protest becomes effective, governments become repressive." Tom Hayden
summed it up in an axiom three decades ago, while describing his own trial on
conspiracy charges for organizing protests against the Vietnam War.
Seattle protests last December knocked the millenium round of WTO negotiations
out of commission, and demonstrators have faced increasingly hostile government
actions ever since. This is especially true for those who have kept to their
principles of non-violence and no destruction of property– which includes
almost everyone who showed up in Washington DC last April to protest the
International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and in Philadelphia last week for
the Republican Convention.
city of Philadelphia upped the ante with the arrest last week of John Sellers on
conspiracy charges, and the setting of bail– for misdemeanor charges– at one
million dollars. A higher court reduced the bail, which was more typical for a
murder suspect than someone who is accused of conspiring to block traffic, to
$100,000 on Tuesday. But the message was clear.
heads the Ruckus Society, a group that has trained activists in the techniques
of non-violent civil disobedience. The group was instrumental in organizing both
the Seattle and Washington, D.C. protests. He was apparently singled out not for
anything he had done in Philadelphia, but for who he is. The use of special
punishments on the basis of a person’s political identity certainly contradicts
the principle that we are "a nation of laws, not of men."
is not alone. In Washington DC, the police went so far as to close down the
meeting center of the organizations that were planning the protests. This was a
flagrant violation of civil liberties more commonly seen in countries like
Indonesia or Burma than in the United States. (Philadelphia police staged a
similar, almost certainly illegal raid last week on a warehouse used for making
puppets and other protest props, "preventively arresting" 70 people).
Washington police also rounded up hundreds of people on the street one night,
including some unlucky tourists, and launched "pre-emptive strikes"
against people who looked like they might be on their way to a demonstration.
there were some scuffles between police and a few protestors in Philadelphia, it
is important to understand that police abuses have not been committed in
response to violence or even property damage. In Seattle, for example, a handful
of people on the fringes of the protests broke windows and overturned trash
bins. But the police mostly ignored the window-breakers and let loose their tear
gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets on the thousands of peaceful
may seem inflated to compare these protests to the much larger demonstrations of
the Vietnam era, but the Seattle and DC demonstrations were enormously
effective. The WTO has yet to recover from the collapse of its millenium round,
and last April’s protests in Washington gave millions of Americans their first
glimpse of the IMF and the World Bank. These two organizations head up a
creditors’ cartel that controls the major economic decisions for more than 60
countries. They are the most powerful financial institutions in the world, and
they have relied on public unawareness for 55 years to maintain– and regularly
abuse– their power.
protestors have solid moral authority for invoking the long-standing tradition
of non-violent civil disobedience. Martin Luther King once compared such
infractions to an ambulance going through a red light on its way to the
hospital. The issues raised by the protestors certainly have the moral urgency
that King was describing.
million Africans have already died from AIDS, and our government’s policies
(together with the IMF, World Bank, and WTO) could cost the lives of millions
more. Extracting the maximum debt service from these devastated countries, and
protecting US patent holders from the spread of affordable, generic anti-AIDS
drugs, appear to remain as these institutions top priorities.
home, we now have nearly two million prisoners languishing behind bars, hundreds
of thousands convicted on drug charges for which no civilized society would
are among the issues that the mostly young people whom Philadephia Police
Commissioner John Timoney described as "a cadre of criminal
conspirators" have sought to bring to public attention.
dollar bail, conspiracy charges, illegal raids, and police abuses are unlikely
to be any more effective than tear gas and pepper spray in discouraging these
protests. Nor will Mayor Street’s threat to prosecute low grade misdemeanor
charges "to the full extent of the law." He should take a lesson from
Washington, DC and release the protesters still being held in Philadelphia’s
Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in