Another Perspective

Sweatshop Slackers

On a Washington Saturday, anti-globalist protest runs out of steam.

By 4.26.04

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WASHINGTON -- When I arrived at Franklin Square a quarter past eleven this Saturday, there were more cops than protesters. A dozen police officers on motorcycles waited outside the Metro outlet across the street and several boys in blue dotted every block for miles. As for the park itself, police on horseback were in opposite corners, squad cars and motorcycles surrounded the place, and D.C.'s finest -- in uniform and plainclothes -- mingled with the rabble. Just in case.

Most vocal this early in the proceedings were the avowed socialists, though for anti-capitalists, they certainly seemed to be hawking an awful lot of goods. Of note were dozens of books and pamphlets about how capitalism has ruined everything, from rivers in Africa to coffee shops on American street corners.

Other lefties sold T-shirts, propaganda buttons, CDs, newspapers, magazines, and jewelry. This anti-capitalist protest was a hot-bed of economic activity, and the vendors were all about profit margins. I asked several paperboys and girls if they would give me copies of their rags gratis, in order to help get the word out, seeing as how I would be writing about the event. None obliged.

As I perused the many wares for sale, I noticed a number of unique-looking individuals, all dressed in black, congregated under a tree. "Who are they?" I asked a girl peddling the latest issue of the Socialist Worker.

"Oh, those are the anarchists," she said, and smiled. "They're always fun at these rallies."

The irony of a socialist talking about anarchists as though they were her pesky younger brothers, who might occasionally walk into the shower or freeze her bras, rather than a group who espoused the exact opposite ideology as her own, failed to register.

THEN, A NEW GROUP showed up. Young, clean-cut, and in matching red T-shirts, Bureaucrash arrived before noon. They quickly set up a table stocked with literature and more shirts. The tees read "Enjoy Capitalism" in the familiar scroll of Coca-Cola. The job of the organization, as one wag related it to me, was to protest the protesters.

Surprised reporters made a beeline for the Bureaucrash table, interviewing Crasher-in-Chief Jason Talley, and several other startled members. After Talley explained his organization's mission to one reporter, she asked a follow-up question.

"Free markets? How would that work?"

"Econ 101," he replied.

After watching the Bureaucrash folks field questions for bit (full disclosure: they gave me a free t-shirt, unlike the socialists, who gave me nothing), I wandered over toward the anarchists, one of whom had climbed a tree, perhaps to make some point about how the International Monetary Fund interferes in arbor-day activities.

I snapped a picture, which I learned is a big anarchy no-no. A man, apparently a designated spokesman, approached me and said that the anarchists don't like to have their pictures taken.

"Well, that's not very anarchist of them, now is it?" I asked.

He gave me a blank look and explained that they prefer to be photographed "in mask," with bandanas around the lower half of their faces, so the feds can't identify them. He further explained that the bandana stood for the solidarity of the anarchist brotherhood.

I wanted to ask about this "brotherhood of anarchists" but the guy had tremendous body odor so it seemed the better part of consciousness to move on to the homemade signs that people were carrying. "Capital kills like crack," was my favorite, though the author was a bit dodgy on its meaning. Explaining it, he told me, would only be a waste of his time.

"Free trade means sweatshop labor," received quite a bit of press. The man carrying it screamed at me when I passed by in my "Enjoy Capitalism" tee. I stopped to ask if he'd prefer starving in the streets to working in a sweatshop, a real possibility in countries that still allow such labor practices. He looked as though that alternative had never crossed his mind, but he righted himself by calling me a fascist.

NOT LONG AFTER, I bumped into a Bureaucrasher who was selling Che Guevara T-shirts made in Honduras. ("Hopefully in a sweatshop," he said.) Before the march had begun, they sold out of all the Che shirts, and even the Enjoy Capitalism ones, which were meant to provoke the crowd. Instead, several lefties took the statement as a sort of faux ironic dig, and happily paraded them around.

These Whitmanesque contradictions rendered the whole event more performance art than protest. A girl on her cell phone telling her friend to meet her at the anti-capitalist march; a man selling T-shirts accusing Bush of being a draft dodger next to a woman selling books that hailed draft dodgers and card burners as heroes; a crowd of girls who appeared to be from Swarthmore shouting, "Are you hungry? Eat the rich! Are you horny? F--k the rich!" -- only in America, as they say.

When the event finally got underway about a quarter past one, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 marchers, it felt like a parade. Rather than outrage, the mood was a kind of jubilant resignation, as though it were a celebration of the protesters' very, very principled opposition to the World Bank and IMF, not a denunciation of those bodies' policies. So no one seemed to mind when I ducked out of the march and ran into Starbucks for a vanilla latté.

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