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What exactly is the protest?

This city has been on a kind of yellow alert for about a week now. The protesters that shook Seattle during last fall's World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings are in town to rail against meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. And Washington, a suit-and-tie town, has been wringing its hands.

But despite the concerns, the loose confederation of demonstrators that has descended on the city have been very well behaved.

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At last check, all the Starbucks were still standing. And the great khakis-versus-jeans debate continues unabated at area Gaps.

A week's worth of protests, however, have not answered one basic question: What exactly are these people protesting?

Answer: What have you got?

Some think the World Bank and IMF, which give loans and advice to developing countries, are causing pollution by creating sudden industrial growth with little concern about clean air, water, or land. Others think the groups are hurting developing countries by demanding that defaulted loans be paid off promptly regardless of their economic situations. Still others think the groups should not give money to countries that abuse human rights.

And some, of course, believe all these things with equal verve.

This has led to a series of rallies that are perfect for the short-attention spans and varied interests of the Internet age.

Don't like the topic of the demonstration you're attending? Well, just head over a few blocks and you're bound to find something to your liking.

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Or better yet, just stay where you are. By the time every faction gets done speaking you'll probably find something to raise your ire.

On Tuesday, outside the Colombian Embassy, a group of 100 or so protesters gathered to announce their dissatisfaction with the way the Colombian government has handled the plight of the indigenous U'wa people - a community of 5,000 in the Andes. The government wants to take their land to get the oil underneath, and this had the crowd incensed.

Why? It depends. The environmentalists don't like what will happen to the land. The labor supporters are concerned with the extremely high number of unionists killed in Colombia. Others said the real problem was the Colombian government was not sharing oil revenue with the people.

In the end, the rally marched toward Fidelity Investments to berate them for having stock in Occidental Petroleum, the company which is going in to do the drilling in Columbia. As the group trooped down the street, chanting away, I was at the same time heartened and bothered.

Somewhere in that litany of damages and victims and culprits there were positive notes. In some ways I was witnessing altruism in its truest form. These people - most looked under 30 - were connecting with something larger than themselves, and they were taking a stand on an issue that in practical terms had nothing to do with them.

But at the same time, I couldn't help but feel it was all a show. And though the Seattle movement has been heralded by some in the media as a new presence in American politics, seeing it up close, I felt it was really nothing new.

This group of interests has been around for a long time. And, truth be told, they share little more than the discovery that together they can draw more press attention than they can apart - though they share no true, workable common goal. And in the end, that's too bad. There are some interesting points in some of the things some of the people are saying here.

It's valid, for instance, to say the World Bank and the IMF and the WTO should do more to help improve environmental and labor conditions in developing countries. Those organizations could make more of their actions contingent upon nations meeting requirements on those issues.

Of course, any changes in any of these areas will require real time and effort. Where will these standards be set? Who will have the most say in setting them?

The thing is, the protests seem less focused on making change than making noise.

At the Colombian Embassy protest, the group arrived en masse at noon, and through the shouts one message was clearly discernible.

"Welcome to Vietnam 2000," said a young man clad in a Jim Morrison T-shirt. He was talking about the government-financed war in Colombia, but it felt like something more.

For a lot of the young people here, the protests - as heartfelt as they may be on some level - are about their own rebellion.

The cameras are rolling. And they are doing something to fight for change.

Now if only they could all get together and figure out what that something is.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society