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News ::
6/7: Riot Cops Menace Protesters as World Bank President Speaks at MIT
08 Jun 2002
Modified: 18 Jun 2002
As the president of the World Bank spoke at MIT’s graduation, activists engaging in a legal march against the World Bank’s poverty promoting policies were confronted by a battalion of riot cops. They prevented the activists from exercising their right to free speech anywhere close to the graduation ceremonies.
Riot Cops Menace Protesters as World Bank President Speaks at MIT Graduation
by Matthew Williams

Boston & Cambridge, MA; Friday, June 7, 2002—As James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, spoke at MIT’s graduation, MIT students and their community allies engaging in a legal march against the World Bank’s poverty promoting policies were confronted by a battalion of riot cops. Although the protest was allowed to go on, the riot cops prevented the activists from exercising their First Amendment right to free speech anywhere close to the graduation ceremonies. Despite some initial fears, the protest ended without any arrests.

Julia, of MIT Students for a Democratic Commencement and the MIT Social Justice Cooperative, explained why they opposed having Mr. Wolfensohn as their graduation speaker: “Mr. Wolfensohn presents a vision of the world that’s really, really disturbing and that is a failed vision. The reason that he and the World Bank are still in business after so many years is that while the World Bank has failed in its stated mission [ending global poverty], it has been successful mission in its mission of recolonizing the third world and putting it under the control of global corporations.”

MIT Students for a Democratic Commencement had tried unsuccessfully to work with the MIT administration to get an alternative commencement speaker. Julia said, “We tried a petition, got hundreds of of signatures, a lot of them graduating seniors, saying that they would really rather not have Mr. Wolfensohn speak. We asked first of all that they rescind the invitation and give it someone better or that they at least invite someone else who would be a countervoice to Mr. Wolfensohn--for instance, Joseph Stilgitz, who’s an MIT graduate and won the Nobel Prize in economics last year; he’s very articulate about why the World Bank is a big, fat failure and he’s an ex-World Bank Chief Economist. When we were refused that, we proposed an open forum on commencement day where anyone who wanted to speak to Mr. Wolfensohn could do so. That was also denied. As a concession, we got this meeting of twenty students with Mr. Wolfensohn, with almost no media presence and no professors--he didn’t want anyone to be there to ask him hard questions. He thought that students were ignorant and that he could just charm them.”

About 150 protesters gathered at 7:30 am in the rain on a working day on the Boston side of the Charles River. As they marched over the Harvard Bridge towards Cambridge and MIT, it was immediately clear that security would be ridiculously heavy—heavier in fact than a protest a few years ago when then President Clinton spoke at that year’s MIT graduation. Large numbers of state police on motorcycles drove alongside the activists, while two cops in boats patrolled the waters below. (To stop people from swimming across?)

Despite the police presence and the rain, the protesters were in good spirits. Several people played the drums while protesters chanted “More World, Less Bank!” and “We’re here, we’re wet! Cancel the debt!”, the second in reference to the crippling, unpayable debt third world countries have accumulated under World Bank policies. Some passing cars honked their horns in support.

Basav of BankBusters, a local anti-IMF/World Bank community group, explained the problems with World Bank policies and third world debt: “The World Bank lends money to governments in poor countries, which sounds noble, except 1) note the word ‘lends’, which means the money has to be paid back with interest, and 2) they add conditions to the loans which essentially make it hard for these countries to provide basic infrastructure, makes it hard for poor people in these countries to access healthcare, education, water and other basics of survival and these conditions increase poverty. Some of these conditions requiring counties to privatize basic social services like water supply. The privatized water supply becomes too expensive for poor people to afford. Or requiring countries to impose user fees for healthcare and basic education, as a result of which millions of African children have had to drop out of school. The common theme in all these policies is that they enrich an elite and they enrich multinational corporations at the expense of poor people.”

