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[whitespace] Displaced Anger

Anti-globalization activists learn to deal with terrorism.

By Jason Cherkis, Washington City Paper

Noel Petrie woke up Tuesday morning, flicked on the television, and saw the Pentagon in flames. Her uncle works in the Pentagon.

She sat in her apartment, watching those horrifying images--the charred bricks, blown-out windows, firemen and rescue workers everywhere, the steady stream of Defense Department employees running away from the raging fires. The TV was saying that a hijacked American Airlines plane had crashed into the nation's military headquarters. Petrie thought about her uncle. Where was he?

Petrie, 25, called her father, a former Navy officer. He could make some calls, she figured. He could find out. So she waited and waited. For two hours, maybe three--it seemed like forever.

Finally, at noon, her father called. Her uncle was safe, he said. "Everything that I saw, I took with a grain of salt," Petrie said. "I was hoping everything was OK."

Soon, Petrie started to worry about something else--something she'd been planning for, day and night, for several months. Something else, she feared, that might not survive the terrorist attack. As a local organizer involved in the upcoming World Bank-IMF protests, she fretted that just as those hijacked jets had turned skyscrapers into rubble, they had the potential to pulverize the anti-globalization movement's next stop.

Even if the World Bank and International Monetary Fund decide to go ahead with their Sept. xx-xx meetings in Washington--a possibility that seemed increasingly doubtful on Wednesday--all the banners and puppets and bullhorns in the world might not be enough to salvage the planned protests from Tuesday's wreckage.

The enthusiasm of many who planned to participate in the protests has suddenly evaporated. The willingness of the American public to even listen to the protesters' message has surely diminished. Impassioned arguments about the depredations of global capitalism sound, for the moment at least, awfully moot.

Petrie sensed the inchoate beginnings of all these thoughts on Tuesday, and she didn't know quite what to do. Already feeling ill and stuck at home, she couldn't get onto the Internet. Her phone line was tied up all morning connecting with family members, not fellow activists. "I think right now, it's up in the air," she said of the protests.

The anti-globalization listserves--the bulletin boards that offer soapboxes and gossip and camaraderie--felt like collective wakes. Activists' moods ranged from anger at the TV networks for perceived Arab-baiting to sorrow for the victims, for the surging gas prices, for their own movement's potential to run out of fuel. "Who is watching Fox...what the hell is happening in Afghanistan...have the hawks already started their dubious offensive?" asked one activist. "I'll bet it was those black-clad anarchists that did it," joked another.

In the open-letter missives, there was a distinct sense of retreat: "I feel sad for so many people right now, including those who have spent so much time and money trying to organize this protest. Ugh."

One message even praised the bombing of the Pentagon. Not a good thing for a movement that is worried about provoking even more police scrutiny.

In fact, by Tuesday afternoon, law enforcement officials were already forecasting doom for the activists' plans. The terrorist attack, speculated G.G. Neill, chairman of the D.C. Fraternal Order of Police, would have an influence on the way the protests would be handled.

"It would be tough for the officers to deal with anything," Neill says. "I would think that the American public wouldn't tolerate it. I don't think they would tolerate unruly protests. Where does that leave us?"

It leaves the protesters, most likely, with zero-tolerance. "I think you are going to see a major switch," says a source within the Justice Department. "A lot of shit is going to change. You have no choice. The general public is going to look and say, 'Enough is enough.' There's going to be a tremendous backlash."

One Metropolitan Police Department detective put it even more bluntly. "Most of us are veterans," he says. "We're going to go over there and take care of business: kill, kill, kill."

Despite an airplane smacking into the Pentagon, the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers, and the downing of another plane outside of Pittsburgh, some activists were still determined to continue their preparations as if none of this had happened. As if it was all just some nightmare.

So they showed up for a meeting of local organizers outside Calvary Methodist Church, located along the 1400 block of Columbia Road NW. The streets were eerily empty of cars and people, save for a few kids playing ball in a fenced courtyard and a few cops passing by on bikes and in cruisers.

The meeting had been scheduled for 7 p.m., and at least 35 activists were expected. By 7:20 p.m., only three activists--including Petrie--had showed up.

The rest had all bailed, telephoning their regrets. They wanted to be with their families, some said. Not tonight, others complained. Leave it alone.

Petrie brought some bad news to her friends. Apparently, a represenatative from Mobilization for Global Justice (MGJ), one of the umbrella groups organizing the anti-World Bank events, had told a local television reporter that perhaps the protests wouldn't happen.

"That's confusing," said Dave, an MGJ organizer who declined to give his last name. More like "fucked up," said another.

"We still have to act like there's a protest," insisted organizer Farah Fosse. "Nothing's changed."

The three all wanted to believe that. They said they have to. With just over two weeks to go, terrorist attack or no terrorist attack, puppets must still be constructed, airplane tickets have been purchased, and meetings have been held. The terrorist attacks did nothing to alter the policies of the World Bank and IMF, the activists noted.

But the attack did change how everyone feels: vulnerable. Tuesday morning, Dave said, he woke up at 8:56 a.m., turned on his TV, and saw the World Trade Center in flames. His father normally works in one of those towers, on the 50th floor. At 9:02 a.m., his father called. He was fine. "It was a slow six minutes," he said.

And now it was turning into a slow half hour, standing in front of the church with nothing to do. The three activists decided to wait and see about the rest of their night, and their planned civil disobedience at the end of the month.

At 9:17 p.m., Fosse sent out a message to one of the listserves: "We should definitely not be panicking about this yet. there is a ton of work to do for the protests and i think we need to act as though nothing has changed and continue to plan for them."

Six minutes later, she wrote, "We'll probably be protesting whatever fool war the Pentagon launches."

Earlier in the evening, Adam Eidinger, one of the main organizers in MGJ, arrived home sweaty and tired and needing a cigarette. Across town, another organizing meeting had been cancelled. He had gone just to make sure everyone knew there would be no meeting.

No organizers were there. So Eidinger returned to his Adams Morgan apartment, and a list of things to do a hundred miles long. Still two weeks to go, and a large puppet dragon half-built in Takoma Park. Two weeks to go, and suddenly a nation in mourning. Two weeks to go, and plenty of friends and organizers, their fates unknown, in New York City.

Eidinger said activists might decide to scale back and stage a simple vigil. Or they might not do anything at all. He said he was pleased that Mayor Anthony A. Williams had urged the World Bank to cancel their meetings.

This week, Eidinger had hoped, would be a week full of articles about his movement and its aims. "I don't think our message is going to get out," he said.

Printed with permission of the Washington City Paper.

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From the September 13-19, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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