Tuesday, September 27, 2005

[Global Poverty] Thousands Rally Against "Economic Apartheid"

Shirin Shirin

At least 100,000 people from different parts of the U.S. and the world converged on Washington Saturday to demand an immediate end of the U.S. occupation of Iraq and what they termed the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank's "war on the poor".

The march was timed to coincide with the ongoing annual meetings of the World Bank and IMF. Led by United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), a coalition of anti-war organisations, people of different racial and national backgrounds joined the march, which started and terminated at the Washington monument. Although the U.S. Park Police no longer issue official crowd estimates, organisers said the event drew between 100,000 and 300,000 people.

Holding colorful banners, puppets and placards, they walked the streets surrounding the White House, U.S. Treasury and various monuments singing songs and shouting slogans promoting international peace and economic justice. A feeder march and rally was organised by the Mobilisation for Global Justice, a coalition of activists demanding an end to the "economic violence" of the World Bank and IMF.

Activists marched from Dupont Circle under the banner of "Another World Is Under Construction" in one of many independently organised actions planned to coincide with the anti-war demonstration. Thousands of police were deployed alongside the route of the march and at metro stations. Streets had been cordoned off at several points, limiting access to the city for commuters and sometimes would-be protesters. Asked about the connection between the war and the World Bank and IMF, Virginia Setsheti of the Anti-Privatisation Forum in South Africa told IPS, "It is not just about war. It is about how many people die around the world because of unfair policies and actions -- a large part of which are economic."

"So it is not just the military injustice that we are facing. We need to connect the dots together," Setsheti said. Mobilisation for Global Justice organiser Basav Sen added, "The connection is there for all to see. The U.S. policies in Iraq look very much like an IMF-style structural adjustment programme at gunpoint." A statement issued by the organisers of the march criticised the policies of the Bank and IMF around the globe, and specifically in Iraq. It claimed that these institutions "place corporate profits ahead of basic human needs worldwide. We will speak out against the corporate theft of Iraq's resources and the decimation of the Iraqi economy through privatisation and 'free trade'."

Addressing the protestors, Prof. Dennis Brutus, a veteran of the South African movement against apartheid, urged people to challenge the Bank, IMF and other international financial institutions (IFIs) on moral grounds. He told IPS, "I fought against apartheid. We had national apartheid and now what we are facing is global apartheid. The IMF and the World Bank are pushing a global agenda that favours big corporations. It is an agenda that is making the rich richer and the poor poorer. We need to fight them on moral grounds."

The crowd cheered Brutus, now 81 years old, as he approached the podium holding a placard which said, "Blind Obedience is Embarrassing". He fought alongside Nelson Mandela to end apartheid in South Africa, and spent time in jail with him. Brutus now teaches peace studies in the U.S. and had come specially to address the march. Another speaker was Father Thomas Kocherry from India, who is known for his work in the fishing community in Kerala. He claimed that colonialism had never ended and that the Bank and IMF are a product of that colonial legacy.

"Globalisation is an extension of the conquest of colonial powers over Asia and Africa. For me, the Bank and IMF are their agents," he told IPS. Among the marchers was Naureen O'Conner, a Washington resident who had come with her husband Rick, six-month-old daughter Rose and five-year-old son Daniel. As she and the other protestors prepared to march, she held up her daughter and said, "It is her first rally". Roger Conant, who had joined the march from Massachusetts along with several others, said that he was there to express "opposition against the war" and to say that "IMF and World Bank policies are just not working."

Leslie Matthews, another protestor, said, "We must announce to the world that not all Americans are in favour of what their government is doing in Iraq and elsewhere. Yes, the Bank and IMF and White House are all here in DC, but so are we and we say that enough is enough. We refuse to be part of this unjust war on the poor both through economic and military means."

Saturday's events were the culmination of a week of activities, featuring, among other things, a mock wedding of the World Bank to the Pentagon, with an activist portraying World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz as the presiding minister. Activists claim that Pentagon and the Bank and IMF work in unison to promote what they term as "economic apartheid". According to Aniket Desai, an Indian who had joined the march as part of a South Asian street theatre group, "The fact that Paul Wolfowitz is the president of the World Bank is a reflection that military and financial institutions are connected. They are both controlled by the rich." Wolfowitz, who was appointed as the head of the Bank earlier this year, was the deputy secretary of defence under President George W. Bush from 2001-2005 and the chief architect of the Iraq war.

Aniket was walking inside a big plastic balloon bearing the slogan: "Future Scenario: Privatised Air". "They have privatised water. What is next?" Aniket asked. "It is going to be air and everything that a person needs to survive. They will do anything for profit." In view of the recent criticism of the U.S. government in handling the disaster in New Orleans, several protestors expressed their anger over resources being spent in Iraq. They also demanded that better health and education services be provided to U.S. citizens rather than spending money on war.

In a statement, the organisers said, "Instead of draining our national treasury for endless war, we demand that our tax dollars be used to repair the damage done to Iraq and to fund services in our communities." "We call for an immediate end to our government's assault on immigrants, the unethical pressures on our young people to join the military, and the undermining of democracy through relentless attacks on everyone's basic rights." Thousands of people also marched through central London Saturday to demand that Prime Minister Tony Blair withdraw British troops from Iraq. (END/2005)