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Report from an innocent bystander -

Global Justice is Not a "Nebulous Thing"

[April 18 2000]

The following report was sent in by a reader. The author's name has been withheld. To contact him, please send email to and we will forward it.

On Saturday, April 15 I was illegally arrested and imprisoned for 23 hours, together with hundreds of peaceful protesters and at least a dozen innocent bystanders of which I was one. As a consultant to the World Bank, a citizen of a developing country, and a person who has committed his life to the work of development I was appalled by the conduct of the police and by the way the "system" works. As a consequence, I am now far more sympathetic with the demands of the protesters and just a tad more cynical about the "establishment."

I was arrested with no explanation, no prior warning, and for no legitimate reason. I was standing close to the protesters because I disagreed with much of what I had heard them say in the media prior to coming to Washington D.C.. I wanted to hear in person what they had to say in order to decide for myself whether their arguments were reasonable or not and to summarize conclusions in a note for the World Bank's daily internal newsletter. I was not the only one. A Haitian colleague at the World Bank had the same purposes and was also arrested. So were several tourists and local residents who were literally just passing by.

I had been there for less than five minutes when the police closed both sides of the street and did not allow anyone to pass even though nothing except a peaceful march was taking place. No warning was given. No explanation was made. When I asked to pass or for an explanation on what was happening, no response was given. After an hour in which dozens of additional police arrived, police started handcuffing people one by one and marching them onto school buses. Not one protester was violent or in any way unreasonable.

My experience was similar to that of hundreds of others, including women and many teenagers. I was roughly handcuffed for over 17 hours (my arms and shoulders are still sore), repeatedly lied to, and denied an explanation of any kind or access to a telephone or to any means of informing my wife what was happening until 5:00 am the next day, 12 hours later. A demonstrator who had come from Texas with his son was not able to receive any information from the police on the status of his teenage son who had no money, no contacts in Washington D.C., and who had done nothing except protest peacefully. Several were looking for their girlfriends and also were not given any information, and Jim, a biologist with a health problem, was repeatedly told by police that they could do nothing to help him retrieve his medication. I could not help but think that it was through illegitimate and unjust arrests such as this one that the terrible nightmares of political prisoners from around the world had begun. I could not believe that this was happening in the United States of America. Contrary to declarations in the press today by Chief Ramsey, I did not see much professionalism among the police on the inside, where there was no media to ensure accountability. Instead, I witnessed harsh threats, incompetence, and injustice, very worrying to see in the police force of a democratic and powerful nation.

Fortunately, we were in the United States, and it only took 19 hours before a lawyer appeared, and 5 more before a mock trial took place, and so we did not "disappear" as common people, similar to us, may have had this occurred in a different country. The way they handled us, it certainly felt like they could do so if they chose to. I was released after 23 hours on Sunday at 4:00 p.m. with no charges, because it was neither in the interest of the court nor in mine to keep the record. For me, this open letter is the record.

The group I was with was transported to three different facilities, all heavily guarded. The first was a detention center for mentally ill patients. We spent three hours in an overcrowded room in which it was so hot that it became difficult to breathe and all were sweating. Only when the more than 50 people in the room started to really get angry did they allow us to use the bathroom or have a drink of water, some five to six hours after being detained. In almost 24 hours the only food provided was one sandwich with baloney that was almost green.

For all practical purposes, the police proved to be the greatest allies of the protesters in this demonstration because they perfectly proved the point the protesters were trying to make in this march: poverty and suppression of liberty go hand in hand and lead to further social injustice. In my own case, this first-hand experience of American police and prisons was an enlightening, life-changing event that helped me to fully understand the sometimes incoherently expressed, but otherwise perfectly legitimate and profound arguments that I now firmly believe the majority of the protesters were out to make.

In this particular demonstration, protesters had centered their diverse arguments on the relationship between the "Prison-Industrial Complex" and the Structural Adjustment Programs enforced by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in developing countries. As a passerby earlier in the day I had scoffed-I know the World Bank, respect its work enormously, and agree with someone who said that blaming the World Bank for causing world poverty is like blaming the Red Cross for beginning World Wars I and II. I did and still do believe that many of the protesters have not bothered to educate themselves on what these institutions do. If they had they would have greater respect for these institutions and would perhaps even seek ways to coordinate efforts with the World Bank to achieve their goals, as many other non-profit and other organizations already do.

