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April 19, 2000

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Shakti Bhatt

'There was a great feeling of brotherhood in the air'

It is so convenient to come to America as a student and ferociously criticize its society and culture. Because, god knows, there are reasons to do that. But after joining the protestors at Washington DC on April 16th, I know why students and people from all over the world choose to come to this country more than any other.

It all started with me getting an email from Rebecca Root, the President of Resist to Exist Club at Eckerd College, Florida, where I am a student. I immediately responded in affirmative. I had read much about the Seattle protests and had got quite involved with the issue. We held a meeting where 12 students decided to go to Washington on the D-Day. A political group called the Direct Action Network held a 'Teach-In on Globalization' the same weekend. There, speakers from across the country spoke against globalization and the role of the corporate elitist institutions like the World Bank, IMF and the World Trade Organization in increasing third world poverty.

One speaker was Anuradha Mittal, a Kanpur-born Indian who is the Director of Food First Policy Institute in California. Only 27, she made a passionate speech on India's transformation to a capitalist country from a socialist one, again thanks to these institutions.

Since the most important day for the protest was April 16 which by now was commonly referred to as A16, we decided to leave Florida on Friday evening in three cars carrying four people each. Ms Hallie Childs, mother of one of the students accompanying us was hosting the 12 of us. She had herself participated in public demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the 1970's while her own mother was a leader of the Civil Rights Movement in her county. So there was strong empathy.

After a 16-hour drive, we reached DC at noon on Saturday. The first news we received was that the police had already arrested over 600 demonstrators and that the venue for protest was changed. The news unnerved us a little as we certainly did not want to end up behind bars, though there were a few amongst us who were prepared for arrests and police violence.

On D-day, April 16, Sunday, we met at the Metro closest to the area of protest at 9 am and started walking towards the "tension area". All of us were wearing bandanas lest we had to face tear gas or pepper spray, some others carried gas masks. As another precautionary measure, all of us had a legal number inscribed in bold on our arms in case we were arrested. Of all of us, Andy, a 21-year-old junior majoring in International Relations presented the ideal picture of an anarchist. He had curly long hair tied up high on his head, a red bandana and there were bold provocative messages emblazoned on his arms, chest and back. These varied from F*** Capitalism' and 'F*** IMF' to 'Non-violent Radical Feminist Eco-Terrorist Vegetarian Anarchist'.

There was no one particular place for protesting. The whole of DC echoed with cries of 'Whose streets? Our streets' by students who were blocked from marching in certain restricted areas especially those that led to the IMF building, ferociously guarded by long queues of cops. The dissenters carried big banners and effigies of Clinton and of the presidents of the World Bank, IMF and the World Trade Organizations. These cried, 'Stop Corporate Greed'.

The student turnout was overwhelming. Refreshingly, there were more female than male students. The largest national group, after the Americans, surprisingly consisted not of African-Americans, but Indians. These were students from across the country, especially New York University. They rallied against Union Carbide, which they blamed for the world's worst industrial disaster that occurred in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, in 1984, killing thousands.

Contrary to our expectations, the protest march was oddly safe and peaceful. One had little chance of getting arrested unless you actually go and break a bottle on the cop's head. The security was impressive. There were cops everywhere and admittedly they played their role justly and fairly. Most of us even chatted with them and had a few laughs.

On the whole there was a great feeling of brotherhood in the air. There were more than 10,000 young people out on the streets to make a statement, calling to end the domination of the corporate elite, which largely controls the world economy and dictates its unfair terms in the name of free trade to the world's poor.

The statement did get across. Anyone who thinks that individual effort or thought does not count should have been there. There were innumerable people who had come from far across the country all by themselves just to be a part of the protests. Taksen Banjua, an Ethiopian student studying in the University of Arizona, Tucson borrowed a friend's car and gathered some petrol money just by asking some friends and drove down even though as he says, "I barely have enough money to eat."

The media coverage was more than discouraging. The Wall Street Journal called the demonstrating students, "global village idiots." Some newspapers like the Washington Post called the march "successful" in getting the message across and "disrupting the city". The protest was a significant step and a great leap forward in the politicization of each and every student that was out there. It was also a valuable education in political activism. The spirit and the enthusiasm that the protest fired in the young minds of the students will burn at least for a while. Questions have begun to be asked. Answers are being demanded. This is really what democracy should be all about.

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