Global Policy Forum

Where Did All the Protesters Go?


By Matthew Davis

April 18, 2005

Just a few hundred people picketed the latest IMF-World Bank spring meetings - a far cry from a few years ago when it seemed no summit of world financial institutions was complete without thousands of protestors on the streets.

The peaceful demonstrations urging cancellation of poorer nations' debt came on the fifth anniversary of one of the anti-globalisation movement's most seminal rallies in Washington DC. Back in 2000, hundreds were arrested as police fired tear gas at demonstrators, 10,000 of whom turned out to disrupt the talks.

That came hot on the heels of violence at the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle where more than 100,000 people marched. Over the next couple of years, protests and policing dominated the headlines at a string of major summits - in Prague, Davos, London and Quebec City. The complaints of myriad groups - loosely arraigned against unaccountable, corporate-led aspects of globalisation - came to the fore. But what has happened - where did all the protests go?

Local action

Outside the World Bank building in DC, activist Sue Frankel-Streit, 41, prepared to take part in a street theatre show with the Cardboard Chaos group. "What happened in the wake of Seattle was that many people went into the community and organised from home," she said. "It isn't that the movement has got smaller, people are just taking action in their communities - which is where they are making the most difference."

Another reason protests have gone off the boil is that some believe that while the problem have not been fixed, the international community is moving towards addressing the big issues. And corporate leaders increasingly see major world problems - like poverty, inequitable globalisation or climate change - as bad for business.

In January, protests planned for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, were called off. Many who may have attended were at a rival event: the World Social Forum in Brazil's Porto Alegre. Since it began in 2001, the WSF has provided a platform for the views of thousands of anti-globalisation and poverty campaigners - undistorted by the negative publicity of violent clashes at protests.

Terror attacks

Also marching in Washington on Saturday was Preston Duncan, 21, part of the DC poetry insurgency collective. "It's a creative protest - I think it's much more effective than rioting in the street," he said. "Some people break windows, we use the emotional appeal of what we are doing - I think that's more likely to make people want to rally round."

Inevitably, the post-9/11 war on terror has also shifted the focus. Some say it has led to more oppressive policing of protests. When leaders from the G8 group of industrialised nations met for their annual summit in 2004, they did so on a secure island off Georgia. The first protest took place more than 100km (62 miles) away.

Activist Theresa Reuter, 64, a veteran of scores of protests since the 1960s, told the BBC: "It has been scary this weekend - there are a lot of police officers around, they have closed off the streets. "You, know, a lot of my friends are not here because they do not want to end up on some list as a suspected terrorist."

Traditionally the autumn meetings of the World Bank and IMF attract a greater number of protestors. September's meetings will be the first under the new World Bank presidency of Paul Wolfowitz - one of the most hawkish members of the Bush administration. It remains to be seen whether his controversial tenure will reinvigorate opponents of the institution's policies.

More Information on NGOs
More Information on the World Bank-IMF Protests in Washington DC
More Information on NGOs and Social and Economic Justice
More Information on NGOs and the Bretton Woods Institutions
More Information on The Three Sisters and Other Institutions


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