Protest's mixed review

April 19, 2000|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Now that those who wanted to stop the World Bank and get off have left town, for all the pushing and shoving, all the signs, the slogans and the songs, it's fair to say the street theater aimed at disrupting its big meeting and that of the International Monetary Fund played to mixed reviews.

The meetings went forward with a minimum of disturbance and the demonstrators got their message out, such as it was, with only a modicum of head-bashing, thanks to a general sense of prudence and restraint on the part of both the protesters and the police.

There's always a certain amount of free-lancing in such exercises, but the leadership on both sides of the billy clubs did their jobs well.

As street demonstrations go since the 1950s and 1960s, this was pretty tame stuff.

The civil rights sit-ins, Freedom Rides and marches that helped break the back of racial segregation and discrimination in the South, and the often-violent protests against the Vietnam War that helped end it had much greater participation and evoked much more widespread passion and self-sacrifice.

The weekend phenomenon whereby the numbers of protesters shrunk from a police estimate of 10,000 on a sunny Sunday to less than 2,000 on rainy Monday was one indication of the difference. No doubt many of the demonstrators had college classes or jobs to get back to, but those obligations seldom made any serious dent in the earlier civil-rights and anti-war street actions.

One obvious reason is that the victims and the targets of both those earlier uprisings were clearly identifiable and close to home. If you were white, you didn't need to read any books on sociology in the 1950s to know that neighbors whose skin was a different color were being isolated in everything from schoolrooms and restrooms to buses and theaters, in the South especially.

You didn't need to be a history major, either, to know as the 1960s dragged into the 1970s that more of your relatives, friends and neighbors were being carted off to Vietnam and more of them were being brought home in body bags in a seemingly endless war of uncertain purpose.

In the case of the war, to be sure, altruism among the protesters often was tempered with self-interest as many young Americans faced the draft and possible service in Vietnam. No less than a future president, Bill Clinton, sought to take refuge in draft deferment and the military reserves.

But whatever the motivation, the street drama of the Vietnam years had a much harder edge to it than did last weekend's exercise.

For that reason, it's tempting to dismiss it as child's play, as a younger generation spoon-fed with stories of the older generation's glamorous battles on the civil rights and anti-war barricades striving now to relive those much-glorified days. But after so many years of youthful indifference, there does seem to be some spark there.

It would be a mistake, therefore, to minimize or ignore altogether the general argument the protesters made in their Mobilization for Global Justice -- that international institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF do not focus sufficiently on eradicating world poverty in their multimillion-dollar emphasis on encouraging and financing economic development and growth in poor countries.

Unlike the earlier fights against racial segregation and discrimination and against continued American involvement in the Vietnam war, the victims of poverty in underdeveloped countries are not our neighbors, and their tribulations touch us mainly through television. No matter how horrible pictures of starved, shriveled children at death's door thousands of miles away depress us, it's not like seeing them in the flesh -- although, sadly, that's still all too possible in some urban and rural parts of our own country.

So it's really not too much for residents of the nation's capital to endure a little inconvenience on one weekend to point a spotlight, as imperfect as it was, on complaints about how the rich of the world, and particularly the corporate rich, fall short in being their world neighbors' keepers.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from

cf01 The Sun's

cf03 Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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