As protesters reached the Cambridge side of the bridge, police held up the protest for several minutes. As the peacekeepers negotiated with them, the state police confiscated all umbrellas with points coming out the top (they promised to give them back later); apparently, this was some sort of security measure. The police allowed the activists to hold a protest on the opposite side of Memorial Drive from where the graduation ceremonies were taking place (outside, in the rain). Since Memorial Drive is a highway with what amounts to a park for a median strip, this was a good distance away. When Clinton spoke, protesters had been allowed to gather on the media strip instead of the far side of the road. The police only allowed eight activists to go over to hand out flyers. An IMC-video reporter who tried to cross over was “escorted” back by the police.

The organizers got around the distance by using “the People’s Public Address System”. As the parents filed into the seating area across the street, a speaker would address them by speaking on a bullhorn and having the other protesters repeat each sentence by shouting. Apparently, this was working, since the volume of the music coming from the far side of the road went up—and then back down after the anti-World Bank speakers had finished.

Several speakers noted that the World Bank’s own studies have shown that poverty has been increasing, not decreasing as a result of the policies of the World Bank and its sister institution, the IMF. Julia pointed out that the World Bank and IMF have refused to take responsibility for these failures: “Argentina was a model pupil of the World Bank and IMF; they were following every single instruction to the exact letter before their entire economy collapsed. Then the World Bank and IMF were just like, ‘Too bad, see you next time’. They are completely unaccountable, they can destroy your economy--basically, they can make you quadriplegic and they won’t even buy you a wheelchair.”

About 10:00, when the protest had begun to wind down and around fifty people were left, the organizers decided to see if we could cross at the intersection and set up a walking picket closer to the graduation ceremonies, perfectly legal under the First Amendment even without a permit. The state police eventually told us that we could cross in two minutes, when we would have to deal with the Cambridge city police. After two minutes, as we were getting ready to cross, a whole battalion of riot cops, in full Darth Vader gear, came marching down the street and blocked it off. Apparently, the Cambridge city police did not want us to have a walking picket. Wondering if we were about to get attacked for holding a legal protest, we began chanting “We have voices, they have guns! We’re outnumbered three to one!” and “This is what democracy looks like! That is what a police state looks like!”

All this seemed particularly perverse, because the Cambridge city council had recently voted 9-0 to boycott World Bank bonds. Basav explained why World Bank policies would be of interest to the city of Cambridge: “Policies of institutions like the World Bank not only hurt poor people in poor countries, they also hurt poor people and workers and average people in this country. Number one, institutions like the World Bank, IMF and WTO force poor countries to lower their labor standards, to lower their wages, to lower their environmental standards and so on. In a competitive race to become the place with the cheapest labor in order to attract foreign capital or investment, a race to the bottom is set in motion, in which corporations keep moving from countries with better working conditions to countries with poorer working conditions and it leaves people with the better working conditions unemployed often. That’s happened a lot in the US, with job loss, with jobs moving to Mexico or Haiti to take advantage of cheap labor. Number two, the model of privatization of basic services that is being set in motion in poor countries by the World Bank and IMF is inevitably going to come back to haunt the United states. There may be a future here without public schools, without the few remaining public hospitals we have, without publicly operated mass transit systems, and so on. The first country to privatize its social security system was Chile under a great deal of pressure from the World Bank and IMF. Today there’s conversation about privatizing social security in the US.”

Eventually, it became clear that the riot cops were there to protect the MIT seniors who began filing in. What exactly they were there to protect them from was unclear. (Free speech?) About fifteen activists crossed the street to try to set up a walking picket. Although they were not arrested, the riot cops moved forward and planted themselves firmly in front of the protesters. Meanwhile, back across the street, an MIT student called out over a bullhorn to the graduating seniors, explaining the purpose of the protest to them. She urged them to tell Wolfensohn, “Drop the debt” as they collected their diplomas.

