Resistance Is Not Futile.
-- Larry Eliot, the Manchester Weekly Guardian, December 9-15, 1990
For six days on the streets of Seattle, Washington, the world saw what democracy in action looks like. As usual, it was inspiring, wonderful, and messy. Unfortunately, we also saw what police misconduct and repression look like. As usual, it was terrifying, infuriating, and unnecessary.
Although one could not help but hear about the World Trade Organization's Seattle talks the week of November 29, 1999, local media coverage was far from adequate. Out-of-state media coverage was nothing short of wildly exaggerated and often factually inaccurate. As an activist and longtime resident of Seattle with many friends and colleagues who participated in demonstrations that week, let me set the record straight for those who didn't have a firsthand view of events.
Some 50,000 to 60,000 peaceful protesters gathered in Seattle to show their opposition to the WTO: the corporate-controlled organization that establishes global trade policies. It was a festive time. Musicians played, banners were unfurled, and the streets were filled with marchers who progressed to the city's downtown core, where WTO delegates were scheduled to meet.
The marchers were reveling in the global display of unity, as their anti-WTO activities brought together Philippine indigenous peoples, Canadian health care consumers, healthy-food lovers, French farmers, environmentalists, AFL-CIO members, punks, grannies, students, and others--all for one purpose. A remarkable number of people from many nations took part. Many spoke little English, yet with their presence demonstrated their opposition to a global trade system developed without their input or regard for their perspective.
So why were at least 525 people arrested and charged with "pedestrian interference," "blocking streets," or "failure to disperse"? Why were there eleven criminal mischief charge for incidents involving the breaking of store windows? And why, to date, were the charges dropped against all but thirty-five persons? The answer to all these questions is the same: the arrests were bogus to begin with.
Almost all those arrested simply exercised their basic First Amendment rights to peacefully protest and publicly assemble. And most were arrested before the city established the blatantly unconstitutional "no protest zone," which eventually covered sixty city blocks (and is being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington State). The police, however, can take credit for instigating what "rioting" took place. (To date, some two dozen lawsuits are pending against the city.) They set the tone from day one.
The police showed up in force Monday morning with any shred of their humanity obscured by full-face helmet shields, gas masks, shin guards, body armor, and jackboots. They were equipped with special clubs, sting balls, rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray--all in anticipation of "peaceful" demonstrations. There is no question that their violent actions and unprovoked arrests led directly to the dramatic escalation that occurred on Fourth Avenue and Pike Street on Wednesday.
Although no one was moving, officers would occasionally step forward and shove marchers with the butt of their batons, yelling, "Stand back!" News reports clearly showed that, without provocation, several police officers used batons to spear marchers in the stomach, which caused a few marchers to begin yelling for the police to stop. The police shouted back, telling marchers to be silent. When the marchers kept yelling, the police turned to pepper spray. As the marchers recoiled back into the crowd, the police surged forward and grabbed and dragged them through their line, where they were thrown to the ground with three officers on top of each.
Even then, the crowd restrained itself admirably and started to chant, "No violence, no violence," whereupon the police opened up with pepper spray across the entire line of marchers on Fourth Avenue. This specific event was later described by major media as occurring because "a protester broke through the police line." Nothing of the sort occurred and, even if it had, could not justify such an overreaction.
Shortly after, the police started detonating tear gas and firing heavy plastic pellets into the crowd. It was this police action that prompted some of the outraged marchers to begin throwing signs and whatever else was at hand. Pandemonium ensued. Those arrested Were held for up to five days without access to attorneys, basic medical necessities (such as confiscated allergy and AIDS medications, glasses, and hearing aids), and treatment for tear-gas and pepper-spray injuries.
A tiny group of black-garbed youth broke several store windows and sprayed anti-capitalist graffiti. Published figures place the number of so-called anarchists at thirty. Conservatively, however, they constituted only 0.06 percent of the people involved in perhaps the largest march ever seen in Seattle. This small group maintains that private property and capitalism by extension, are intrinsically violent and repressive and cannot be reformed or mitigated. Thus, a storefront window becomes a vent to let some fresh air into the oppressive atmosphere of a retail outlet. The youth targeted specific corporate buildings in downtown Seattle for about five hours, breaking storefront windows and doors, defacing facades, and using other means to strategically vandalize corporate property.
Yet the police did not stop or arrest them, despite ample opportunity. Some people are convinced the police purposely stimulated and prolonged this vandalism so the corporately owned media could demonstrate just how "dangerous and violent" the protests were, thereby justifying repression and arrest of hundreds of peaceful marchers.
The media fueled the fire by mislabeling the vandalism as "violence." But was it? No. Violence is an act against living creatures; this was vandalism, committed against property. Also contrary to some media reports, the tear-gassing, pepper-spraying, and use of rubber bullets all began before any of the vandalism occurred.
The activism in Seattle played an important part in thwarting the WTO. Developing-world envoys to the WTO rejected a new round of talks. So the millennium round will not begin--at least not right away.
Delaying the new talks was an important assertion of independence by developing-world countries. It was also a sweet victory for protesters, who showed that success is possible by ordinary people who are creative. The people who created the WTO, however, retain their goal of an integrated global economy unencumbered by government restrictions. It is clear that globalization of the world's economies will proceed and cannot be stopped.
