TCS Daily

A Day At The Protests

By Radley Balko - April 26, 2002 12:00 AM

I'd planned on writing a snarky, mocking narrative of my day at last weekend's IMF/World Bank protests.

A friend and I had set our sights on infiltrating the great unwashed activists, blending in, then collecting great stories to tell about the twisted logic, misplaced anger and market ignorance of the far left.

They gave us lots of ammunition.

The signs were what struck us first. "Bush is Hitler," read one. "Free Trade = Holocaust," another. Others combined four letter words, household objects, and various members of the Bush clan to make their point. None of those, obviously, can be rehashed here.

Upon arrival, a drum circle broke out just in front of us. A quintuplet of hairy, spiraling college girls in sundresses and sneakers danced and chanted something about "profit is the enemy!" and "George Bush Is a Ho! IMF Has Got to GO!"

On the main stage, a woman whom I only remember described as an "Egyptian feminist" railed against the World Bank for tying much-needed aid to "neoliberal" reforms like property rights, free trade, and free markets. (If only that were the case!) She went on with largely economic (or pseudo-economic) commentary, causing the crowd around her to become a bit confused, and direct its attention elsewhere. Not to worry. She concluded, bizarrely, with a rousing call to action, "WE MUST BRING GEORGE W. BUSH AND ARIEL SHARON TO THE INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL COURT AND TRY THEM FOR WAR CRIMES!"

That, the crowd could understand. At that, they erupted.

Speaker after speaker followed - with screed after screed. Corporations, Europeans, Jews, George Bush (Sr. and Jr.), the founding fathers, the media, materialism, Jesus and Western values were, in turn, blamed for the bombing in Vieques, imperialism in the Philippines, Palestine, poverty, teen angst, disease, heartburn, acne and Ross and Rachel's breakup.

One redheaded, befreckled girl handed out small hand signs with this picture cut out and pasted to a Popsicle stick. Curious, I approached her.

"Do you know who that woman is?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, "she's the face of U.S. oppression of Third World women."

"No," I said. "She's a Pashtun Afghan. She was photographed in the 1970s (I was a bit off here - it was actually 1985) by National Geographic. The photographer has spent the last 20 years looking for her. He just found her, last year, in a Pakistani refugee camp. She's been lost all this time because she was forced behind a veil by the Taliban. We freed her. The US military freed her."

I didn't make a dent.

"Yes but she's just one woman," befreckled protester said, "She's just one oppressed woman. There are so many more."

"What are you talking about? What does that mean?"

"Yes, yes. I see your point, " she said. "Keep fighting, friend."

I was dumbfounded.

Another kid approached us with a stack of newspapers. He looked about 19, and wore a "Nerds Against War" button.

"Are you interested in justice?" he asked.

Well of course! Who isn't?

Turns out, Justice is a socialist newspaper. Among its demands: 30-hour work weeks, a $12.50/hour or $500/week minimum wage (whichever is greater), "people's ownership" of the 500 largest American companies, and immediate cancellation of all public debt.

"Sure," my friend said. "I'll take a copy."

"That'll be a dollar"

"A dollar?"

"Yeah, a dollar."

"I have to pay for a socialist newspaper?"

"Of course."

"Shouldn't there be just one copy we all could share?"

"Hmm. Yeah, that makes sense. But I really need a dollar."

My friend then told the kid that he didn't believe in money - that he relied on friends and family for food, transportation, and the like. Nerd Against War thought that was "so cool," but insisted he couldn't give out the paper for free, as the publishers would make him pay for any amount he came up short.

But our Fun-with-Dim-Activists Day soon dampened.

We'd found a giant "spirit machine" on the 18th Street side of the protests, just in front of Starbucks (which, The Washington Post later reported, the anti-corporate, anti-globalist protesters were happy to patronize for its air conditioning, mocha lattes and, most importantly, clean bathrooms). As activists beat on the various drum surfaces about the paper mache contraption, we noticed a stir in the crowd behind us.

As we turned to look, a handful of college kids in bandanas and giddy grins scrambled to retrieve cameras and camcorders from their backpacks. When the crowd opened a bit, we saw what inspired the commotion. A kid in a face scarf, black gloves and cargo shorts was hoisting an American flag that he'd just set aflame. Another flag lay at his feet, already in ash. More kids gathered around the second flag, zooming in with their camcorders and digital cameras, stomping on the ashes, and posing while friends snapped pictures.

I've always opposed efforts to ban flag burning as colossal wastes of time and misplaced energy. I still do. But seeing these smarmy college kids light one up in person - with no concept really of what it was they were protesting - gave me a wrenching stomachache. This wasn't a protest. It was a social event.

The Post would later report that many of them came on quasi-official college trips, with the tabs for bus fare and hotel accommodations picked up by their schools. Others were spotted later in the day at the Pentagon City Mall, scarfing down McDonalds, still sporting "Drop Debt, Not Bombs" t-shirts. These kids weren't angry. They were burning flags for photo-ops.

Security and cleanup for the protests cost the city of D.C. upwards of $5 million. And that's just the public cost. No telling what the loss was to local businesses forced to close to accommodate the march routes.

Ironies abound. These pro-environment activists left behind a terrible mess everywhere they set up shop - usually to rail against the pollution wrought by commerce and industry. D.C. residents were treated to an especially proud Earth Day last Monday, as many of their parks and much of the National Mall was still littered with anti-globo debris and pro-green waste.

What's worse, these kids were railing against the one institution (free trade) that could remedy the Third World poverty and desolation they're allegedly so concerned about.

When the "activists" wake up over the course of this week, begin studying for finals, and reflect back on their pictures and fun and protest in the nation's capital, I'm sure the irony will be lost on all of them.

Radley Balko is a Tech Central Station contributor and a freelance writer living in Arlington, Va. A longer, more irreverent version of this piece appears on his website,

TCS Daily Archives