Julia said the frequently made charge that these protests are simply about rich, white first worlders who don’t want to share the wealth was “delusional”. “We are supportive of initiatives coming directly from the third world, we are supportive of the World Social Forum that happened in Porto Allegre, Brazil last year. We are getting most of our guidance and most of information on these issues from people in the third world.”

Basav, who is from India, said, “Protests against these institutions in the first world have started only in the last two or three years, while protests in the poor countries against these institutions have been going on for decades. The Western media has been conveniently ignoring it and continues to ignore it. There have been huge protests against World Bank-funded dams in India, Thailand and Guatemala. There have been have been huge protests against World Bank-funded water privatization in Bolivia, against electricity privatization in South Africa--I could go on and on.”

By 11:15, all the seniors had filed in. At this point, the people who had tried to cross the street came back over and we marched back across the bridge to Boston. We had made our point and hopefully made our message heard to the graduating seniors and their families. And the World Bank had revealed its need to protect itself from a public debate about its policies with the tools of a police state.


BankBusters can be reached at noimfwb (at) or 617-755-0795. MIT Students for a Democratic Commencement can be reached at stopwolfie (at) BankBuster’s website is; the MIT alternative commencement site is For more information on the World Bank, see the website of Fifty Years is Enough,, or ZNet’s global economics page,
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Universities do not exist without students
09 Jun 2002
Students inside the commencement exercises who opposed the strong-arm tactics of the university could have peacefully and quietly turned their backs when the propagandist started his spiel. Or, if seats were stationery, perhaps removed their hats and placed them over their faces to show lack of regard for the speaker.

Perhaps this would have sent the message home to the administration that the students have a right to have the speaker they choose at THEIR commencement. Administration needs to be reminded that without students, they are all unemployed.
more coverage on MIT commencement
09 Jun 2002
another article.

this article is on the newswire and hasn't made it to center column (yet?)
09 Jun 2002
Or the students could have snuck in rotten tomatoes....
NECN coverage
10 Jun 2002
here's the NECN video coverage:
Eyewitness Account
11 Jun 2002
As a current MIT student, I witnessed the entire process building up to the protest of World Bank President James Wolfensohn at the MIT commencement ceremonies. The day of the event, the roughly 20 protesters were far outnumbered by the riot police who were present. Do not attribute this low turnout to any effort to squelch the free expression of the protesters.

Throughout the months building up to the commencement, people opposed to Wolfensohn's speech were given ample edtorial space in the school newspaper. These efforts even led the school administration to arrange a direct meeting between concerned students and Wolfensohn. If anyone even remotely had their free speech rights infringed, it would be James Wolfensohn.

Disagree with him and the policies of the World Bank all you want. The reason for the dismal turnout of the actual protest reveals the ugly nature of the underlying cause: attempting to censor ideas you do not agree with.

And just for the record, Wolfensohn's speech was said to be typical, cliche-laden graduation drivel. Perhaps it would have been better to encourage a more controversial speech, regardless of the position of the speaker.
free speech and power
12 Jun 2002
To the MIT student who goes by "sloppy"--I don't think you understand how unequal power dynamics figure into this whole protest thing. Mr. Wolfensohn and other World Bank officials have many opportunities to make their opinions known in the major media--progressives have a much harder time getting their views in and we often have to do something disruptive to get the media to even pay attention to us. Dissenting opinions may have appeared in the MIT newspaper, but that is not representative of the US media as a whole. And what is wrong with advocating an opposing speaker to a controversial one like Mr. Wolfensohn or an open forum where anyone could question him (a closed meeting with twenty students and no faculty or press is not the same as an open forum)? Mr. Wolfensohn's ideas were the only ones that the people at commencement were exposed to. The idea behind the protest was to make other views heard; yes, they gave us a "free speech zone" (or "protest pit")--but on the far side of Memorial Drive. Free speech becomes meaningless if it can't be effectively used to communicate with others unfamiliar with your opinions. The MIT administration called on the power of the state and kept us from crossing the street with a squad of riot cops. Even you must find that just a little bit excessive. More to the point, it was effectively censoring us as we tried to communicate with the audience of the commencement. Members of the emerging global elite (all with close ties to the US elite) are able to dominate the major media, which are owned by the same corporations that are reshaping the global power structure. It's very difficult to get alternative viewpoints in, which is why we often resort to unruly means. Until you understand the power dynamics at work here, you can't really understand the dynamics of free speech.
Correction & reply to Sloppy's comments
12 Jun 2002
1. There were far more than 20 protestors -- from 50 to 100, depending on who you ask, and what time you are speaking of. (Some left near the end.) Not bad, factoring in the rainy and cold day, and the fact that other graduating MIT students were in the ceremony.

