Antiglobalization Activists Are Shifting Focus to Multinational Corporations

"We're going after the root of the problem,"" Mr. Brune said. ""Corporate campaigns are the next frontier — and definitely it's companies like CitiGroup, Boise Cascade and Exxon that will be seeing this for sure."

Wall Street Journal
July 23, 2001

Antiglobalization Activists Are Shifting Focus to Multinational Corporations
Yaroslav Trofimov and Helene Cooper


GENOA, Italy — Businesses better brace themselves for some unwanted attention.

Even as activists and police clashed during the weekend in the most violent protests against globalization to date, demonstration organizers are making plans to expand their targets beyond the big summit meetings that have become a lightning rod for free-trade critics.

And multinational companies of all sizes are next on the hit list.

"We're not spending all of our time trying to influence legislators and governments anymore," said Mike Brune, campaigns director for the Rainforest Action Network, an environmental group that sent nonviolent protesters to the meeting here of leaders from the seven major industrialized nations and Russia.

"We're going after the root of the problem," Mr. Brune said. "Corporate campaigns are the next frontier — and definitely it's companies like CitiGroup, Boise Cascade and Exxon that will be seeing this for sure."

Indeed, on Wednesday, demonstrators from 16 organizations plan to hit the Itasca, Ill., headquarters of Boise Cascade Office Products, a unit of Boise Cascade Corp., the paper and forest-products company. The protesters say they will block traffic and shut down the company's front office to register their disapproval of its logging of old-growth forests.

Another corporate target up for a "direct-action" hit is District of Columbia General Hospital, where protesters are focusing on the Washington facility's privatization. Formerly run as a municipal agency catering primarily to the city's poor, D.C. General ran into financial problems and its management was turned over to a private medical group this year.

"The movement will not settle for summit-hopping anymore," said John Sellers, head of the Ruckus Society, which helped spearhead the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle that helped launch the antiglobalization movement.

By almost all counts, the Genoa conference, which drew close to 100,000 protesters and 15,000 police, was a seminal event. Violence erupted on both sides in this Mediterranean port city: from a fringe of anarchists, who threw Molotov cocktails into bank offices and set cars on fire, to the police themselves, who beat protesters and even a few journalists. By Sunday evening, the toll was the highest yet for a globalization protest: one dead, 450 injured, tens of millions of dollars in damage and a large part of the city devastated by riots.

Early Sunday, Italian police raided a school building housing activists and arrested all 92 people inside. Afterward, the building was covered with pools of blood and littered with smashed computers. Several reporters at the school were hurt; one had his arm broken. Police said 61 of the detainees had been wounded in riots that preceded the raid, but neighbors described hours of beatings and screaming coming from the school during the raid.

Speaking at a news conference at the end of the Group of Eight summit, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said anarchist members of the "Black Block" — a small roving band behind most of the weekend's violence — "apparently were hiding [in the school] and were helped by Genoa Social Forum representatives" who were "colluding" with the rioters.

To justify the action, the police displayed "weapons" seized at the school: Apart from two bottles filled with gasoline, the confiscated items consisted of cellular telephones, swimming goggles, motorcycle helmets and, mysteriously, tanning lotion, tissue and a packet of headache pills. Police also displayed nails and hammers, but those were plentiful at a construction site within the school.

The fatal shooting Friday of a 23-year-old man who apparently was throwing a fire extinguisher at police may well have provided the movement with its first martyr. But the violence in Genoa by more radical protesters also has distanced them from moderate organizations, prompting many to wonder whether the traditional tactic of demonstrating at big international gatherings hasn't become counterproductive.

"For people in the mainstream campaigns, it's change time," said Lucy Matthew, spokeswoman for Drop the Debt, a British-based nongovernmental organization that advocates forgiving part of Third World debts to the World Bank and other lenders and bondholders in industrialized nations. Adds Maria Grazia Francescato, leader of Italy's Green Party: "The movement should rethink its entire strategy … We can't be responsible for devastating entire cities every time we hold a demonstration."

But the weekend's events in Genoa brought into sharper focus the expansion plan that protest leaders have been working on: shifting to corporate targets. Last month, hundreds of biotechnology opponents demonstrated in San Diego outside of a biotech-industry convention.

To be sure, activists have targeted companies for years. For instance, Greenpeace, the environmental group, has long waged a war against oil companies.

But in the past, these efforts mostly have been episodic and uncoordinated. Now, the globalization protesters have substantial numbers on their side, and they say they want to turn the "juice" they have stoked from previous summit protests toward specific corporate targets.

For the companies, getting hit can hurt. "It certainly is a harassment campaign, and it's directed at our employees and our customers," said Boise Cascade public-relations manager Michael Moser. In October, three activists were arrested when they broke into Boise's corporate headquarters in Boise, Idaho, to try to rappel off the roof.

Mr. Moser maintains that less than 3% of the wood used by the company is old-growth, but he said that, nonetheless, Boise executives have met with the activists three times during the past year.

Citigroup Inc. is another target. Activists upset with the financial-services giant's investment policies follow around after company executives marketing its credit cards on college campuses. Activists set up booths next to the New York bank's booths, warning students away from the cards.

"We're looking to reorient the financial-services industry to target investments in sustainable agriculture," said Rainforest Action's Mr. Brune. "Citigroup may not be cutting down the trees, but it's aiding in the destruction."

Activists launched the campaign against Citigroup last year after the bank refused their request to fund a conference for opponents of the bank.

"We are proud of our business record," a Citigroup spokeswoman said.

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