This is not a particularly relevant topic to this blog, although arguably 9/11 is relevant to pretty much any topic that deals with modern-day political and policy issues. I don’t really have appropriate thoughts or words to commemorate the day, much less try to link it to current development topics. I’ve found some of the voluminous writings and coverage of recent days pretty powerful, and I won’t even try to add to it.
All that said, I’d like to share a few things in this space, and apologize in advance for being a bit self-involved here. 9/11 was a huge event for me personally as regards development topics, as it came at the height of the so-called “global justice movement” of time. Having been radicalized by a wrongful arrest at a protest against the World Bank in 2000, I was fairly heavily involved in the movement as a student activist at Yale. In September 2001, I was helping organize a contingent of Yale activists to travel to DC at the end of the month for what promised to be a massive, confrontational, and controversial demonstration outside a major meeting of the World Bank and IMF.
As anyone in the global justice movement recalls, pre-9/11 was a different world. We were training fairly mainstream activists in civil disobedience, non-violent direct action and more. In the wake of Seattle and Quebec City, we were learning how to use solutions of Maalox and water to counteract the effects of tear gas. We were struggling with how to translate vibrant street protests into real policy change. It’s rather surreal to look back at those few short years between 1999 and 2001 and compare them to what remains of the movement today. The strategies are completely different and the political context is fairly different, even as the actors on all sides are largely the same.
As my 10th anniversary of 9/11 post, I’m reproducing a handful of e-mails I wrote before and after that fateful day. I had a good friend who was abroad, and I communicated with her regularly via e-mail, so I have these as a fascinating diary of sorts. Unless otherwise noted, these e-mails are to her (also, names are largely redacted for privacy). Collectively, they provide a peek into the head of a 20-year-old global justice activist, at the peak of his political radicalism, and confronted with a world-changing event. They’re interesting from a purely psychological standpoint as well as a sociological/historical one.
I offer these without further comment. I think there are a hundred fascinating things in here, some things that make me cringe, some things that surprise me, some things I probably wouldn’t say today. Without further ado:
9/8/01 – an email to some students of mine who were considering coming to the DC protest in late September
As far as I know, the actions on Saturday will all be illegal. I don’t think there have been any permits issued for protests on Saturday. Basically what I expect is that on that day, a lot of demonstrators will be blocking streets by parading around in a festive manner, as well as by civil disobedience such as some of what you saw in “This Is What Democracy Looks Like”. There will also be a large contingent attempting to tear down the fence that the police are now in the process of building around the World Bank and IMF headquarters. This is more a symbolic action than anything else, but it’s bound to be where all the trouble is. In Quebec most of the tear gas and rubber bullets were fired to keep demonstrators (mostly anarchists) away from the fence; in DC, who knows if the police will be less or more violent?
Sunday, on the other hand, will feature a massive permitted rally on the ellipse, on the Mall between the Washington Monument and the White House. Speakers will include MIT’s Noam Chomsky and Canadian journalist and author of “No Logo,” Naomi Klein. There’s also supposed to be a concert series featuring Rage Against the Machine (sans Zach de la Rocha of course) and Mos Def. Last year this rally was entirely peaceful, with a very small police contingent keeping watch. There were booths where demonstrators gave away literature pushing their particular causes; there were lots of speakers; and this year there will be a small concert series. It’s more festive than anything else. There is the possibility that the police will find reason to break up the legal rally, but I think it’s pretty remote.
I’ve heard estimates of anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 protestors. Somewhere in the middle, probably a bit fewer than 100,000, is most likely. About $29 million will be spent on security and police forces, including nearly $5 million in riot gear, medical supplies, and “operating equipment”. This is in addition to the over $2 million that will be spent by the Secret Service (!) on the nine-foot concrete and metal fence, which will span a perimeter of two and a half miles and enclose some 220 acres. There will be somewhere around 8,000 police, including local cops, Secret Service, Park Police, ATF, FBI, National Guard, Capitol Police, and police from surrounding areas. It’s all really intimidating, but that’s the point.
There is currently litigation against the DC police for their building a damn 2.5-mile long fence enclosing 220 acres, and financed by $2 million from the Secret Service (!). George Washington University has ordered all its students to clear out from campus and go home, and is even providing money for transportation to students that need it. It’s fucking unprecedented, and made even more controversial by the fact that one GWU building will be used to house “supplemental police forces”! Anyway, the organizing is going well, we’re expecting a pretty good turnout and I’ve been working with some really neat people. Some of them are a bit too “stupid left” for me, to steal one of S’s phrases, though – just really self-righteous, closed-minded people that kind of piss me off. Oh well.
This Wednesday a grad student is showing a film called “Life and Debt” and afterwards I’m leading a discussion about the World Bank and IMF and why people don’t like them. It’s very analogous to the seminar series we did at GSW, and I’m looking forward to it.
I’m assuming that by now you’ve heard about all that’s happened. The campus was paralyzed today, so many people are from New York. I’ve IMed J and she’s okay, but the phones at American University have been continually busy all day. The crazy thing is, I was going to go into NYC today to pick up tickets for the concert we’re going to see later this month… my plans changed, obviously.
