On the Barricades

Getting the stories out means assuming responsibility

The Washington, DC, mobilization to challenge the IMF was a truly remarkable experience. We had a press check-in, and ended up with a list of 996 journalists. Corporate media was being challenged, so many stories were getting out, and they wanted to understand what was happening.

If you think back to Seattle, the stories released by corporate media were supplemented, to a great extent, by other media people in the streets. Many media organizations missed Seattle. Activists call this the Woodstock Syndrome: "I wasn’t at Woodstock, but if it happens again I’m going to be there." So, as a movement, we’ve already done a great deal to educate corporate media.

But we also need to understand that we see a very small piece of the picture. It’s a huge world, and we don’t know about so many things going on. I remember  when I arrived in Washington, DC. I didn’t know anyone, and was trying to create my own community. I learned about these 14-year-olds doing photography of the inner city, trying to put out images of their lives. How do we get all that into the indy media? Something has happened — people have been doing so many things. But it’s reaching another level, and we need to make sure all that is part of independent media systems and centers.

In terms of analysis and asking tough questions, yes, we do have a bias. But we also have a responsibility. My organization works with all sorts of people. You might think I’d have nothing in common with someone working with the World Bank or IMF. But some of them don’t like the IMF for very different reasons. We need to understand that, so that we don’t end up being lost for words or backed into a weak position.

I often appear on talk radio. On one show, a guy kept calling me from New Jersey, and his whole point was that Pat Buchanan is on our side concerning the World Bank and IMF, and we should have him speak on April 16. He would get us media attention. At first, I told him, we don’t need him for that. And he said, "But he’s really powerful." I said, "I know Pat doesn’t like the IMF and World Bank. He’s against the World Trade Organization. But even more important, he’s a bigot, racist, and anti-immigrant person. That’s what I can’t live with."

The guy didn’t defend racism, but said, "Well, he means the illegal immigrants." And I said, "I don’t know if you can tell from my accent, but I’m not US born. I have a green card, and I’m here legally. But I don’t walk around with my green card pasted to my face. And when he makes these statements he puts me and others at risk. He endangers people’s lives." Then I explained that we make decisions by consensus, but I wanted him to know that I would oppose this. Buchanan wasn’t going to speak on April 16.

If there are people like that trying to "be on our side," we need to be careful. One of the problems with the Left is that we say what we’re for, but sometimes  don’t ask enough questions. Suspicion can be a very healthy thing.

People came to Washington, Philadelphia, and Prague for specific events and reasons. Some of them were thrown in jail, and were mistreated there. But then the focus of the media story changed. It was no longer about the institutions we were there to challenge, but instead about people being mistreated in jail.

It’s horrendous and unconscionable that police behave as they sometimes do. But we need to stay on message — even as we talk about the plight of people in jail or facing felony charges. We must always come back to why we’re there, as well as why some people end up in tough situations. What often excites people and sends them to the barricades are the horrible projects associated with the World Bank and IMF. For example, Exxon-Mobil and the other oil companies getting $350 million from the World Bank to build a pipeline for gasoline — for our cars. But civil society in Chad and Cameroon actually just say, "Slow down, let’s do this right." Both activists and journalists need to realize what people in Chad and Cameroon are actually saying — which may be different than their own opposition to a pipeline, understand that position, and represent it faithfully.

Saul Alinsky talked about commitment. If what is going to make you heard at that City Council meeting is to put on a suit or panty hose, he said, then do it. For independent media journalists, a vivid example came when the police shut down the Convergence Center in Washington. NBC came, the police parted, and they went through. But when independent media journalists came, they weren’t allowed in. So, there was another protest.

Consider the difference it would have made if we actually knew the DC police chief was lying when he went on NPR and said they’d found Molotov cocktails. What if independent media had been there and taken pictures? In other words, What do people need to do to get the story, in a process that has integrity and allows them to be heard?

There is a danger of cutting off your nose to spite your face. People can become alternative to the extent of being irrelevant. We need to be very careful about that. We have a job to do. When I talk about responsibility, I begin to sound like the nuns in my high school. Yet it really is about making sure that your personal comfort and philosophy don’t get compromised, but in that process, you do the best job you can.

Njoki Njoroge Njehu is a Kenyan national, grassroots organizer, women’s advocate, and currently director of the 50 Years Is Enough Network, a coalition dedicated to transforming the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). An elected Executive Committee member of the Jubilee 2000/USA Campaign to cancel the debt of poor countries, she recently testified before the US Congress on Africa’s debt and the IMF’s Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility, which administers structural adjustment programs.