Anarchy, cell phones and the World Bank

John Gehring

So young people today have lost their moral and political passion during these heady days of stock market excess and delirium? If the popular image of college students and twenty somethings is that of a self-absorbed, apolitical techno-head whose idea of social justice is buying Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, the protesters who came to Washington, D.C., last month to rally against the World Bamk and the International Monetary Fund should reaffirm our faith that the fire of idealism still burns in these ironic and cynical times.

Sure, it was easy to smirk at many of these green-haired anarchists who bashed in a few police car windows during their stay. They carried signs like "Spank the Bank," pounded on drums and merrily chanted songs against the evils of capitalism and global financial systems that crush poor countries under mountains of debt. Who were these Starbucks-coffee-drinking, Sega-playing, Nike-wearing , cell phone-chatting creatures of capitalism to sound off against the sins of the establishment, anyway? Like, isn’t that a bit hypocritical, dude? As expected, some talking heads gave the young protesters a grown up style lecture about oversimplifying complicated issues. Stick to things you know about, kids; you will understand how these things work when you are older, they seemed to be saying.

But what we saw last month in Washington, D.C., expressed a genuine hunger many young people have today to be swept up in a movement larger than themselves. While their parents rolled up their collective sleeves (and a few joints) as they took to the streets and urged America to "make love, not war", young people now live in a time where subtle shades of gray have replaced the stark dramas of previous decades played out in the civil rights movement and the social unrest unleashed by Vietnam.

Every generation aches to embrace its causes, its chance to stand up and be heard as the parade of history marches by. The April protests here in Washington, aimed at the IMF and the World Bank, became in part a chance for those seeking something bigger than a fat paycheck and a nice car to feast at a smorgasbord of issues. There were graying leftists hawking books about socialism, tie-dyed-wearing environmentalists, bare-breasted feminists. Here was talk of police brutality. A political system corrupted by big money. The racial and class discrimination of the death penalty. Ralph Nader spoke eloquently about a two-party system with one head that offers voters no real choices. And of course there was Elian.

A comment about the media. While the newspapers and magazines did a decent job putting the protests in context by explaining heavy issues like global trade and debt forgiveness, viewers of local television news received only shallow coverage of sporadical confrontations between the demonstrators and police. Because the media, particularly television, plays a powerful role in shaping the images that become reality for so many, this type of lazy journalism reduces a significant story to whether the police or protesters are winning or losing. Those munching on Doritos at home saw a few kids rushing heavily-armored police, yawned, and continued channel surfing.

After the helicopters that hovered over the city for the weekend landed and the rain-soaked protesters packed up their anarchy signs and headed home, the great question remained: what now? Will the insiders who are the power brokers inside the World Bank pay much attention to these young idealists? Hard to say. But what those who came to our nation’s seat of power have done is forced us all to think about why so many Third World countries spend more on paying back massive loans than feeding their people or developing medical systems. Not a bad start for a bunch of green- haired, nose-pierced protesters hungry for a cause.

If you are quick to criticize their looks or methods, give the demonstrators a break. Like generations before, they’re just trying to find their place in the parade.

John Gehring, a recent Mount graduate and a contributor to the Dispatch, writes from Washington D.C.

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