[World Bank president] Wolfensohn has said that he may call off the World Bank and IMF meetings. I’m not sure how I feel about it. Things are going to be really nasty down there if everything happens as was supposed to. I’m really nervous about the reaction to today’s attacks – people are going to go fucking nuts. I’ve already seen posts on the Internet calling for us to nuke Afghanistan and shit like that. Arabs and Muslims have reported death threats. Stuff like that. I suddenly feel very nervous voicing opinions that maybe US policies brought on the hatred that others feel towards us. The whole thing is just too emotional and too delicate.
People are serious about going to war, and it scares me shitless. War against whom? I mean, yes, we certainly have to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice. But starting a war is just going to make things worse. From a pragmatic standpoint, foreign sentiment towards the US will just get worse, and the likelihood of further attacks will increase. From a moral standpoint, the killing of thousands of innocent American civilians, as absolutely despicable as it is, *cannot* justify the killing of innocent foreign civilians.
Come to think of it, I *am* scared for myself personally. Because I know that if the US goes to war, I won’t be able to sit quietly and watch it happen on TV. There will be anti-war demonstrations, they will be very unpopular, and I will be part of them. I don’t know to what extent you are in agreement with my views, but recent events and revelations have made them much stronger and have convinced me that there’s something wrong with the way the US perceives the world. I have never felt my convictions compel me to action so strongly before, but I’ve become absolutely sure that I cannot stand by and let the current system keep going, un-criticized.
I’m also scared because I *want* myself to be so committed to my beliefs that I am willing to sacrifice my comforts for the causes I believe in. But I’m afraid that maybe I won’t be. Maybe I’ll chicken out; maybe I’ll sit on the couch and watch people die and think “I could be trying to do something about this, but I’m rich, well-educated, and chose my parents wisely, so I don’t have to”. I think that would be worse, and so I’m scared of that as well. You told me not to do anything I’m not comfortable with – but can my conscience afford that?
I’ve been working with a number of people in the local community, organizing for DC: not just your usual white, educated college student neo-hippie activists, but also community members, union workers, black grad students in the African-American Studies department, a sociology professor, and so on. On the one hand, these people have been giving myself and my beliefs a lot of strength. On the other, I almost feel like I’m in over my head. Less than two years ago I was almost content… I knew something was wrong with the system, but I didn’t know enough, and I was happy being ignorant. More importantly, I was living the life my parents wanted me to live: safe, sound, educated, “within the system”. Now I’m with these people, talking about entirely shunning said system, and forfeiting the safety and protection that goes with it.
9/24/01 – to the same group of students as the first e-mail above
If anyone is still interested in what’s going on in DC, here it is. Most of the big events have been called off, but the (legal) People’s Summit is still going on, with lots of speakers and teach-ins and such. There will also be limited illegal demonstrations sponsored by the Anti-Capitalist Convergence, a pretty radical group… those demonstrations are likely to be dangerous.
Well, in a few hours I’ll be on the train to DC. The World Bank and IMF meetings were cancelled, of course, but there are still some mobilizations going on – lots of anti-war protests and a couple of anti-capitalist ones. I think the latter ones are going to be very volatile, since right now anti-capitalism is equated with anti-Americanism, and anti-Americanism is being looked on very poorly at these times. So I’m going to be really careful. I’m excited though, I think these could be some very important demonstrations.
Last Thursday there was a small (200-300 people) anti-war demonstration in Hartford; I didn’t go, but I’m kicking myself for it now. They marched in the street and the cops broke it up. They hit a 60-year-old man over the head, pressed his head against the pavement (he had to have stitches later), and kicked him and broke one of his ribs. They pepper sprayed a lot of people and made 18 arrests, including two Yalies. X was one of the Yalies arrested despite the fact that he was on the sidewalk the whole time and so wasn’t breaking any laws. A lot of people suspect he was singled out because of his Middle Eastern appearance. Also, while in prison X was apparently threatened by the INS, since he is not a US citizen.
X’s bail was initially set at $15,000 but raised at the arraignment to $50,000 (!). He was finally released last night, after a full day in prison, after Yale fronted money for him. He has a court date next month. All 18 of the people arrested have court dates and are being charged with a lot of things: disturbing the peace, interfering with a police officer, conspiracy to incite a riot, assaulting a police officer. The latter two are felonies. Everyone is incredibly upset, not only about the arrests, but also about the fact that the charges (and bail amounts) are way out of proportion to what actually happened.
Unfortunately, I don’t have any emails from immediately after the protests of September 29 and 30, which were relatively uneventful. A lot of people showed up to take place in something that ended up looking like a fairly unfocused series of demonstrations urging the U.S. government to respond to 9/11 without resorting to generalized violence. (I took the photo above at one of the first marches that weekend in DC.) Perhaps appropriately, perhaps not, the messages of the global justice movement were submerged under the tide of anti-war sentiment. In fact, the global justice movement in the United States changed radically, and with the exceptions of major 2003 summits in Cancun and Miami drawing large demonstrations, the era of mass street protests about the problems with international financial institutions was over. The last e-mail above is indicative of how afraid some of us in the movement were of nasty crackdowns on activists in the post-9/11 era.
Which left me, and presumably many people like me, with this question: for those of us who participated in that movement, and who still want to work on “development” – i.e. issues of global inequality and oppression – what do we do now? It’s a question I’m still trying to answer.