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Friday, 1 February, 2002, 11:12 GMT
WEF: New York's big deal
Road block near the Waldorf Astoria
A gigantic police operation is underway
by the BBC's Ben Wright at the World Economic Forum in New York

As an act of solidarity, it is certainly a grand gesture.

Delegates in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria
An eclectic collection of people gather in the lobby
Four and half months on from the devastating events of 11 September, New York City is once again besieged by the world's media as the city hosts the 2002 World Economic Forum.

In the heart of midtown Manhattan, a gigantic police operation is underway to protect the 2,500 delegates both from terrorism and the anticipated demonstrations that have come to accompany events such as this.

The Forum is meant to be a sort of town hall meeting for the world's movers and shakers, a place where... Archbishop Desmond Tutu can swap ideas with the president of Coca-Cola

Gathered inside the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Lexington Avenue are an eclectic collection of business leaders, politicians, key public and religious figures, academics and journalists.

At seminars, workshops and cocktail parties they muse on this year's theme: "Leadership in fragile times: A vision for a shared future."

Town hall meeting

The Forum is meant to be a sort of town hall meeting for the world's movers and shakers, a place where Colin Powell can mingle with German trade unionists and Archbishop Desmond Tutu can swap ideas with the president of Coca-Cola.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Archbishop Tutu can swap ideas
It is said by the Forum organisers that a quarter of the delegates come from developing countries.

Yet the over-riding impression is one of money and exclusivity.

The cell phones, tan leather briefcases and tailored suits that clog the lobbies of the participating hotels are a reminder that the Forum is also a very useful opportunity to cultivate contacts in a uniquely intimate venue.

Police presence

Outside, in the cold January drizzle, 4,000 police officers have been deployed onto New York's streets, almost two for every delegate.

Police lines in midtown Manhattan
There are almost two police for every delegate
Their mission - to ensure that the designated safe zone remains impenetrable. They huddle in small groups on every street corner around the Waldorf and line up along every road block.

Vulnerable-looking shops and offices have a police watch and even Bloom, the Lexington Avenue florist, has an armed sentry at its door.

There is a constant crackle of walkie-talkies and giant slabs of concrete have been scattered across selected sections of road.

In place of the protection provided by the Swiss Alps, enormous dump trucks from the City's Department of Sanitation have been filled with sand and placed across the streets that surround the Forum's hub.

Arrival procedure

The piercing siren of a police escort signals the arrival of another delegate. In what looks like a well rehearsed move, the trucks rev their engines and slowly reverse to one side, allowing the blacked-out Lincoln town car to pass though.

Generally, the bigger and more colourful [accreditation cards] are going to get you further, perhaps as far as Bono's drinks party. A small, pale blue [accreditation card] will barely let you leave your hotel room.

The trucks then move the 15 metres back into position, re-sealing the road once again.

Sitting in the middle of the road directly outside the Waldorf hotel are two large white marquees in to which the cars are driven to be searched.

Pedestrians without any authorisation are point blank refused access to certain roads.

For those who are connected to the meeting, a complicated pass system governs the level of access allowed to the streets and buildings.

Size matters

It is possible to tell a lot about someone from the size and colour of the accreditation badge which hangs around every neck.

A policeman outside Starbucks
New Yorkers feel indifferent to the Forum
Generally, the bigger and more colourful ones are going to get you further, perhaps as far as Bono's drinks party. A small, pale blue one will barely let you leave your hotel room.

The lavish theatre and security surrounding this year's meeting is staggering. Several of the police officers on duty were glad that such an event was taking place in the heart of New York.

It showed, they said, that the city was getting back on its feet again with a typically brash display of confidence.

Taking it in their stride

Yet the attitude taken by most New Yorkers towards the Forum appears to be one of shoulder-shrugging indifference.

The road closures are an inconvenience, the delegates and their accompanying media scrum a slight irritation.

In a nearby Starbucks, George, while admiring the meeting's sentiment, told me that the police operation was too reminiscent of the scene around lower Manhattan just a few months ago.

A waitress in the diner opposite the Hotel Intercontinental was just as prosaic. After 11 September, she said, nothing seemed like a big deal in New York anymore.

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