2. The meeting between Wolfensohn and students was NOT so free. It was a closed-door meeting with no media allowed except, I think, one MIT reporter (correct me if I am wrong, anyone who attended it).

3. How did the protest in any way infringe on Wolfensohn's freedom of speech? He spoke as arranged, as I understand it. At a microphone, covered by major news media.

4. How did the 100 or so riot cops NOT infringe on the protestors' freedom of speech? They were across a wide and busy street from the people and event they were protesting for the sake of. To distribute literature, 5 or so people were allowed to cross the street, but no signs were allowed, and the 100 or so riot cops facing them near the end of the protest don't seem so encouraging of free expression to me.

Not that I expected any different -- that is the nature of power in this system. But let's at least get the analysis straight and not buy into Rush Limbaugh rhetoric.
Even MIT said 120 protesters
14 Jun 2002
Actually, Sloppy, even the MIT press office counted about 120 protesters. Check out their press release at So you're off, by, oh, 100 people. By their count.

That press release, of course, isn't too friendly to the protesters--the headline is "Rain, Protesters Can't Spoil MIT's 136th Commencement." The idea that protesters, who included graduates and their families (yes, their families--I specifically said goodbye to one set of parents and siblings who protested for a while and then went off to see their son get his degree), would want to spoil the ceremony is laughable. But it makes a nice baseless accusation.

And Sloppy, how exactly do you figure that James Wolfensohn's free speedch rights were violated? He gave a speech in a ceremony where no one could give an opposing viewpoint where he also received a presitgious honor. In the meantime, graduates were left able only to hold up signs or else risk ejection fromt ehir own graduation (and at least one student who had an anti-World Bank sign was hassled by a police officer in the ceremony anyway). Wolfensohn's rights were violated how? Because the student-run newspaper ran articles critical of him beforehand? Because protesters who were held back on the other side of a divided highway said that they didn't like him before the ceremony? Come on.
See also:
The Bilderberg Group
18 Jun 2002
Ever get the feeling that "our" government isn't really ours? Perhaps that's why most Americans don't bother voting in "our" phoney elections:

Along with the PRIVATE World Bank Group and its branches such as the PRIVATE Federal Reserve Bank, the Bilderberg Group is one of the most influencial branches of the global corporate government.

Among other things, they usually determine who'll be "our" President well in advance of "our" so-called elections.

If you're tired of writing letters to un-elected puppet politicians, here's some names that might interest "activists".


Chantilly, Virginia, U.S.A.
30 May - 2 June 2002


Honorary Chairman
Davignon, Etienne
Vice Chairman, Société Générale de Belgique

INT Wolfensohn, James D. - President, The World Bank

USA Deutch, John M. - Institute Professor, MIT (phone: 617-253-1479), ex-CIA, Citibank

USA Allaire, Paul A. - Former Chairman and CEO, Xerox Corporation

CDN Baillie, A. Charles - Chairman and CEO, TD Bank Financial Group

GB Balls, Edward - Chief Economic Advisor to the Treasury

P Balsemão, Francisco Pinto - Professor of Communication Science, New University, Lisbon; Chairman of IMPRESA, S.G.P.S.

