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Debt Help From G-7 Urged by Protesters

Critics Target Financial Leaders

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 16, 2005; Page B02

Protesters kicked off a weekend of anti-globalization demonstrations with a lone drum and just over 50 people outside the Treasury building yesterday.

They waved signs and chanted at the long windows of the building's conference rooms, urging the Group of Seven finance ministers from the world's wealthiest countries meeting inside to cancel the debts of underdeveloped countries.

Police officers gather at the World Bank, where protesters plan to rally today to oppose World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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"We have been here for years, and we will keep coming back until the debt is dropped," said Njoki Njoroge Njehu, director of the 50 Years Is Enough Network, a U.S. coalition of more than 200 groups working toward global economic justice. "We have accomplished something by making them consider debt cancellation, but now we have to hold their feet to the fire."

The small rally was significantly different from the scene during meetings five years ago, when about 20,000 protesters, some of them masked and many beating homemade drums, disrupted the city and police made massive arrests.

Yesterday, on a sunny afternoon, the only show of police force was a single officer clearing the sidewalk for pedestrians and a security guard on her smoking break. The largest barricades in sight were those erected around a duck that has chosen to nest near a tree outside the Treasury building.

Brent Hall, 21, remembers seeing the April 2000 protests on television when he was in high school. He traveled here from Bangor, Maine, to finally get in on the action.

He was disappointed that the rally wasn't huge, but his enthusiasm for the cause didn't waver. "I think it's ridiculous when you look at how some people are living in impoverished countries and how we live here in this wealthy nation. I see it as my responsibility to speak up about this," Hall said.

Marie Clarke Brill, 29, has been speaking up about debt cancellation for those countries since she was Hall's age and remembers when congressional aides laughed at her idea. But these are the proposals finance ministers discussed today.

"This is such a significant change, just to know that debt cancellation is on the table," said Brill, who works for the Africa Action organization. "I know they could see us out here, I've been in that building, and I know we've made a difference."

Brill said many more people will be on hand for more protests today outside the World Bank and International Monetary Fund during their spring meetings.

Treasury spokesman Tony Fratto said that debt cancellation has been on the U.S. agenda for years, but the protest groups "have kept the issue on the forefront. Fratto said that street protesters aren't the sole architects of debt relief plans, but "protest is good for garnering attention" and the demonstrators' efforts "haven't been hurtful."

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