GIobal Carnival Against Capital

by Katherine Ainger

Z magazine, September 1999


As G8 leaders met to shape the agenda for the global economy at the summit in Koln, Germany on June 18 this year, 5,000 protesters carrying signs saying "We ate the G" and "It's Stupid, the Economy" were turning London's financial district upside down in a Carnival Against Capital. Bankers and traders watched from behind their tinted office windows as protesters played volleyball with inflatable globes and danced to samba rhythms in the spray of a waterspout from a damaged fire hydrant.

The protest seemed to come out of nowhere. By the end of the day a group of the protesters had invaded and trashed the ground floor of the London International Financial Futures Exchange, three McDonalds had their windows broken, two people had been run over by police vans, and riot police were charging in. The sight of anarchy hitting the world's largest financial center prompted newspaper headlines that denounced the protesters as "evil savages," an ignorant "unwashed horde" hell-bent on turning a "carnival into a riot."

Many of the scenes were undoubtedly ugly. But, in dismissing the protesters as an inarticulate British subculture, the media were missing the biggest story of the day. The carnival-goers in London-the majority of whom had been non-violent in actions and intent-were members of a far larger, invisible, but international constituency organizing around a common enemy: globalization. The events in London were only one of many during the June 18 "international day of action, protest, and carnival aimed at the heart of the global economy," when simultaneous protests against global capitalism, the international financial system, and corporate power took place in 43 countries around the world.

The response to globalization has resulted in some extraordinary new coalitions. For example, this summer 400 Indian farmers invited by local anti-globalization activists went on a month-long protest tour around centers of power in Europe. The president of the All India Farmers Union, Vijay Jawandia, said, "Those in the North have to understand our struggle and to realize it is part of their own. Everywhere the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer, and the environment is being plundered. Whether in North or South, we all face the same future. "

New communications technology such as the Internet and email has played an integral part in the process of economic globalization, but they have also fuelled a parallel globalization of resistance. The idea for June 18 was proposed by British eco-activist group Reclaim the Streets, who had organized illegal street parties against car-culture and capitalism. Circulated on international email lists and through the Internet, the proposal caught on and gathered momentum.

The June 18 events were as diverse as the groups taking part. In Barcelona "street reclaimers" invoked the slogan of the rebellious Paris students of 1968, "Sous les paves, la plage" ("Under the sidewalk, the beach") and, dressed in swimming costumes, put out towels and sun-bathed on the road, handed out french fries to commuters in their cars, and later took part in a 700-strong street party. Music and dancing also hit the streets of San Francisco with "art attackers" who, armed with giant puppets and candy, lobbied those working for multinationals that exploit sweatshop workers to take the day off work and "join the revolution." In Melbourne, Australia, Kim Beazely, leader of the opposition, received a custard pie in the face for speaking at a global trade conference sponsored by Shell, while thousands of party goers in Sydney held up traffic as a massive street festival got underway.

The National Alliance of People's Movements in India, a coalition of 200 grassroots organizations, declared they were taking part because so many in India have "been marginalized by the market economy and World Trade Organization policies," while in Pakistan union leaders risked their lives to come out of hiding to protest for "bread, not nuclear bombs."

Most dramatically, 10,000 people in Port Harcourt, Nigeria gathered to welcome back Dr. Owens Wiwa, younger brother of the executed Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, from a four-year exile. The crowd, led by a coalition of indigenous activists, held a Carnival of the Oppressed against corporate imperialism and the military dictatorship, during which they unofficially renamed a main street Ken Saro-Wiwa Road, and blockaded the Shell office headquarters. The singing and dancing in the streets brought the petroleum capital of Nigeria to a standstill for the day.

A "virtual sit in" on behalf of the Zapatistas, prompted by a group called Electronic Civil Disobedience, led to thousands of hits "flooding" the website of the Mexican embassy in the UK. In Montevideo, Uruguay, protesters took part in a parade through the Stock Exchange and McDonalds, accompanied by a PVC jockey riding a giant Pollution Plastisaurus made of plastic rubbish and ending with the ritual burning of a cardboard television as the "agent of consumer-culture." A diverse coalition of religious groups took to the streets in Brazil as part of the June 18 network to call for the cancellation of Third World debt.

Street protests of various kinds-many targeting corporate headquarters and stock exchanges-also took place in Tel Aviv, Minsk, Madrid, Valencia, Prague, Hamburg, Koln, Milan, Rome, Siena, Florence, Ancona, Amsterdam, Madrid, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Lancaster, Zurich, Geneva, Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Austin, Boston, and Eugene. The website for June 18, which streamed live video images from Australia and London on the day declared, "Our resistance is as transnational as capital."

These new coalitions have been building since 1996, when Mexican Zapatistas held an international Encuentro in Spain. Social and environmental movements in North and South met and were strengthened by their common rejection of their assigned role as "the expendable members of the global economy."

By February 1998 an international meeting in Geneva had attracted over 400 people from 71 countries involved in grassroots activism, from Argentinean teachers hunger-striking against privatization to Canadian Postal Union workers to landless peasants in Brazil to Indian farmers to indigenous groups such as the U'wa to European anti-road protesters. Together they launched a loose network called People's Global Action Against Free Trade and the World Trade Organization. They wrote, "Despite the huge material differences, struggles in privileged and under-privileged parts of the corporate empire have more and more in common, setting the stage for a new and stronger sort of solidarity. . . Scattered around the world again, we will not forget. We remain together. This is our common struggle."

The energy gained from that meeting was tremendous. A Global Street Party took place in 20 different countries during the G8 summit in Birmingham in May last year. Two days later, 8,000 people erupted onto the streets of Geneva in an anti-World Trade Organization protest, 50,000 Brazilians participated in a "Cry of the Excluded" march, and 200,000 Indian farmers and fisher folk took to the streets of Hyderabad demanding India's withdrawal from the WTO.

By September that year, John M. Weekes, chair of the General Council of the WTO was pointing out that "trade is no longer seen as an arcane subject of no interest to the public," and the chair of Nestle, Helmut Maucher, was criticizing "single-issue" protest groups afflicted with "Globa phobia."

The United States has so far not witnessed the kind of mass anti-globalization protests that have taken place in Europe and the Third World. But all eyes are now on the millennium meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, from November 30 to December 3. One U.S. trade official predicts that Seattle 1999 will be "like Chicago in 1968." As the agenda of free trade and liberalization comes into increasing conflict with realities of job insecurity, exploitation, unemployment, and social and environmental breakdown, more and more of the dispossessed will have little to lose in joining the insurgent carnival.


Katharine Ainger is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in News from the Third World (media information NGO), the Guardian, and other publications.

Home Page