About four blocks into the march on the World Bank I came around a corner and found Uncle Sam with his pants down. I'd been running with other demonstrators in the pouring rain for about an hour, dodging journalists, photographers and curious Washingtonians. I'd seen him earlier in the day; he stood out even in the protest's garish environs. In his outfit he was difficult to ignore, as was the man dressed like Bill Clinton, the man who for reasons inexplicable was marching with a decrepit and stringless banjo, and of course the anarchists, black-clad and masked, who slithered like dark liquid through the crowd.
I saw him while I was leaping from the street to the sidewalk, vaulting a particularly large puddle. He was at a pay phone with his outfit half-unzipped, exposing the clothes he had on underneath and making him look like a semi-peeled banana. He seemed to be hunting for change. Behind him the protest rolled on, the defiant chant of "Whose streets? Our streets!" thundering off buildings and echoing down the capital's avenues. A sea of clenched fists, gas masks, pounding drums and unfurled banners flowed by.
I left Uncle Sam behind and found myself at the barricades on I Street and 20th. Here, planted between the demonstrators and the glass palace of the International Monetary Fund, stood a stoic line of riot police. An armored humvee backed them up, its flashing light rotating in slow silent menace. Further back, I later learned, was a troop of National Guard, a cavalcade of motorcycle cops, and another line of riot police. Invective was hurled. Gas masks went on.
The barricade was tense, but not so pregnant as to warrant my staying there, so I walked over and took cover beneath a small awning at the Gap, which happens to have a store at I and 20th. While I was standing there a kid in a mask darted out from the crowd and spraypainted "Sweatshop Fashion" on its wall. A smattering of applause arose from the people around me. As quickly as he came the kid vanished back into the crowd. He had spelled "fashion" wrong.
I wandered back into the street. An anarchist had scrambled up the traffic light at I and 20th and was now perched atop it, waving a black flag. While I watched a photojournalist, inspired, shimmied up next to him and took out his camera to shoot the crowd. He must not have liked the angle, because he tapped the anarchist on the shoulder and the two conferred. Then they awkwardly switched positions. The anarchist waved his flag, the photographer snapped away, and the traffic light, ignorant to the absence of cars on I and 20th, changed colors beneath them.
I ended up across the street from the Gap, beneath a much bigger alcove that I shared with four protesters and a photographer using a t-shirt to dry off his lens. The protesters seemed to be higher-ups in the demonstration's hierarchy, and they were beginning to realize that the DC police had penned them in. One talked quickly into a radio, and it sounded like he was getting reports from different intersections. "What about--That's closed too? Shit. Look, have you talked to Goat? Right. Well."
It was sometime later, amid the banging drums and anti-police chanting, that I began to wonder what any of this had to do with the World Bank. I came at it from a few different angles but the answer was always nothing, so I headed back into the rain and left.
The nature of crowd action is peculiar. The appeal of a crowd is directly proportional to its energy, but inversely proportional to its sophistication. Pounding feet, clenched fists and banging drums are an undeniable contagion, but the more a protest becomes about pounding feet, clenched fists and banging drums, the less it becomes about anything else. And yet as it loses meaning it gains a certain unstoppable force. The building energy of so many people, so close to one another, inevitably coalesces, like electrons that bounce off one another until they trip reactions. At its height a crowd is like techno music: its pulse is more powerful than its substance, and you react to it even if you don't know what it means, and even if you suspect it means nothing at all.
Which is exactly what happened in Washington. In the aftermath of the demonstration I was surprised to hear its organizers claim victory, on the grounds that they had gotten their message out. This seemed an absurd statement, but then I considered it from their point of view. Within the seething cauldron of the protest itself, it was probably easy to believe that something momentous was happening; amid the near-violent energy it might in fact be impossible to think otherwise. Outside the jammed avenues, however, it was apparent that the protest had usurped its own message, that nothing had been said through blocking the streets, except perhaps that the streets were blocked. To be sure, many of the demonstrators carried signs, but most had vague statements that either no one could possibly agree with (an anarchy symbol with the words "We're still winning"), or that no one could possibly disagree with ("Jobs with Justice.") A meaningful message requires some room for discussion.
And far too much energy was devoted to confrontation with the police. Many of the protesters mocked them, some goaded them outright. The ever-present chant of "Whose Streets? Our streets!" was undoubtedly powerful, but also well wide of the mark. Was the battle over the streets of Washington, or was it over the World Bank?