F Belot, Jean de - Editor-in-Chief, Le Figaro

USA Bergsten, C. Fred - Director, Institute for International Economics

N Bernander, John G. - Director General, Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation

CDN Black, Conrad M. - Chairman, Telegraph Group Ltd.

INT Bolkestein, Frits - Commissioner, European Commission

P Borges, António - Vice Chairman and Managing Director, Goldman Sachs

USA Boyd, Charles G. - President and CEO, Business Executives for National Security

F Castries, Henri de - Chairman of the Board, AXA

E Cebrián, Juan Luis - CEO, Prisa (El Pais)

F Collomb, Bertrand - Chairman and CEO, Lafarge

CH Couchepin, Pascal - Federal Councillor; Head of the Federal Department of Economic Affairs

GB Dahrendorf, Ralf - Member, House of Lords; Former Warden, St. Antony's College, Oxford

USA Dam, Kenneth W. - Deputy Secretary, US Department of Treasury

GR David, George A. - Chairman of the Board, Coca-Cola H.B.C. S.A.

USA David-Weill, Michel A. - Chairman, Lazard Frères & Co.

TR Dervis, Kemal - Minister of Economic Affairs

USA Dinh, Viet D. Assistant Attorney General for Office of Policy Development

USA Donilon, Thomas E. - Executive Vice President, Fannie Mae

I Draghi, Mario - Vice Chairman and Managing Director, Goldman Sachs International

USA Eizenstat, Stuart - Covington & Burling

DK Eldrup, Anders - Chairman of the Board of Directors, Danish Oil & Gas Consortium

USA Feldstein, Martin S. - President and CEO, NAtional Bureau of Economic Research

P Ferreira, Elisa Guimarães - Member of Parliament, Former Minister of Planning

USA Foley, Thomas S. - Partner, Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld

INT Fortescue, Adrian - Director General, Justice and Internal Affairs, European Commission

CDN Frum, David - American Enterprise Institute; Former Special Assistant to President Bush

F Gergorin, Jean-Louis - Executive Vice President, Strategic Coordination, EADS

USA Gigot, Paul A. - Editorial Page Editor, The Wall Street Journal

USA Greenspan, Alan - Chairman, Federal Reserve System

NL Groenink, Rijkman W.J. - Chairman of the Board, ABN AMRO Bank N.V.

A Gusenbauer, Alfred - Member of Parliament; Chairman, Social Democratic Party

NL Halberstadt, Victor - Professor of Economics, Leiden University; Former Honorary Secretary General of Bilderberg Meetings

USA Hills, Carla A. - Chairman and CEO, Hills & Company, International Consultants

USA Hoagland, Jim - Associate Editor, The Washington Post

USA Hubbard, Allan B. - President, E&A Industries

USA Hutchison, Kay Bailey - Senator (Republican, Texas)

B Huyghebaert, Jan - Chairman, Almanij N.V.

D Ischinger, Wolfgang - Ambassador to the US

USA James, Charles A. - Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust

USA Johnson, James A. - Vice Chairman, Perseus, L.L.C.

USA Jordan, Jr., Vernon E. - Managing Director, Lazard Frères & Co. LLC

USA Kissinger, Henry A. - Chairman, Kissinger Associates, Inc.

NL Kist, Ewald - Chairman of the Board ING N.V.

NL Kleisterlee, Gerard J. - President and CEO, Royal Philips Elecronics

D Kopper, Hilmar - Chairman of the Supervisory Board, Deutsche Bank AG

USA Krauthammer, Charles - Columnist, The Washington Post

USA Kravis, Henry R. - Founding Partner, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.

USA Kravis, Marie-Josée - Senior Fellow - Hudson Institute Inc.