On the other hand, after a day in prison listening to, and speaking with a number of the protesters, many of them highly educated and decent people with coherent arguments, I understood their point and it is a simple and valid one. In essence, they argue that too many powerful institutions and individuals, both in the United States and in developing countries, are ignoring the fundamental principles and liberties that are the sine qua non foundations for a free society and an open economy. I agree, especially after having been imprisoned and being subject to the ruthlessness with which people with power can treat those who have no power.

As Noble Laureate Amartya Sen recently argued in Development as Freedom, political freedom and economic development must go hand in hand. As Joseph Stiglitz and others have repeatedly pointed out, the World Bank and particularly the IMF and especially governments of their client countries still have much to do be more accountable to the common citizen. And as the protesters in this march against the "Prison-Industrial Complex" argue, and direct experience this weekend confirmed, there are institutions in the United States that would like to believe they are beyond accountability, beginning with the police force which is supposed to uphold and not repress freedom of expression. It is an unfortunate day when the image of great institutions is tarnished, especially when their mission is precisely to serve the public, reduce poverty, and build free and fair societies. And yet the World Bank, the IMF and the governments of both developed and developing nations are not helping their own cause or serving their citizens when illegal arrests take place, especially when it results from dissent of opinion.

I refer not only to the arrests that took place this weekend but to others that take place around the world all the time. I have witnessed demonstrations since I was a child in my own nation, Bolivia (where six people were killed last week in demonstrations). The IMF and World Bank are identified, rightly or wrongly, as symbols of global capitalism. As a consultant to the World Bank and someone who firmly believes in its mission and integrity, I believe it is a big mistake to further substantiate the claims of radicals who throw the World Bank and IMF in the same bag as the "Prison-Industrial Complex" and "greedy corporations." And yet that is exactly what happened this weekend. By ignoring the demonstrators, freezing communication, and delegating intermediation to the police the World Bank and the IMF did not deal with difference of opinion, and this is precisely, in my view, the severest critique made by demonstrators. If this is how they dealt with dissent in Washington D.C., who is to argue that it is not possible at least indirectly, that the Bank and the IMF would turn a blind eye to similar tactics used by governments and their police forces in developing nations.

As things turned out, a few radicals that explicitly advocated extreme positions set the tone of the demonstrations. As a result, there are now more people who are convinced that the World Bank and IMF might in some way be linked to injustice in developing nations. Constructive alternatives, such as an open forum in which representatives of these groups could express their concerns and in turn learn more about the work of the IMF and the World Bank, would have had the opposite effect, nurturing allies for the war on poverty instead of misinformed and disgruntled opponents.

The significance of this weekend's events lie not so much in whether one side or the other is ultimately right in its arguments. Rather, it is that there are people who have legitimate concerns to share publicly, that these people have to take to the streets in order to be heard, and that for better or worse the image and legitimacy of good institutions were damaged.

If the World Bank, the IMF, and governments refuse to listen to well-educated and caring people who come all the way to their doorsteps, and if street protests, prisons, and the use of police force are the preferred tools to avoid engaging in dialogue, we are all headed down a dangerous path. The protesters of course are not all innocent or correct -among them there are clearly ignorant, misinformed, and downright dangerous types who do believe in violence and do not respect or even care about the rights that many of their fellow protesters do believe in.

Nonetheless, as poorly expressed and incoherent as the arguments of the protesters may seem their fundamental cause is correct and noble. And, it is completely in tune with what thousands of people at the World Bank and IMF work hard for every day: ensuring that human beings everywhere have the chance to live a decent life. To allow the police of any nation to intimidate and suppress voices through such illegal and totally stupid procedures as those used in Washington D.C. this weekend-methods that sometimes have far worse consequences in developing countries-is for these institutions, the United States Police, the World Bank, and the IMF, to agree or at least condone what a U.S. Marshall screamed in my ear as he violently slammed me into a wall when reminded that he was violating my fundamental rights: "Down here there is no democracy. This place is a dictatorship and I am God. If you open your mouth again I will kick your ass till you are sorry."

To cite the front page of this weeks, The Economist, this is a "testing time for the world economy," and unless the IMF, the World Bank, and governments around the world fully embrace the classical principles upon which free societies are build and which Amartya Sen reminds us of--political freedom and economic development must go hand in hand--old and "forgotten dangers "will come back to haunt us. After being illegally arrested for 23 hours, handcuffed for 17 of those hours, and seriously threatened and intimidated for a crime I had not committed, I clearly understood what the protesters are after. "Global justice" is not a "nebulous thing", as The Economists' April 15th article on the protesters puts it. Very simply stated, global justice is the call for institutions and individuals worldwide to respect and seriously uphold the basic principles upon which free, civilized, humane, and prosperous societies are built.


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