The media seemed to think the former. For three days the networks treated the demonstrations the way ESPN treats the Final Four. It was protestors versus police, with correspondents on both sides of the barricades, up to the minute coverage and even analysis from the booth, where outside security experts, former police chiefs and legal scholars held forth as anchors nodded sagely. Multicolored maps showed which streets were closed and which streets are open, and then a nice cutaway as smoke rockets zipped off in photogenic white contrails while the voice-over said both sides were pleased with the results so far.
Fascinating TV, but lost in all of it was the World Bank itself, which I found myself hearing less and less about as the days went on. Accolades were heaped on Police Chief Charles Ramsay, and the science of urban crowd control was thoroughly deconstructed. Fascinating again, but it might have been nice, at some point, to have someone deconstruct the policies of the World Bank.
Alas, it was not to be, and in the weeks since I've read a few articles that blame the media, and its institutional myopia, for missing the point. These columns were all very similar, castigating the press for, as usual, focusing on all the wrong things--playing up the police battles and the anarchists' destruction while ignoring the important issue of the World Bank.
That logic is precisely backwards. The point of any demonstration is to direct the media's attention. If the media goes in a direction other than that which the demonstration intended, then the demonstration has been poorly executed, and the fault lies with the demonstrators, not the media. Yes, the media is myopic. Are we just learning this? It has been documented countless times, and by men the protest organizers would likely profess to admire (Chomsky, Jensen, Hermann, McChesney) that the press are like children, needing always to be prodded toward the point, and pulled back quickly when in their wide-eyed wonder they start to swerve off course. Yet by vowing to disrupt the city, and by allowing the anarchists to participate (anarchists have no part in any political movement; they have no ideas and only discredit those who do), the demonstrators threw this knowledge away, and provided the media with just the framework they needed to get the story all wrong.
The sad truth is that the World Bank won't come under the scrutiny it deserves through the action of men with masks and broken banjoes. Nor will the marketplace of ideas be unduly swayed by the tired generalizations of ideological warfare. Too often over the weekend I saw and heard the phrase "Capitalism Kills." What does that mean? Of course capitalism kills. So does communism, fascism, democracy, oxygen, and just about everything else in an undiluted form.
Capitalism is a competition-based system, and any competition-based system is inherently abusive, because it has winners and losers, and losers, ultimately, end up on the short end of the stick. Globalization, which can rightly be seen as capitalism in an extreme form (as it is a philosophy where trade surpasses even nationalism), therefore has the potential to be extremely abusive. In fact it already is: vast portions of the developing world, as the World Bank itself is happy to point out, live on less than two dollars a day.
But the answer isn't to destroy capitalism; history has shown that countering one extreme situation by introducing another leads only to catastrophe. In every instance, reform is preferable to revolution. Abusive capital regimes existed in Russia in the years prior to World War I, and in the United States in the years prior to World War II. Russia revolted, tore its social and economic foundations asunder, and started again. The United States, under Franklin Roosevelt, reformed--maintaining its basic structures but broadening government intervention, introducing the social safety net, and allowing more protection for unions. Is there really any doubt as to whose citizens did better?
I make the comparison not to say that the United States enjoys economic equality. It doesn't. I make it only to point out that all economic systems are by their nature lethal; all commodities are relative, and anything that places a value on something other than life will, to one degree or another, devalue life in the process. So the answer isn't to keep crying for new economic systems. Bashing globalism is akin to tearing down a house simply because it was built with too few doors. Far better to build more doors, and allow everyone inside.
The most enduring criticism of liberalism is that cannot create, that, positioned perpetually against the status quo, it can only agitate and destroy. This, in one sense, is liberalism's appeal--it is easy, and it was that ease, that readiness to challenge power on every front, which was on display in Washington D.C.
But liberalism shouldn't be easy. At a certain point the broad foundations of society need to be acknowledged and accepted, and the hard work of changing specific parts of it needs to be taken on. Globalism is here. "One World, Ready or Not," to borrow words from William Greider--hardly an ardent proponent of capitalism. I would rather see liberals help define it than watch them waste their time dodging smoke rockets, swearing at police, and bitching because the media doesn't understand them.
Because as long as they are doing one, they will not be doing the other. You cannot influence society by alienating it. You cannot challenge all power and hope as well to wield it. The most cogent argument, if accompanied by broken glass, will be remembered as broken glass alone, because broken glass is the easiest part to put on TV. Only when the nonsense is stripped away, the vagaries jettisoned, and the media starved of anarchic distraction, will the message be heard. Until then it is just mindless beating of the drums.