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Students React To Media

By Sanjay Basu


A contingent of MIT student protesters returned Tuesday from the International Monetary Fund/World Bank protests held last weekend in Washington, D.C. The MIT group joined a larger Boston coalition and groups from around the country who attempted to prevent the two trade organizations from holding their meetings in the Capitol.

The protest centered around the role of the two organizations in third-world affairs. While the IMF and World Bank contended that they are poverty-alleviating organizations, most protesters claimed that the two organizations have actually worsened poverty in impoverished countries.

Although approximately 1,350 protesters were arrested during the protests and several were sent to area hospitals with injuries, no MIT students were arrested or hurt.

The MIT students involved arrived in Washington on Friday night, just hours after the main headquarters of their coordinating group was closed by for fire-code violations. Despite the closing of the protester’s main headquarters, the MIT group participated in “direct action” on Sunday, linking arms with other protesters to blockade the intersection of 17th and New York Streets. Coordinators of the protest divided participants between several intersections to prevent delegates of the World Bank and IMF from entering their buildings. The effort ultimately failed as police vehicles escorted delegates through the protesters’ blockades.

“About half of us were locking arms and risking arrest on the front line facing the barricade and the file of police officers behind it,” said Felix AuYeung G. “Very early in the morning, the Washington metro police in riot gear and uniformed secret service police put on their gas masks, prompting the protesters to put their masks and liquid soaked bandannas on. Following long minutes of the tense face-off, during which a helicopter hovered above, the situation de-escalated as the police took their masks off and reduced in numbers.”

“Toward the end, the police captain in charge of the intersection had a conversation with a few people around me; he was very friendly and respectful of the protesters,” said AuYeung. “He also promised that the police would not launch gas if the protesters do not throw gas at them.”

Police ultimately avoided tear gas use altogether, intermittently using pepper spray against protesters. Both police and protesters were remarkably well-coordinated, in stark contrast to November protests against the World Trade Organization. Washington police Sunday had used double fencing and several barriers to mark the perimeter of the permitted protest area, holding lines of protesters with several policemen in riot gear. Protesters also shifted groups and coordinated marches with walkie-talkies and cellular phones, evenly distributing protesters around the perimeter of the fenced area.

By noon Sunday, CNN had announced that enough delegates had penetrated protester’s lines to begin the IMF and World Bank meetings. Several protesters, many disgruntled, chose to leave their posts after the news reached them. Others remained sitting in intersections, risking arrest as a symbolic gesture. Several also walked across police lines to be arrested, a move that protesters explained was to augment the numbers of those arrested and demonstrate that many of those protesting were willing to stay in jail to oppose the two trade organizations.

Several of those who left their posts meanwhile attended a legal rally at the “Ellipse,” a large park near the Washington Monument. Speakers at the rally included Presidential candidate Ralph Nader, AFL-CIO leaders, and political figures from foreign countries. Attendance at the rally exceeded 30,000.

Following Ralph Nader’s speech, a group of approximately 10,000 protesters took to the streets of Washington and walked together in a permitted march. The participants held pickets and giant puppets shaped to look like President Clinton or ministers of the World Bank and IMF.

While many protesters said they enjoyed the “festive” atmosphere of the march, others were not so enthused.

“Overall the experience was somewhat disillusioning. The support from labor was totally non-existent,” said Saurabh Asthana G. “The legal rally sort of happened and dissipated, and the people there seemed very nonchalant and not at all charged up about the issues. There was little to no interaction with those doing the blockades ... it was like two different protests.”

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Many of the MIT students involved were interviewed by major press agencies. Upon reflection, several them commented on the press coverage of the event. I was interviewed by an AP reporter who had only heard of the WB and IMF one week ago. Nevertheless, she felt qualified to judge that the protesters didn t really know what they were protesting about, said Aimee Smith G. When I responded that a group of us from MIT had been researching related issues, she responded by saying, Well, maybe you know, but most don t. Listen for example what one protester said: I am for fair trade and debt forgiveness. Smith also said that she asked a reporter about structural adjustment programs (SAPs), economic restructuring programs that protesters have rallied against. She couldn t be bothered with these details since, as she said, these institutions have no impact on our lives. But World Bank President James Wolfensohn released a report to journalists prior to the protests, in which he defended SAPs as methods that focus funding in poor countries into large projects that allow regions to develop. Former World Bank chief economist and vice president Joseph Stiglitz then rebutted in an article in The NewRepublic, saying that the two organizations employ bad economics and that he was appalled while working for the two organizations. But local ABC television reporter Greta Kreuz was more concerned about Smith s characterization of the media, which she called unfair, saying that reporters had a good sense of what the controversy was and did not need an extended period of time to understand the issues. Kreuz also said that she was actively gauging activist s sentiments at the public rally. An Associated Press cameraman who chose not to disclose his name agreed with Kreuz, saying that the issues were not so complicated that media members could not understand them. I admit, most of us are covering the isolated violence, not the speeches, he said, but at least I m personally covering a few minutes of the rally, and my tapes go out to everybody. As a whole, I don t think we re marginalizing the issue. Some of the MIT students, however, supported Smith s statements, criticizing the press coverage of the protests. News coverage is appalling. All we did succeed in doing was create public awareness awareness that a movement exists and is growing, and that the future belongs to the people, not to the wealthy few, said Asthana. Pundits seek to reduce this action to an unfocused prod that moves the intelligent, educated lords to focus their probing attention on the problem the slogan-chanting rabble outside have failed to understand thoroughly. Those pundits are wrong. Other protesters were more concerned that fellow activists had begun to focus on issues outside of IMF and World Bank policies. For me, I witnessed a lot of anger, frustration, and anxiety, easily rolled up in emotion and quickly directed at the police, who were standing in the way and threatening bodily harm and arrest, said AuYeung. I did not go to Washington to confront the police, to question the police state that is so prevalent in our society, nor to challenge the police abuse of power.