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Hob-nobbing at Ground Zero

The World Economic Forum is coming to New York.

Geov Parrish

Its no surprise that after two years of escalating confrontations, the roaming road show of trade summits and global justice protesters would eventually land in New York City. But nobody thought it would look like this.

The World Economic Foruma 30-year-old organization supported by more than 1,000 major corporationsusually holds annual meetings in the luxury resort of Davos, Switzerland. This year, however, as a show of solidarity, the WEF is making a post-September 11 pilgrimage to New York for meetings from January 31 to February 4. This is the first time the WEF has held a full meeting outside Davos; about 1,000 corporate executives, 250 politicians, 20 heads of state, and 1,000 or so other notables will converge on the Waldorf Astoria. And, undoubtedly kept at a distance, so will the protest movement that has helped turned Davos into a war zone for the WEFs last several annual gatherings.

The New York protests will be the first major test of the strength of North Americas global justice movement since last Septembers massive anti-World Bank/IMF protests in Washington were cancelled in the wake of September 11. Its hard to imagine worse circumstances. Rhetoric about causing capitalism to collapse somehow seems creepier when the remnants of the World Trade Center are just blocks away. Even more so than in past protests, the local public and media mood is likely to be hostile.

Organizers seem undeterred. Eric Laursen of the protest umbrella group Another World Is Possible (and an occasional In These Times contributor) predicts tens of thousands will assemble from across North America to protest the WEF and its series of workshops and networking meetings and parties. Student activists plan a two-day conference from January 31 to February 1, after which they will join the direct action crowd for a legally permitted rally (10 a.m., February 2) and, throughout the weekend, the seemingly inevitable diversity of tactics called for as part of an Anti-Capitalist Convergence.

Notably missing from the list of endorsing groups for the protests are almost all mainstream global justice, environmental and labor groupseven though, four months ago, support of such groups for the planned protests in D.C. was extensive and New York, as home of the United Nations, is crawling with NGOs.

Most of those groups will instead be in Porto Alegre, Brazil during the WEF meetings. For the second year, the World Social Forum (WSF) will convene talks there intended to parallel the WEF. As a meeting hosted by, in, and for the Third World, the WSF focuses on developing alternative visions for more positive economic and social policies throughout the world.

Its undeniable that those efforts would not be nearly so visible in the North without the succession of summit street protests that have circled the world since Seattles 1999 WTO meetings. But 2002 is very different from 1999, and New York, in particular, is not the same place. Even some sympathetic long-time activists have doubts about the wisdom of radical street protest in these conditions.

Says one such skeptic, who lives in New York, I dont see any possible positive outcome to it. … I just dont see the wisdom. This action is a continuation of a political logic that is now outdated and inappropriatenot, she says, because the issues have changed or become less urgent, but because the political and cultural climate has changed. If the anarchists wear balaclavas, the cops wont beat them up. The public will.

Conversely, its hard to imagine that the WEF could hold a meeting in New York at any time and not have protestslet alone now, when the citys finances as well as the Twin Towers are in ruins. Organizers are attempting to rally public support by calling on the city to spend money on disaster relief and economic assistance, not on the WEF meetings. And at least one group, Reclaim the Streets, is hoping to finesse the awkwardness through humor: an invitation to activists to dress up in rich person drag and attend a Dance Upon the Ruins of the World. (The dance, specifically, will be the Argentine Tango.)

Regardless of their size, larger or smaller than expected, the New York protests may not be a fair measure of the ongoing strength of North Americas global justice movement post-9/11. Meanwhile, in Brazilaway from the cameras and newscaststhe task of designing a better world will continue.

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