MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 12

International Socialist Review, June–July 2000

Birth of a new movement

David Zirin & Michele Bollinger

Organizing for April 16 in D.C.:
A resurgence of campus activism

From International Socialist Review, Issue 12, June–July 2000.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

Washington, D.C., is a city normally defined by big money, big monuments and big politics. But for one month the city was transformed as thousands of people from all over North America gathered to protest the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.

The best way to illustrate the political awakening that took place is to look at one particular campus, George Washington University (GW). The campus – literally a five-minute walk from the World Bank and IMF headquarters – had not seen political activism like the April 16 movement in years

Activists on the campus estimate that more than 300 GW students took part in the events leading up to April 16. Somewhere between 600 and 1,000 students participated in the events on April 16, some at the direct action, some at the permitted demonstration on the Ellipse.

In the middle of March before spring break, we, along with other activists, called the first organizing meeting for the April 16 protest. Although it was well publicized, the meeting only drew a dozen people. This meeting was dominated by basic political questions: What do the IMF and the World Bank do? Why are they the targets of this protest? What really happened in Seattle? Where can we get more information? What is the event going to look like?

The next organizing meeting, two weeks later, had 50 people at it. The following week, over 100 came. By then, several campus organizations had endorsed the GW “A16” coalition – including the Progressive Student Union, the International Socialist Organization, Students for a Free Tibet, the NAACP, Free the Planet!, GW Students Against Sweatshops, Indian Students Association, the National Lawyers Guild of GW Law, the Environmental Activists Group, the Pakistani Students Association and Students for a Sensible Drug Policy. The final organizing meeting before April 16 drew more than 125 people.

There were two important political factors that strengthened the campus movement. First was a deep thirst for political ideas among student activists. Political questions about the IMF, World Bank and globalization were raised time and time again at literature tables, “dorm storms,” speak-outs and organizing meetings. Questions focused not only on the IMF and World Bank, but also on the capitalist system that created them, as well as possible alternatives. This is what makes the idea conveyed by the mainstream media – that students were out protesting without knowing anything about the issues – so preposterous.

The second radicalizing factor was the behavior of the GW administration. GW has a very close and cordial relationship with the World Bank. GW owns buildings the World Bank uses and was proposed as a “safe” site for delegates during the A16 protests. This relationship is best symbolized by GW's decision to award World Bank President James Wolfensohn an honorary degree at this year's commencement.

The events sponsored by the coalition were a huge success. Activists on the campus were unable to find rooms big enough to meet the interest of layers of students new to political activism. The main teach-in drew 210 people, not including dozens more students who were turned away at the door. Action meetings for 30 had to find 70 extra seats to meet the demand. A debate between Ahmed Shawki, the editor of the International Socialist Review, and a senior World Bank economist, planned to be held in a room that seats 40, drew 150 people with 30 more in the hallway.

Before dawn on April 16, 30 GW students met as an affinity group to begin their plans for the direct action, blocking an intersection between the university and the World Bank. By 8 a.m., 300 to 400 protesters (non-GW) gathered and lined up and down 21st Street on GW's campus and two blocks from the bank.

There were a few hundred more GW students up at 21st and Pennsylvania Avenue. Police had set up metal barricades to prevent people from getting much closer to the bank. All morning, protesters chanted, sang, held signs and attempted to block IMF/World Bank delegates as they tried to sneak out of GW buildings down to the meetings. This area remained active and unified throughout the morning.

Around 10 a.m. in the same area, 200 more GW students gathered for the march to the permitted action on the Ellipse. After a speakout against the IMF and World Bank and the GW administration's policies against student activism, about 10 students joined the direct action line while the rest marched to the permitted rally. The GW contingent to the permitted rally marched behind a banner reading “Life Before Debt,” chanting “The people united will never be defeated!” just moments before the rally began. Dozens of other GW students came out and joined the rally throughout the day.

Organizing for A16 had a tremendous impact on student activism at GW. The resolve to continue building on campus around the new mood of protest next fall is strong. Above all, students at GW left this movement fundamentally more political, more confident, and for many students, more radicalized around issues of corporate greed, globalization and class inequality.

Last updated on 30 0ctober 2021