become. Trapped inside or blocked from entering the plush riverside gambling and hotel complex called the Crown Casino, the 800 delegates to the World Economic Forum's three-day Asia-Pacific Economic Summit could only marvel Monday at the precision and organization of the 10,000 demonstrators who formed a human chain around the complex, delaying the start of the meetings by about an hour.

Many of the demonstrators who placed this stately Victorian capital under siege were part of a mobile protest force organized via the Internet, using some of the very tools that have made the globalization of world trade such a controversial issue.

Observers say such data-based demonstrators form the roots of a social revolution that is growing via cyberspace. The activists keep in touch and organize rallies through an escalating number of Web sites on the inexpensive information highway, which can accommodate anyone's pet cause and allows everyone a voice.

Weeks ago the network targeted this meeting of the Switzerland-based World Economic Forum, an exclusive club of business and government policymakers who came to Melbourne to discuss the global economy and found themselves confronted by people who have used information technology to promote their cause as successfully as those who made fortunes from it.

This mobile cyberspace force has managed to disrupt the last four economic forums, including the bloody battles at the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle last year. The often anonymous organizers warn that their numbers will only swell as Web access expands.

The Web sites have their genesis in the Seattle Independent Media Center, which coordinated the Seattle demonstrations. According to site spokeswoman Gabrielle Arnison, the site has now become the Sydney Independent Media Center, coordinating demonstrations against the economic forum and the Olympic Games, hich start Friday.

"Our site is an online forum for social change, an alternative to pirate radio and a cheaper way to get our message across," she said. The byproducts of these messages can be sobering. West Australia's state premier, Richard Court, was being chauffeured in a rental car through the human cordon Monday when demonstrators surrounded his car, pummeled the roof, bounced the vehicle up and down, slashed its tires and trapped him inside for half an hour, encircled by a sea of shouting people. Police, some on horseback, broke through and allowed Court's car to pass. Five officers were injured in the crush. Two protesters were arrested.

Aborigine Ivan Wyatt-Ring, 29, did a war dance on the car roof and said later: "I looked [Court] in the eye and said, ‘Shame, brother.' Mate, you should have seen his expression. I said, ‘Have a taste of what you've done to my people.'"

Australia's Aborigines, savvy to the Internet, are also using the Olympic Games to voice their demand for an end to generations of discrimination and maltreatment by the white majority.

For Court, it was shocking in a nation where protests are usually amicable affairs. Indignant as he was escorted by mounted police to the summit's hotel, Court said: "This is un-Australian. This is the work of a small group of radicals. It's the kind of protest we often see outside this country."

He was partly right. Described by a forum spokesman as an "oppressive minority," the enthusiastic demonstrators gave stately Melbourne a carnival atmosphere with dragon dances, puppet shows and sidewalk entertainment--despite pouring rain that reduced the number of protesters from an initial 10,000 Monday to barely 1,500 early Tuesday.

Although the police showed restraint Monday, they were less reserved Tuesday as baton-wielding officers, some on horseback, charged through the human chain, leaving several protesters with bloodied faces. The charge allowed several buses of delegates to enter the facility for the summit's second day of meetings and speeches.

The protesters warned that they would battle back. Many of those present said they had plugged into Web sites such as Indymedia, an information and chat tool for those who believe "money from the poor to the rich flows in debt payments." The sites denounce the economic forums as rallying points for a global elite and a vehicle for class power that seeks to influence political agendas.

Professors such as James Goodman of the faculty of Social Sciences at Sydney Technical College argue that since the World Economic Forum meetings began in 1971, they have improved the wealth of participating corporations but that the companies' "neo-liberal globalization has brought an unprecedented level of poverty."

Caught unaware by the effective networking of its detractors, the forum leaders are planning their own Internet attack in the form of a Web-based hot line in which 10,000 key economic decision-makers will coordinate corporate responses to prevailing issues and provide explanations of policies.

One academic, Brookings Institution fellow Joseph Stiglitz, who appeared on the summit's opening panel, asserted that corporations are "better in destroying jobs than providing jobs." Still, he sounded a conciliatory note: "Many of my students are concerned about the same issues, and many people in the U.S. also believe their voices are not being heard and globalization is not a level playing field. There is a real concern. But I am afraid the protesters focus on past mistakes, not taking note of the reforms that have taken place over the last years."

The power of the Net has drawn people from all over the world to Melbourne. As part of this week's protest, Cuban revolutionary Mirtha Muniz and Indian eco-feminist Vandana Shiva gave special lectures at meeting points with eco-friendly nicknames such as Currant, Banana and Apple. An Indonesian protester told crowds that Nike exploited workers in his country by paying low wages. The footwear company Sunday battened up its Melbourne office with timber and closed its flagship store.

The human chain, efficiently organized with bullhorns and mobile phones was quick to close down slits in the concrete and 10-foot fence barrier around the Crown Casino through which desperate delegates and the media tried to slip. Delegates tried for hours to find a boat to escape the cordon and reach their hotels for the night.

Those who managed to were ferried to their hotels by swiftly commissioned private boats, down the murky Yarra River, pursued by the irate shouts and rude gestures. The company heads, ambassadors, ministers and economic wizards such as Microsoft's Bill Gates huddled sardine-like in the boats. They were dropped at Melbourne's grim dockyards and walked through driving rain to find taxis. A number of senior delegates were airlifted out of harm's way by helicopter.

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