As attendees at the World Economic Forum (WEF) rolled out of New York in a stream of black limousines, they carried a warning from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan: “Ignore the world’s poor at your own risk.” It was a message that reverberated constantly throughout the five-day event, from conference rooms at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel to demonstrations on Manhattan’s streets.
The WEF is usually faced with demonstrations against it wherever it takes place. Being one of the world’s significant symbols of economic globalization, the WEF has been always a target of condemnation from angry street public to organized anti-WEF international conferences such as the World Social Forum that is taking place in Brazil at the same time of the WEF meeting.
In a diverse and huge city like New York that is inhabited with many American poor, a demonstration can get really wild and that seemed to be of great concern to the New York Police Department (NYPD). Since the arrival of WEF participants, the streets around the Waldorf-Astoria hotel where the WEF meeting is taking place have been filled with police-persons who blocked the streets and avenues around the hotel making mid-town New York traffic worse than Cairo’s downtown rush hour. Only participants with digitally recognized badges like me were granted access to the area. The tight security measures gave an impression about the importance of the event, and also inspired fear of any radical anti-WEF incidents.
The first two days of the conference passed without any sign of mass demonstrations, which seemed to be strange. By noon of the second day of the conference, February 1, rain and cold wind prevented many protesters from gathering. Walking around the hotel looking for any sign of demonstrations one could only identify three young men carrying handmade signs, including one that read “I demand a better puppet show.” The young man carrying the sign was convinced that the ongoing economic globalization of the world is advantageous only for the rich and powerful, whether it is a nation, corporation, politician, or businessperson. He said that he is not blindly anti-globalization but rather is only pro-globalization that benefits humanity at large. In his opinion a single tone economic-globalization that focuses on profit and ignores social and cultural difference will lead to even more degradation of those who are already poor. He noted that he was disappointed that there were no other protesters joining him but he insists on using his right to express his opinion about the WEF.
The third day of the conference, February 2, was a different day. Setting at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, one could hear demonstrators shouting “Money for Jobs, not for War” and “Human Need not Corporate Greed”. Thousands of demonstrators gathered at Park Avenue near by the Waldorf where over 4,000 police officers orchestrated a show of force intended to intimidate peaceful protesters in two simultaneous events demonstrating their opposition to the World Economic Forum. Demonstrators perceived the WEF meeting’s objectives to be planning future strategies that have often resulted in greater profits for transnational corporations at the expense of working people and poor communities around the world.
One of the two main protests took place at 50th St. and Park Ave., organized by the ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) coalition. The other was at 59th St. and Fifth Ave., sponsored by the Another World is Possible (AWIP) coalition.
Demonstrators were herded into a series of closed pens composed of metal fences more than one meter high, creating a sense of isolation and vulnerability. The 10 pens were approximately 3 meters across and perhaps 30 meters long, one after the other, extending the length of five city blocks. The speakers’ platform at 50th St. was invisible to all but a few hundred people out of up to 5,000 at the rally, many of whom were completely unable to decipher what was being said because of their distance.
Each pen was surrounded by police and plainclothes officers who controlled access in and out of the pens and of the entire area beyond the enclosures. In addition, occupied police cars lined Park Ave. parallel to the pens. Throughout the rally, squads of heavily armed police marched up and down the several blocks. Occasionally, squads of police trotted by on horseback or whizzed by on bicycles. The Waldorf itself resembled a besieged fortress.
The police diverted thousands of protesters who sought to access the demonstration area by establishing checkpoints, barricades and closing surrounding streets, according to Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, attorney for the ANSWER coalition. People, including me, were deliberately misinformed about where to locate access points to attend the rally. It took several Mid-Hudson residents an hour or more to be admitted to the area. Others had difficulty leaving. Some 20 buses full of demonstrators from various cities were misdirected by police to remote unloading areas. Police established a bus parking area but then told drivers to go elsewhere.
The 11 a.m.-3 p.m. rally was addressed by a multitude of speakers representing the various groups in the ANSWER coalition. Corporate globalization was the primary target, but opposition to the war, imperialism and racism were frequent themes. Among the speakers were representatives from the Palestinian, Korean, Filipino, Somali, Iraqi, Muslim, Mexican, and Puerto Rican movements as well as activists from various peace and justice groups.
Police refused to issue a permit to ANSWER organizers for conducting a post-rally march to a local theater showing the racist, pro-war film, Black Hawk Down, but many demonstrators managed to do so anyway, slipping away in ones and twos as the rally ended. Organizers also urged that people try to join up with the march for which AWIP had obtained a permit after its rally. A number of people from the Mid-Hudson bus contingent managed to elude police barricades to join this march, which seemed to include at least 10,000 enthusiastic participants by the time it reached 48th St. around 4 p.m.
The 59th St. rally, while attracting a huge police presence, was not as confining as what was taking place at 50th St. But as the colorful march to 48th St. began, police arrested 27 people. All told some 36 people were arrested during the day.
The demonstrations took place after weeks of inflammatory reports by New York City newspapers and TV reports that protest organizations were planning massive confrontations and riots during the WEF meeting, which began Jan. 31 and ends Feb. 4. Anyone familiar with the planning for these protests — and this certainly included the police — was well aware that considerable pains were taken by ANSWER and AWIP to conduct legal, peaceful demonstrations.
However, the Police Department mounted a display of armed force totally out of proportion to the planned events. After the day was over, the media began suggesting that only the heavy police presence deterred dangerous turmoil.
One week after the NYPD arrested 200 peaceful protesters, activists are considering filing a class-action lawsuit against the police for unlawful arrest and brutality. One of the arrested women said “I came to New York City this weekend because I wanted to express my views on the WEF and the other organizations that are abusing our planet and the humans that live on it. I ended the weekend by getting arrested for expressing these views, and I spent nearly 41 hours in custody, suffering with many other protestors in deplorable and inhumane conditions.”
For a first-timer visitor to New York city coming from a country of an authoritative regime like Egypt and thinking of the U.S. as the country of freedom and democracy, the anti-WEF demonstrations were some kind of a reality-check. Talking with an angry demonstrator telling him that he should appreciate the fact that they have the right to peaceful demonstration, he seemed not to understand how may not he has such a basic right. Telling him that demonstrations are prohibited in many countries of the world and police in those countries are much harsher with any collective criticisms to the ruling regime. “But those countries are dictatorship and their people one day will strongly revolt and most of all, they don’t claim to be the prime guard of freedom and democracy in the whole world” he answered.