To maintain the WTO's vision of an integrated global economy, government must thwart democratic tendencies among the governed. In response, governments must relentlessly support a limit on the length of the workday, guarantee the right to form a trade union, insist that everyone deserves health care, set livable minimum wages, and other such efforts, even though they may cost corporations.
The protesters made it clear during the marches and in numerous public information events the previous week that there are many compelling reasons to oppose the WTO as it currently exists.
The WTO serves only the interests of multinational corporations. It is not a democratic institution, and yet its policies impact all aspects of society and the planet. WTO rules are written by and for corporations with inside access to the negotiations. Requests by outsiders for information are denied, and the proceedings are held in secret.
The WTO is a stacked court. Its dispute panels--which rule on whether domestic laws are "barriers to trade" and should therefore be abolished--consist of three trade bureaucrats who are not screened for conflict of interests.
For example, in a lawsuit filed by Mexico, the United States was forced to repeal its law that barred tuna from being caught by mile-long nets that kill hundreds of thousands of dolphins each year However, one of the judges in the case was from a corporate front group that lobbied on behalf of the Mexican government for the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The WTO tramples over labor and human rights. It refuses to address the impacts of free trade on these rights, despite the fact that countries actively enforcing labor and human rights protections are disadvantaged by countries consistently violating international labor conventions.
Potential solutions to labor and human rights abuses are blocked by the WTO, which has ruled that it is illegal for a government to ban a product based on the way it is produced (for example, with child labor) and that governments cannot take into account the behavior of companies that do business with vicious dictatorships (for example, Myanmar).
The WTO is harming the environment and dismantling hard-won environmental protections. In 1993, the very first WTO panel ruled that a regulation of the U.S. Clean Air Act--which required both domestic and foreign producers alike to produce cleaner gasoline--was illegal. Recently, the WTO declared illegal a provision of the Endangered Species Act that requires shrimp sold in the United States to be caught with an inexpensive device that allows endangered sea turtles to escape. Currently, the WTO is negotiating an agreement that would eliminate tariffs on wood products, which would increase the demand for timber and escalate deforestation. Global Trade Watch reports that all ten environmental and public health disputes settled through the WTO led to a weakening of national laws.
WTO policies are literally killing people. Its fierce defense of intellectual property rights--patents, copyrights, and trademarks--comes at the expense of health and human lives. WTO support for pharmaceutical companies against governments seeking to protect their citizens' health has had serious implications for places like sub-Saharan Africa, where 80 percent of the world's new AIDS cases are found. For example, the WTO threatened to challenge two of the South African government's proposed national health laws: one that would encourage the use of generic drugs; another that would ban the practice of manufacturers offering economic incentives to doctors who prescribe their products.
The WTO undermines local development and penalizes poor countries. Its "most favored nation" provisions require all WTO member countries to treat each other equally and to treat all corporations from most-favored countries equally regardless of their track record. Local policies aimed at rewarding companies that hire local residents, use domestic materials, or adopt environmentally sound practices are essentially illegal under the World Trade Organization.
The WTO is increasing inequality. The United Nations Development Program reports that the richest 20 percent of the world's population consumes 86 percent of the world's resources, while the poorest 80 percent consumes the remaining 14 percent. WTO rules have hastened these trends by opening up countries to foreign investment, thereby making it easier for production to go where labor is cheapest and most easily exploited and environmental costs are low.
The WTO overrules individual nations. By creating a supranational court system that has the power to use economic sanctions to force countries to comply with its rulings, the WTO has essentially replaced national governments with an unelected, unaccountable, corporate-backed decision-making body. For example, the European Union has for nine years banned beef raised with artificial growth hormones, but the WTO recently ruled that this public health law is a barrier to trade and should be abolished. Global Trade Watch reports that of the sixty-five international trade disputes settled through the WTO fifty-nine led to a change in national policy or law.
Even if globalization cannot be stopped, governments can take many steps to reduce its harmful consequences. Some are calling for serious reform, while others are convinced the WTO should be abolished entirely. Regardless of which action would be most beneficial, I'm happy to report that, because of the week of massive protests in Seattle, all these facts have been widely disseminated.
Consequently, there's a growing international backlash against the WTO and the process of corporate globalization over which it presides. Movement-building by anti-WTO coalitions such as People's Global Action in Europe and the Citizen's Trade Campaign in the United States are growing fast, as public support for corporate-managed free trade dwindles.
My dear friend and activist Philip Craft--arrested and illegally jailed for five days--wrote of his experience after emerging into the arms of comrades holding vigil outside his Seattle jail:
That's when I discovered I had become a member of the "Seattle 500" during a week when thousands of people stood strong in this great city; where, together, we caused the world to take notice of the secret shenanigans of an unaccountable corporate beast. A week when, together, we caused our chief of police to resign amidst widespread accounts of police brutality. A week when, together, we won the first battle of World War WTO.
Resistance is not futile. Continued resistance is crucial.
Barbara Dority lives in Seattle, Washington, and is president of Humanists of Washington, executive director of the Washington Coalition Against Censorship, and cochair of the Northwest Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force.
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|Date:||Mar 1, 2000|
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