April 21, 2000


Protesters May Be White With Orange Hair - But Movement's Base Broadens to Immigrants and Youth of Color

EDITOR'S NOTE: Images of young people with outrageously colored hair dominate coverage of the weekend's protests against globalization. But a reporter on the ground finds a striking number of young people of color, immigrants, and others with first-hand knowledge — and strong personal feelings — about what they are protesting.

 

By Mary Jo McConahay
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON D.C. — Laura Ruiz, a San Francisco high school senior, just turned 18, but she has the IMF and World Bank figured out. "What I'm learning is their policies make it hard for countries to pay debt, so they cut away money for health and education." Born in Mexico and the daughter of a low-income single mother of four, Ruiz is one of thousands of protesters who filled the ellipse and marched in the streets Sunday after months of readings and workshops, each evidently compelled by personal reasons.

"I'm grateful to be in the U.S., but I feel like a voice for those still in Mexico," she said.

Ruiz, who wears a black beenie cap favored by African Americans with dreadlocks and credits an SAT coaching course for her admission to college, is the opposite of the media's repeated depictions of protesters with white faces and Ivy League credentials, or flamboyant orange hair and a bandanna mask.

Yet talking with young people here, it's clear that Ruiz represents a strong stream in the anti-globalization movement — the broadening base of immigrant and first-generation young people of color, blacks and a huge number of Americans who have spent time in developing countries.

In a world gone small, two understandings appear to join young and older, white and non-white, American- and foreign-born demonstrators: First, that the direction of the world's economy is too important to be left in the hands of a few institutions who often act in secret. Second, an assumption — outrageous on its face but fiercely embraced — that one holds personal responsibility for shaping that economy.



An unidentified youthful protestor of the IMF meetings being interviewed by one of the many reporters covering the story.

"For a long time economics has been a jargon that people think has to be left only to experts," said 24-year-old Miriam Joffe-Block, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. "Now people look at the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF and say, `We know what's happening.' It's in the consciousness of youth, and it's exciting."

Joffe-Block belongs to a national network of students who pressure their schools to cancel contracts with manufacturers who use low-wage laborers in foreign factories.

Her own special awareness of policies came during a study semester in rural Thailand. It was in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, when investors were massively withdrawing funds. "Everyone suddenly was out of work," she recalled. "A woman I knew who received formula from a government program because she has AIDS and couldn't nurse her baby, found the formula cut. I saw this free flow of capital over borders, but no right to organize inside."

"Globalization doesn't have a moral component," insisted Melinda St. Louis, also 24. "It takes humanity away here too because we tolerate it, as if we have no responsibility to them."

St. Louis, mid-Atlantic regional organizer for the United Students Against Sweatshops, spoke in the back of a neighborhood church — St. Stephen's Episcopal in Northwest D.C. — as she shuffled arrangements for tables and fliers at one of dozens of satellite meetings around the demonstration.

Laura Ruiz, who dreams of becoming a journalist, was making a video of youth activists meeting in the basement of St. James church in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. "Name" speakers appeared at the church attended by President Clinton and the Jewish Community Center, and congregations across the city readily offered sanctuaries to organizers. It was a sign for many that globalization issues had entered the mainstream, linked with neighborhood issues which are the churches' traditional concern like homelessness and hunger — "economic justice issues that go to the moral fiber of a lot of people," as St. Louis said.

Protesters connect concerns as disparate as animal rights, environmental destruction from giant dams, corporate sponsorship in schools and sweatshops abroad — and see the trade and financial institutions as the prime movers of an unjust system. "All these issues are interacting," said Diana Bohn, a potter and adult education teacher in her 40s from Berkeley who came to support Jubilee 2000, a movement by faith-based organizations to cancel the debt of the world's poorest countries.

As a volunteer in Nicaragua, Bohn said she saw the deleterious effects when IMF loan conditions required a 75 percent cut in the country's health care budget. With these experiences come connections and commitments. Bohn was one of about 25 million Americans who now travel overseas, and millions more to Mexico, many of whom are students. (Some ten percent of all bachelor degree candidates now study abroad.)

Before traveling to D.C., Bohm said she attended a church meeting where friends discussed homelessness and people out of work. "We realized that globalization is here and some people don't have jobs because the jobs have gone somewhere else, where others are paid less. So then you have to be concerned about them too, because as Jesus said, if you do this to one of my brethren you do this to me."

At the event Ruiz attended, young people — blacks and others of Southeast Asian, Latino and Filipino-American origin — shared reasons for coming to Washington.

"Most of those affected by these policies like structural adjustment are people of color, like me," said a young man from Atlanta. A woman from the Boston Revolutionary Youth Collaborative said she identified with workers and indigenous people that she had learned about who were "repressed" when they rebelled against belt-tightening policies imposed as conditions for international loans, or against forced relocation for development projects. "I would have died - like my friends who died from drugs — if I didn't have this to focus on, because part of being repressed is being self-destructive," she said. "I understand that."

This linking of personal concerns with the business of the international institutions, and the urge to hold them accountable to standards of social and economic justice, feeds the new protest, often led by youth.

"We always made the linkages between the economic and political when we brought attention to injustice in Central America and the Caribbean — we called it `dollar imperialism,'" said Rev. Philip Wheat-en, 74, a former Episcopal priest and founder of two organizations dedicated to examining U.S. regional policy. But the young protesters, he said, "have put the whole thing together.

"We knew it was bad to cut forests, for instance, but we weren't environmentalists — they are. They're farther ahead than we were, and they're totally in control of this tool of technology, Internet communication and everything computers can do."

Indeed, many of those protesting a world increasingly technified at the expense of human contact nevertheless embrace fast-moving science and technology.

"I see what's coming so we should shape it," said Sadiqa Yancey, 23, a bio-technology graduate from Boston. She is against patenting of genes, for instance, which she considers "science contaminated by capital," and figures she can "infiltrate" future colleagues with her point of view. Yancey, who is black, said she felt obliged to come to Washington to protest after learning how bank policies have led to cuts in health budgets in Haiti, for instance, from Haitian friends and colleagues met at conferences.

"My ancestors were slaves in this country and the fact that I can go to school and live in the house I do is because people fought for me before I was born. Now I have to do this to honor what they did, so for the ones that come after me, there'll still be a planet that's inhabitable."

Mary Jo McConahay writes for New California Media, PNS' collaboration of ethnic news organizations. NCM can be found on the world wide web at www.NCMonline.com.

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