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News ::
Protest against World Bank President speaking at MIT Commencement
08 Jun 2002
MIT chose James Wolfesohn, president of the World Bank, as commencement speaker. MIT students, family, and friends arrived at commencement to encounter Memorial Drive blocked off by barricades, penning in a small but lively group of protesters. As graduates filed into the commencement area, they marched directly past a face off between a battalion of police in riot gear and a group of World Bank protestors.
One hundred people gathered in good spirits on a rainy, cold morning near the MIT graduation ceremony on June 7 to protest the commencement speaker, James Wolfesohn, head of the World Bank. The World Bank is one of the most powerful international financial institutions in the world. MIT’s choice of Wolfesohn came at an odd time, just weeks after the Cambridge City Council unanimously adopted the Cambridge World Bank Bond boycott in protest of the Bank’s disregard of human rights and the environment. As MIT is located in Cambridge, those involved in organizing the Bond Boycott as well as concerned MIT students petitioned the MIT commencement committee to cancel the choice of Wolfesohn as commencement speaker. When the request was denied, students called for MIT to hold a public debate between Wolfesohn and anti-World Bank activists. This petition as well was denied without discussion, prompting the activists to secure a permit for a march and rally at the site of the commencement speech. The students created an alternative commencement website, printed flyers to pass out to the MIT students and their families with information about Wolfesohn and the World Bank, and printed a newspaper with detailed discussion of the issues.

After marching across the Mass. Ave. Bridge, carrying banners and chanting, the protestors were directed to a “protest pen” on the grassy area by the river on Memorial Drive, across the street from the gates leading into the commencement ceremony at MIT. Memorial Drive is an eight-lane highway with a median strip. As a result of the location of the protest pen, it was nearly impossible for the protestors to pass out leaflets or newspapers to those attending the commencement, although a couple of individuals were able to cross the street and pass out some flyers. A row of interlocked metal barricades stretched down the entire length of memorial drive in both directions in order to make it impossible for protestors to find any way to cross the street. The noise from the highway during a short period before the road was closed to traffic made it difficult for protesters to be heard by families and friends as they entered commencement. After the highway was closed the voices of the protestors chanting easily carried across the highway.

On the Boston side of Memorial Drive, the patrolling officers were Boston police, numbering about 30. The Cambridge side of the street was secured by a much larger contingent of Cambridge police, including a troop of mounted police and, at the time out of sight, a contingent of police in full riot gear. A number of “plainclothes” photographers with still cameras and video cameras also documented the protesters from the median strip of Memorial Drive.

Despite the isolation and the heavy police presence, the protestors formed a good-spirited, cohesive group. One five-foot yellow banner that read “More World, Less Bank” could easily be seen by the MIT guests across the street as they made their way to the gates. The protestors’ chants included “We’re cold, we’re wet, can-cel the debt” and “World Bank get your ass out of the city of Cambridge, Mass”. Pat Keaney recited a lyric illustrating the effects of World Bank policies, and the protesters echoed each line, to broadcast it to the guests across the street.

Legal observers in yellow plastic ponchos took careful note of the actions of the police, and protestors engaged in an ongoing dialog with the police to question their isolation from the commencement and their inability to hand out flyers, and to try to find a way to get the group across the street. The police engaged in continuous stall tactics. On a few occasions, the Boston police promised to “talk” with the Cambridge police on the other side of the street to “see about some of the protestors crossing the street”. After about 30 minutes, the protestors were informed that some of them would be allowed to cross the street as soon as the Cambridge police were “ready”. About thirty minutes later, approximately 30 officers in full riot gear marched right by the line of commencement guests and positioned themselves directly across Memorial Drive from the protestors. The protestors were not informed that this was what was meant by the Cambridge police being “ready”, and in continuing dialog with the police, the protestors were never given permission to cross the street. When the entire protest relocated down to the crosswalk and made clear their intent to get at least some protesters across the street, the Boston police moved in threateningly and closed off any opening to cross the street.

At this point, a group of about eight protestors informed the police that they would be crossing the street. After a short dialog in which it was unclear whether they had received permission or not, they began crossing the street, moving slowly and unthreateningly but directly into the line of Boston police. A tense few moments followed in which it was unclear whether the group would immediately be arrested. Instead, the officer in charge of the Boston police decided to allow the small group to cross the street, and escorted them directly along the crosswalks to the other side of Memorial Drive. The group met the line of riot police on the other side of the street peacefully. At this point, the graduating MIT students had begun to file into the commencement area, and although two lines of riot police separated them from the protesters, the graduates and guests were within earshot of the eight protesters on that side of the street. In addition, with the larger group of protesters clustered tightly together, and traffic stopped on Memorial Drive, chants from the other side could clearly be heard.

The eight protestors debated further risking arrest by walking across Mass. Ave. directly up to the graduates, but decided that arrest in this scenario was unlikely to be more effective than remaining where they were. For about another 30 minutes, graduates continued to file past the streetcorner where they were able to observe the protestors, as well as the lines of riot police. Protesters reported that nearly all of the MIT graduates were peering at the protestors and talking about the protest and the presence of riot-clad police, many of them taking photographs of the riot police and the protestors as part of their commencement-day memorabilia. When the graduates finished filling into commencement, protesters called an end to the action. Protesters had been present on the site for nearly two hours at this point.

Despite the police barricades and efforts by the police to distance the protest from commencement, protesters reflected upon the day as a moderate success. The presence of so many police officers in riot gear and the complete shutting down of Memorial Drive with police barricades resulted in a great deal of attention being brought to the protesters. The willingness of protesters to remain on the site for such a long time allowed for the group to keep negotiating with the police, long enough for some protesters to get closer, and for the police to draw even further negative attention to themselves. Additionally, protesters later learned, from the few who had been able to get across to the commencement initially, that over one thousand fliers had been handed out to commencement guests. One of the protestors commented that there was a good chance later conversations of those attending the commencement would revolve more around the presence of protestors and a police in riot gear, than about the content of Wolfesohn’s speech.
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