Chelsea Mozen, an activist for the World Bank Bonds Boycott campaign who lives in Prague, was visiting family in the United States when the World Trade Center towers fell.
Two days later she drove to Washington, D.C. to prepare for protests at the meetings of the IMF and World Bank in September. She found her fellow antiglobalization activists suffering from a rare bout of uncertainty.
"I got there and everyone was paralyzed," says Mozen. Her group discussed calling off its participation for one thing, the meetings they were there to protest had been canceled but in the end they stuck around for what proved to be a relatively subdued peace demonstration of about 8,000 people. Police in the capital had prepared for as many as 100,000. "I believe the terrorism was awful and horrible, but so is what the IMF does," says Mozen.
Genoa seems so long ago. Yet it was only this summer that the antiglobalization movement, a loose coalition of left-wing activists ranging from hard-core Italian anarchists to strictly nonviolent church types, was among Western leaders' biggest worries. In addition to proving it could shut down any city that hosted a major trade meeting or international summit, the movement was also getting some of its key issues, such as the Tobin Tax on currency trades, into the newspapers and on the international agenda.
Then came Sept. 11, and the antiglobalists were "blown off the stage," in the words of American radical and online writer L.A. Kauffman. And it wasn't just that the press and TV cameras moved on to a bigger story. The very language and symbolism of some antiglobalist protest the calls to smash capitalism, the angry young men with their faces covered in bandanas have taken on a whole new meaning in the wake of a terrorist attack on the heart of the global financial system. Some politicians have gone so far as to use the attacks to discredit the movement. Clare Short, Britain's Secretary of State for International Development, told the Times: "Their demands turned out to be very similar to those of bin Laden's network."
Activists scoff at such creepy comparisons, but some admit they are feeling pressured to dial it down. "The movement has been haunted by the need to have a very measured discourse for fear of being stigmatized as anti-American," complains Mathieu Triclot of Aaarg!, a collective of young French militants. For most activists, however, that may not be such a bad thing. "We were wanting to participate in events where violence was becoming a problem," says Ian Wilmore of Britain's Friends of the Earth. "Now violence is becoming more unacceptable. It strengthens [our] hand."
So tactics may change. But predictions that Sept. 11 would simply shame the movement into quiet defeat were clearly premature.
Activists argue that Sept. 11 has actually drawn the West's attention to poverty and the way it creates the kind of instability that has made the world such a dangerous place. And in Europe, at least, the most successful mass protest movment since the 1960s might soon be adapted to new aims. On a recent cold night in London, a meeting of Globalise Resistance filled Camden Town Hall nearly to capacity. The ostensible purpose of the meeting was to watch a film about Indonesia's sweatshops. But the talk on the floor was about how activists should respond to the bombings in Afghanistan, which for nearly everyone present was another example of the rich victimizing the poor.
The antiglobalization brigade seems to have faded out of sight and out of mind.
Will it last?
Unlikely. Attention-getting mayhem will be harder to justify, but a continued war could fan the flames of dissent.