World Economic Forum:
Why New York? Why Now?

From Rediff.com

Jeet Thayil in New York

As soon as it was announced that the World Economic Forum would meet in New York City, at the Waldorf Astoria between January 31 and February 4, the questions began buzzing. Why New York? Why now?

Since the inception of the WEF 31 years ago, its annual meeting has been held at Davos, Switzerland. Klaus Schwab, its founder, apparently likes the skiing at the resort on the slopes of the Alps. The skiing and its out-of-the-way location made Davos a perfect spot for an exclusive annual get-together.

For four days several hundred of the world's top corporate executives, politicians, writers, philosophers, philanthropists, millionaires and billionaires, musicians and artists gathered at what one critic has called 'a corporate cocktail party for the super-rich.'

To participate, corporations pay $17,647 in annual fees to the WEF, plus $ 7,353 for each person attending. Without a corporation picking up the annual tab, each participant is expected to pay about $ 20,000 to attend, not including airfare and hotel bills.

Among the 3,000 participants expected to take part in 'Davos in New York' are Microsoft's Bill Gates and Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Sony's Nobohuki Idei and AOL Time-Warner's Steven Case, philanthropist George Soros and philosopher Francis Fukuyama, Secretary of State Colin Powell and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Senator Hillary Clinton and Governor George Pataki, socially-conscious rockers Bono and Peter Gabriel, keyboardist Herbie Hancock and composer Quincy Jones, to name but a few of this year's star attractions.

So why bring the show to New York? Of all the places in the world to host the contentious issues of globalisation, New York City today seems the least likely considering it has recently been the target of the worst terrorist attack in history.

In fact, conspiracy theorists say it is also the best reason to hold the WEF meeting here. The city's police, already geared up against terrorism, are more than ready to handle the hundreds, if not thousands, of protestors planning to attend.

More important, since September 11, the New York Police Department's image has been better than ever before. Cops and firefighters are nothing less than heroes and any protestor caught in a confrontation is bound to come off looking bad in comparison.

"It is almost as if somebody said let's hold the World Economic Forum in New York because it will be harder to justify any sort of protest," said Vijay Prashad, founder member of Forum of Indian Leftists. "At almost any other time New York would have been a great place for a big protest, not now."

"By holding the forum in New York they are ensuring there won't be any trouble because the city has a sanction to protect itself," he said. "It is the least possible moment for anybody to mobilise resistance."

Prashad said most liberals would think twice about taking part in a protest in New York simply because it was still too close to the terrorist attacks. "The Left will definitely be there," he said. "But how many liberals will come out now?"

Some media commentators, said Prashad, had "likened anti-globalisation protestors to terrorists." He said the message was simple: Do not make trouble.

If there is trouble, the police are prepared to come down hard to prevent the kind of mayhem that has attended similar meetings in Seattle and Genoa.

Around 3,500 police officers have been told to expect protests and violence from 'hardened radicals and anarchists.' Specially trained to subdue violent demonstrators, police units include rooftop snipers, plainclothes cops, officers from aviation, mounted, canine and bomb squads, and a range of emergency personnel.

Over the past several weeks, police have been conducting anti-riot drills at Shea Stadium and other locations in the city. Extra officers have been assigned to city airports and subway systems so as to prevent any disruption during the WEF.

Significantly, jails have been told to expect hundreds of arrests.

"All bets are off," said one officer. "We have been told to expect anything and that's what we are doing." He was echoing the words of his chief, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who had been quoted last week in much the same vein. "There are no guarantees," Kelly had said, referring to the possibility of violence from protestors, but he may well have been referring to the prospect of police violence.

Activists claim the greatest threat is from the police themselves. "We have a security apparatus that is mostly concerned about violence from the police," said Tony Maran, organizer for International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism). "The police are the only people who show up with guns, clubs and teargas. Our security people are being trained to handle violence from police."

Activists point out that before September 11 New York's police department was best known for a reputation of brutality and violence. "Remember Amadou Diallo," said one protestor planning to picket the Waldorf Astoria. "Remember Abner Louima," said another referring to the West African and Haitian victims of police brutality.

The NYPD's image has undergone an almost complete overhaul since those dark days. But there are many in the city with long memories when it comes to police excesses. "The only people to fear in a situation such as this are the police," Maran said. "The protestors are unarmed."

What do the protest groups hope to gain from picketing the Waldorf? "We are planning a number of activities to show the connection between corporate globalism, corporate capitalism and the war in Afghanistan," said Richard Becker, a spokesman for ANSWER. "We want to show the connections between the Bush Administration's program of war, the attacks on civil rights, immigration rights and racial profiling."

Becker said the group planned to hold a "day-long teach-in" on February1 at a community church. There would be two plenary sessions and eight workshops on a range of issues including Palestine, Iraq, the motives driving US foreign policy and "the reality behind the headlines."

Speakers at the sessions would include former US attorney general Ramsey Clarke, Lucius Clarke, executive director of the Inter-Religious Foundation for Community Organization, and Reverend Al Sharpton. On February 2, ANSWER plans to hold a permitted demonstration outside the Waldorf featuring speakers from around the US and the world.

The decision to hold the WEF meeting in New York was reportedly taken within weeks of the September 11 attacks to show solidarity with the city. Schwab hoped to demonstrate, among other things, that the world's financial health is inter-connected.

By helping to shore up New York, the forum would help the international community regain its economic health. September 11 and its aftermath is expected to be the take-off point for discussions about the trends of the past decade and more - from the opening of markets to the relocation of factories, the reduction of poverty, the growth of communications, the improving of commerce and governance, and the long-term opposition to terrorism.

The WEF's mission statement says it is committed to 'improving the state of the world' and in finding ways to 'reverse the global economic downturn, eradicate poverty, promote security and enhance cultural understanding.'

Protestors allege the WEF will do nothing of the sort and continue to strip the earth of resources while ensuring that the rich stay rich and terrorism and war continue.

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