CH Kudelski, André - Chairman of the Board & CEO, Kudelski Group

USA LaFalce, John J. - Congressman (Democrat, New York)

USA Leschly, Jan - Chairman & CEO, Care Capital LLC

F Lévy-Lang, André - Former Chairman, Paribas

B Lippens, Maurice - Chairman, Fortis

USA Mathews, Jessica T. - President, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

USA McAuliffe, Terry - Chairman, Democratic National Committee

USA McDonough, William J. - President and CEO, Federal Reserve Bank of New York

E Miguel, Ramón de - Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs

USA Mitchell, Andrea - Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondant, NBC News

F Moïsi, Dominique - Deputy Director, French Institute of International Relations

F Montbrial, Thierry de - Director, French Institute of International Relations

USA Moskow, Michael H. - President, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago

N Myklebust, Egil - Chairman, Norsk Hydro ASA

FIN Ollia, Jorma - Chairman of the Board and CEO, Nokia Corporation

TR Özaydinlí, Bulend - CEO, Koç Holding A.S.

INT Padoa-Schioppa, Tommaso - Member of the Executive Board, European Central Bank

GR Papahelas, Alexis - Foreign policy columnist. TO VIMA

USA Pearl, Frank H. - Chairman and CEO, Perseus, L.L.C.

USA Perle, Richard N. - Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research

D Polenz, Ruprecht - Member of Parliament, CDU/CSU

USA Prestowitz, Jr., Clyde V. - President, Economic Strategy Institute

USA Racicot, Mark - Chairman, Republican National Committee

USA Raines, Franklin D. - Chairman and CEO, Fannie Mae

A Randa, Gerhard - Chairman and CEO, Bank Austria AG

USA Rattner, Steven - Managing Principal, Quadrangle Group LLC

CDN Reisman, Heather - President and CEO, Indigo Books and Music Inc.

USA Rockefeller, David - Member, JP Morgan International Council

E Rodriguez Inciarte, Matías - Executive Vice Chairman, Banco Santander Central Hispano

GB Roll, Eric - Senior Adviser, UBS Warburg Ltd.

USA Rose, Charlie - Producer, Rose Communications

F Roy, Olivier - University Professor and Researcher, CNRS

USA Rumsfeld, Donald H. - Secretary of Defense

TR Sanberk, Özdem - Director, Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation

D Schrempp, Jurgen E. - Chairman of the Board of Management, DaimlerChrysler AG

D Schulz, Ekkehard - Chairman, ThyssenKrupp AG

F Schweitzer, Louis - Chairman and CEO, Renault S.A.

DK Seidenfaden, Tøger - Editor-in-Chief, Politiken

F Seillière, Ernest-Antoine - Chairman and CEO, CGIP

RUS Shevtsova, Lilia - Senior Associate, Carnegie Moscow Center

USA Siegman, Henry - Council on Foreign Relations

USA Soros, George - Chairman, Soros Fund Management

USA Steinberg, James B. - Vice President and Director, Foreign Policy Studies Program

N Stoltenberg, Jens - Leader of the Opposition (Social Democratic Party)

USA Summers, Lawrence H. - President, Harvard University

IRL Sutherland, Peter D. - Chairman and Managing Director, Goldman Sachs International; Chairman BP Amoco

FIN Taxell, Christoffer - President and CEO, Partek Oyj

USA Thoman, G. Richard - Senior Advisor, Evercore Partners Inc.

USA Thornton, John L. - President and co-CEO, The Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

FIN Tiilikainen, Teija H. - Director of Research, Centre for European Studies

S Treschow, Michael - Chairman, Ericsson

F Trichet, Jean-Claude - Governor, Banque de France

CH Vasella, Daniel L. - Chairman and CEO, Novartis AG

USA Vink, Lodewijk J. R. de - Chairman, Global Health Care Partners; Credit Suisse First Boston

A Vranitzky, Franz - Former Federal Chancellor

S Wallenberg, Jacob - Chairman of the Board, Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken

CDN Whyte, Kenneth - Editor, The National Post

GB Williams, Gareth - Leader, House of Lords; Member of the Cabinet

D Zumwinkel, Klaus - Chairman of the Board of Management, Deutsche Post AG

See also: