Brick walls: the unconverted

The United States, historically one of the staunchest opponents of economic and social rights, remains one of a handful of states that has not ratified the Covenant, on the basis that ‘these are not rights but aspirations’. Under the Bush Administration, any specific objections to economic and social rights have become rather obscured by its record on civil and political rights, particularly in relation to ‘the war on terror’. But domestically in the United States, economic and social rights are gaining friends and prominence, against relatively little resistance, as they have elsewhere. A new human rights coalition founded in 2003, whose members range from international groups like Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and CESR to major domestic groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Friends Service Committee, has the advancement of economic and social rights as one of its core principles (Lobe 2003). Grassroots groups such as the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (URL), an organisation of the homeless, and the affiliated University of the Poor (URL), are also using economic and social rights language and making transnational connections.

North American Indymedia have undergone important changes as well. One shining example is the large Urbana-Champaign IMC, which conducted a years-long membership fund-drive to purchase the downtown Urbana Post Office building to provide space for a wide array of progressive community projects. Though it continues to court controversy for its non-profit incorporation, paid staffers, and its fiscal sponsorship of the global IMC network, the UC-IMC consistently produces vibrant community journalism via its website, a community radio station, and a monthly newspaper. A stark counter-example is the flagship Seattle IMC, which lost its prime downtown space and much of its membership. As IMCs rise and fall, the earlier rapid expansion of the network seems to have leveled out for the present.

The Mobilisation around the Republican National Convention in New York

The Republican Party held its 2004 National Convention (RNC) from 30 August to 2 September amid heightened expectations of disturbances caused by anti-Bush activists. The run-up to the New York convention was characterised by reports and rumours of planned and potentially spontaneous protests and of how the police and security agencies were preparing to deal with these incidents (Carpenter 2004; Gibbs 2004; Shachtman 2004; Terdiman 2004). Comparisons were made to the battle of Seattle in 1999, when over 40,000 protesters descended on the city from all over the world to protest against the policies of the World Trade Organization (WTO), leading to scenes of violence and contributing to the breakdown of the WTO talks. What was particularly interesting about these reports was that the central role of wireless communication was taken for granted, not just in the protests but in all aspects of the convention. In the event, several (mostly non-violent) protests were indeed coordinated primarily via wireless communication and the internet, leading to over 17,000 arrests. The convention itself was hardly affected by the protests apart from a few minor disruptions. In fact, President Bush experienced a bounce of two percentage points in the polls (among likely voters) after the convention (The Economist 2004; Jones 2004). These events occurred too recently for any judgements to be made about their immediate or long-term impact. Preliminary examination, however, indicates that this was a case where the use of wireless communication technologies served to enhance efficiency but not to effect change.