- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 19, 2000

What does it all mean? This has been on the bewildered minds of people here over the past week as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have been the object of protests such as this city has not seen in many moons. When was the last time anyone can remember that the streets had to be closed?

Most marches on the Mall have a fairly well-defined mission. Pro-abortion groups march. Anti-abortion groups march. Feminists march. Family groups march. Gay and lesbian activists march. We've had Million Men marches, Million Women marches. The helicopter's eye view of the Mall, teaming with opinionated humanity, is not unusual for Washingtonians. It's not a problem. But what was this?

The answer will determine how seriously we should take the protesters who initially tested their muscle in Seattle at the meeting of the World Trade Organization to such disruptive effect. In Seattle, President Clinton turned around and declared himself on the protesters' side on labor and environmental issues. That's quite an impact. This week, the bewildered World Bank president, James Wolfensohn, sounded positively wounded at the abuse hurled all week long at his organization wounded as he has not been by volleys of criticism launched from the right side of the political spectrum (say, the editorial page of this newspaper). "Why would you have so many people trying to stop a meeting the entire goal of which is to deal with AIDS, poverty and development?" he said. "We were a bit nonplused, to be honest."

The scene downtown over the weekend very much suggested a generation in search of a cause. Not that one should necessarily sniff at kids in search of causes. When misguided, they can be exploited by people with a more ideological mindset to tremendously damaging effect. The anti-Vietnam protesters of the 1960s and '70s helped bring down an American president.

The anti-free trade element of the current phenomenon is surely the best organized and most purposeful, and we can count on the trade unions to use their new friends to greatest possible advantage. The question is whether the rather amorphous concept of "globalization" can take the place of the Vietnam War as bete noire for bored white middle-class kids wearing Nike sneakers and Gap clothes, by the way.

Times have changed, but some of the old ironies remain. In Washington, we had chubby white kids with purple hair and nose rings waging war on line after line of disciplined, mostly black police officers, many not that much older than the demonstrators, led admirably and effectively by police Chief Charles Ramsey and Assistant Chief Terrance Gainer. When police Saturday night nabbed 600 of them pre-emptively for "parading without a permit," booked them at Blue Plains correctional center and later left them in the rain to fend for themselves, an attorney for the demonstrators was indignant. "How are they going to get back," he demanded. "This is not the safest neighborhood either." Aw.

Interestingly, none of the local D.C. activists were able to get their people out to march. They seem to have known that this is not their fight. And indeed it is not. Nor is it really the fight of the people in whose names it is waged. It is a much more self-centered phenomenon.

The desired effect is clearly a kind of 1960s revival, but I don't know. The '60s generation may have had more fun. There was the silent group dressed in black, said to be anarchists, who glumly surrounded a giant pink papier-m ch pig. Or there was the flock who had come to a halt on a street corner dragging a monster about the size of a large garden shed, fitted with a set of huge dentures and the inscription STRUCTURAL ADJUSTMENT. "More World Less Bank" read a popular T-shirt slogan. "Greed Causes War" proclaimed a balloon floating past the Old Executive Office building. The naked back of a man wearing a bamboo skirt (and apparently little else for police had to keep telling him to put on shorts) offered the message "Ignoble Mother F##@*$." On the Ellipse in front of the Mobilization for Global Justice stage, speakers were accusing the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO) of "perpetrating violence against women." Meanwhile, on the grass in front, flagging spirits could be found snoozing.

The action, of course, was in the streets leading down to the hapless international lending institutions. In front of the General Services Administration on 18th Street, a chap in a tie-dye T-shirt and bandana gave a lecture on the history of the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO going back to 1944, "after World War II." That was when the United States rebuilt Europe and "now the United States and Europe use these institutions to rule the Third World and call the shots." Fast forward to the 1960s when Samuel Huntington allegedly laid out a plan by which the World Bank and the IMF would support Third World dictators, like Chile's Gen. Pinochet and Zaire's Mobuto Sese-Seko. Then, who becomes director of the IMF but Robert McNamara? This is the man who gave us the Vietnam War. "Now it all starts to fit together, right? Because of the World Bank and the IMF millions of people have been put in political prisons all over the Third World," declaimed the speaker.

As we enter the 1990s, he continued, we find Samuel Huntington not just at the helm of Harvard University's International Studies Department, but also as national security adviser to President Bush. (No kidding.) Is it any wonder that the World Bank's own 1996 report says that 40 percent of its projects fail. "Is that the kind of organization we want to support?" "No," roared the crowd. "Bankrupt the bank."

What a dangerous thing a little learning can be.

E-mail: bering@twtmail.com.

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