Finding global religion

How a local snowboarder’s trip to Prague awakened an awareness of international economics

At first glance, 22-year-old Garrett Adams could easily pass for your basic granola-eating, tree-hugging type: natural fiber clothing, mellow attitude, earnest mannerisms. He doesn’t own a TV. He doesn’t typically read newspapers. So it was understandable that the massive media attention given last year’s protests of the World Trade Organization’s conference in Seattle, in his words, “just kind of skipped by” him.

But that was before his trip to Europe, before the overnight bus he was traveling on stopped in Prague on Sept. 17. That night, in a youth hostel, you might say Adams found religion.

The Sacramento resident’s life-changing experience began when he met a young woman while exiting the bus. The pair were going to the same hostel, and she told him she was in Prague to protest the 55th annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. She was a volunteer for the Initiative against Economic Globalization in Prague.

“I [started] picking her brain and numerous other people’s brains about the situation,” Adams said. “I was curious about why people were coming to this city and protesting. … I mean, there were estimated to be 20,000 people in Prague, so this was a fairly large-scale protest, and it got me wondering.”

The next few days were spent researching the issues at an information center set up by INPEG. What he discovered led Adams to extend his stay and volunteer as a media escort during the protests, which began Sept. 26, the day the delegates were to meet.

“The real roots of the information, what the IMF and World Bank are behind, is not that easy to come by. What they’re really trying to accomplish,” Adams said, “[is] sort of a hidden truth.”

Protesters insist that the IMF and World Bank—two international lending institutions—have increased world poverty, wrought environmental damage and sought to make the world over in economic terms that best suit the United States.

While this was his first foray into activism generally and anti-economic globalization specifically, Adams said he has always felt, despite the capitalistic mantra that says otherwise, that most Americans are born to a particular class strata and generally stay there, victims of larger forces generally out of their control. “What I didn’t know [was] who was behind it. Now [I’ve] got a name for who the players are,” he added.

Protest styles clash

Although reported numbers differ—most estimates peg the number of activists in Prague as between 10,000 and 15,000—there was no mistaking the international makeup. Black-clad anarchists from Bristol could be seen rubbing shoulders with Slovak environmentalists. Members of the Italian group Ya Basta!, which takes its name from its support of the Zapatista revolutionaries, could be found marching in matching white fire suits, followed by Greek workers in red bandanas carrying flags with the hammer and sickle. There were Canadians and Americans, Swedes and Poles.

And the protest styles of each group were as different as the reasons individuals chose to protest, Adams said.

“Everyone was there for different reasons, but, essentially, we were trying to represent the 99 percent of the world’s population that is oppressed,” he asserted. “There’s 1 percent of the world’s population that has a ridiculous amount of money and power. No matter what level you are—blue collar, no collar—you work for someone else. You don’t have much of a choice. … You have to have this good job because you have to pay rent. Even if you want [free]-range eggs and organic milk, it’s outrageously expensive, so you end up buying stuff you don’t want to buy because it’s cheaper, because those companies mass-produce them. You have to break it down.”

Adams kept a diary while in Prague, recording the massive amount of work it took to organize the throngs of people who were there to protest. There was little order and much chaos, however, in the days leading up to the march, and Adams reportedly had his hands full navigating the streets of Prague, out of view of police, putting up fliers alerting protesters to the various meeting places.

But while protesters pulled off much of what they intended—disruption of the Bank meetings and attraction of media attention—many feel the violence that erupted diluted the message.

Dozens of demonstrators broke through police barricades and got within yards of the bankers’ meeting hall for a one-hour battle with cops, resulting in the spraying of tear gas after the more radical types smashed storefront windows in the Wenceslas Square neighborhood. Abandoning the restraint they’d shown previously, Czech police—11,000 strong—rounded up activists during the second day’s protests for no apparent reason and jailed them. Among the 859 protesters in jail, many were denied food, water and phone calls. In numerous cases, they were severely beaten.

It was not unlike Seattle, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia or L.A. But there was an increased sense that violent protest—and police brutality—can no longer take center stage of anti-capitalist demonstrations.

“If we’re really serious about doing an action,” said Tedd Cain, an INPEG activist from Chicago, “then we need to make certain there are de-escalation teams, people who are responsible for breaking up the violence.”

Other activists were not so sure of this possibility. They talked about different traditions of protest, particularly those of Europeans, some of whom see violence as a means toward radical reform. “You cannot control who comes to the protests,” said Scott Codey, an American organizer with INPEG.

For his part, Adams has mixed feelings about protester-induced violence.

“It got out of hand, but I don’t really want to emphasize it,” Adams said. “It wasn’t like any of these people went there to be aggressive, to be violent. They were there because they were mad. Violence comes from the IMF, the World Bank, big business and their using of Third-World people.

“I was angry, but I’m not a violent person, so I didn’t [participate] in the violence. But I can understand why people would do that. I think there’s a place for both nonviolent and violent protest, within the same protest. Look, just us marching was illegal in Prague, and the cops were more violent than the protesters.”

Activists say they are deeply frustrated with descriptions in the press, which they say brands them as ignorant and rebellious simply because of their youth. Also among activist frustrations was the way the term anti-globalization is used against them. Activists argue they are not against the benefits of globalization: speedy travel, mass communications and quick dissemination of information (especially through the Internet, which is a key weapon in the activist arsenal.)

“We have a fleet of messenger pigeons, and we’ll be using them in the next protest,” joked INPEG organizer Patrick Twomey in reference to the usual Luddite accusations.

Like others, Adams is also concerned with mainstream media reports that “make too much” of the violence that erupts in large-scale protests.

“None of the reports ever go beyond that—to see the reasons why people are so angry they’d protest and become violent,” he maintained.

Questions and insight

Adams contends that when more people learn about what organizations like the IMF and World Bank are doing, more people will become angry.

“Why are these companies loaning money to Third World countries when they know they’re not going to get it back? It didn’t make sense to me for a while. Now I know that it’s to empower these horrible leaders who are oppressing their people,” Adams said, livid in his assertion that such oppression fosters an environment in which American companies can open up sweatshops, hiring the disenfranchised for slave wages.

Adams contends that if all countries were economically stable, such a scenario couldn’t be played out on the world stage, thus forcing “big business” to “pay reasonable rates to everyone.” Adams and other activists argue that economic stability would also force companies to comply with stricter environmental regulations.

This part-time snow-board instructor, who gets by on odd jobs during the off-season, has morphed into a thoughtful, impassioned young man whose main objective these days is spreading the word about the evils of economic globalization.

“I’m telling everyone, everyone who will listen,” Adams said. “This experience has given me a lot of insight on how blind a lot of people in the world are, [but] I don’t blame them because I was blind for a long time, too.

“What did we accomplish in Prague? We kept the delegates in the [center] for two-and-a-half hours after they were finished with their meeting. And for as much as they didn’t listen to us or say they don’t care, at least they saw us. At least they know that we’re going to be there, every time they have a meeting, every year, wherever they are. We showed them … we are not OK with what they are doing.”

Adams isn’t certain where his new-found activism will take him next, though he suspects he’ll engage in other protests. He only knows his experience in Prague has made him more cognizant about everyday links between people and the products and services they choose—and he plans to spread the word.

Tamara Straus of AlterNet contributed to this story.