The Boston Phoenix
October 7 - 14, 1999

[Features]

Trade winds

November's World Trade Organization summit in Seattle is shaping up to be the mother of all political demonstrations

by Jason Gay

When President Clinton and bigwigs from more than 100 nations hit Seattle in late November to discuss the global economy at the World Trade Organization's annual summit, they'll be greeted by a bit more than spiffy fruit baskets in their hotel suites.

Awaiting the WTO delegates will be a sea of protesters, ranging from labor unionists to Marxist environmentalists to anarchists. Tens of thousands of activists from the US and abroad are expected to descend on the city to condemn the WTO's role in promoting economic globalization -- and to decry what they see as the trampling of worker rights and the environment.

And these activists aren't just going to march downtown and wave a few banners. Seattle's WTO summit is shaping up to be the Super Bowl of progressive rabble-rousing: activists want to block highways, take over tunnels, and chain themselves to doorways. The AFL-CIO has rented the Kingdome -- seating capacity 65,000-plus -- for a rally. Other activists plan to infiltrate WTO meetings, parade puppets through the streets, sing songs, and maybe even throw a few whipped-cream pies.

The short-term goal: a clever brand of chaos. The long-term goal: to change attitudes about globalization and fair trade.

"It's a historic confrontation between civil society and corporate rule," says Michael Dolan, an organizer with Public Citizen, Ralph Nader's Washington, DC-based consumer group. Adds Jeremy Madsen of the Seattle-based People for Fair Trade: "There's never been anything like this, ever."

What makes the WTO such a target? Essentially, its role in promoting globalized trade. The four-year-old organization, which has 134 member countries, acts as a forum for conducting international trade negotiations, administering trade agreements, reviewing national trade policies, and settling disputes. Because the governments of member nations (and, of course, multinational corporations) want to make international commerce more efficient, the organization has streamlined, and in some cases eliminated, many trade barriers and regulations to allow for a freer flow of imports and exports.

Proponents argue that by boosting business, the WTO's trade-friendly policies have lowered unemployment and raised standards of living in many countries, including the US. But critics say that the resulting "corporate globalism" sacrifices local regulatory control, dangerously weakening protections for workers and the environment. As an example, they point out that the WTO opposes local trade bans on nations accused of human-rights abuses.

"Governments are meeting at the behest of corporate bureaucrats," says Denis Moynihan, a Jamaica Plain labor activist who plans on going to Seattle. "The WTO represents a further attempt to consolidate corporate power on a global scale -- to expand the style of actions like NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement]."

Adding to the Seattle buzz is the WTO's guest list. In addition to President Clinton, the summit is expected to attract trade ministers from nearly every corner of the earth. Even Fidel Castro -- whose country doesn't belong to the WTO -- is rumored to be coming. And since big business has a major stake in the WTO's agenda, there will be a substantial corporate presence. Much of the five-day event is being underwritten by Washington State corporate kingpins such as Boeing and Microsoft; Bill Gates is on the city's host committee.

Those names only get activists more excited. "Seattle could be the birthplace of a mass movement against corporate globalism in the US," says Mike Prokosch, an organizer with the Boston office of the labor-activist group United for a Fair Economy, who is also going to the WTO summit. "The WTO meeting gives us an opportunity to pull together all the labor activists, food-safety groups, consumers, students, immigrants -- everyone."

The WTO is getting used to this kind of reaction. From the first, it's been a lightning rod for protest, particularly in Europe and in developing countries such as India, where globalization has caused rapid change. A WTO summit in Geneva drew more than 5000 activists and was plagued by disruptions ranging from small property damage to the overturning of a delegate's car.

Hearing this, you have to wonder what the WTO was thinking when it selected Seattle as the site for this year's meeting. Though the Puget Sound region does have deep ties to international commerce (one in four local jobs is tied to either importing or exporting), it's also knee-deep in well-networked activists, many of whom are veterans of lengthy disputes with the timber industry, among other things. It's a bus trip away from the progressive hotbeds of Vancouver, Portland, Eugene, and San Francisco. And recently, officials of Seattle and surrounding King County passed resolutions making the area an "MAI-free zone," meaning it will not abide by the kind of multilateral agreements on investment endorsed by the WTO.

"I think it's incredible for [the WTO] to have chosen this place," says John Sellers, the coordinator of the Berkeley-based Ruckus Society, which teaches nonviolent protest techniques to activist groups. "I'm hoping that they've made a huge blunder here, and by stepping onto our home court, we can thump them pretty good."

Activists have already succeeded in whipping up a surprising amount of national attention. They've coined an ominous-sounding buzzword -- N30 -- for the big round of protests on November 30. Law-enforcement agencies are paying close attention. WTO officials now want to hold a "parallel summit" to address activist concerns. N30 activists have even landed on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

And the protesters are in training. Last month, the Ruckus Society hosted a week-long boot camp specifically for WTO-summit protesters at a 20-acre organic farm in Washington. Called the Globalize This! Action Camp, the event drew more than 100 activists and featured speeches, strategy sessions, and physical drills in preparation for N30 events. Campers dined on vegetarian meals, brushed up on diplomatic skills such as communicating with police and the media, and practiced feats including wall climbing, rappelling, and using their own bodies as barriers. (Another skill taught at the Ruckus camp was the "puppy pile," in which protesters jump on anyone being attacked by a police officer, so as to create a human shield.)

Denis Moynihan, who attended the camp, says the logistical tips will come in handy November 30. "Trying to plan a mass civil disobedience for the hour President Clinton is going to be speaking is pretty audacious," he says.

Traditional activist marches involve a large mass of people occupying a single area, but Moynihan says that N30 activists will break into smaller, more mobile "affinity groups" and scatter themselves around the city. Each group will have its own "direct action" goal -- raising a banner, for example, or blocking a street -- and will be accompanied by a video-camera-toting documentarian who will record the group's activities (as well as any conflicts with authorities).

The idea is to create so much disruption in so many places around Seattle that it will throw the WTO meeting into disorder -- or, better yet, shut it down completely. "I hope enough people go in November that they can kick the WTO out of this country," says Moynihan. Public Citizen's Mike Dolan isn't sure the protesters will be able to boot out the WTO, but he's certain they can make their presence felt: "We'll guarantee that the political elites will be very, very aware of [our] fair-trade agenda and, moreover, that the slavering minions of the philistine press lords will also understand the fair-trade agenda."

At the very least, the activists wanna have fun. Think of a Mardi Gras parade with attitude: there will be music, art, street-theater performances, and parades of papier-mâché puppets representing WTO heavyweights. There's talk of a "confrontational cuddle," where pajama-clad protesters close down a street with a politically correct group hug. Celebrity corpo-basher Michael Moore will be on hand, if only because the WTO's chief, a New Zealander, is also named Michael Moore. And though no one's publicly pledging to throw pies in WTO delegates' faces, members of the infamous Biotic Baking Parade (who have "pied" officials in the past) were at September's Ruckus camp.

N30 organizers say they are making every effort to keep direct actions pointed but nonviolent -- this is civil disobedience with an emphasis on "civil." That could be a tall order, though. This past summer, members of a rebellious sect of "primitivist anarchists" wreaked havoc at an anarchist convention in Eugene, Oregon, smashing store windows and damaging automobiles. The same group is making noise about another ugly showdown in Seattle, but even fellow anarchists hope they chill out.

"Riots happen," says Mark Laskey, a volunteer at the Lucy Parsons Center radical bookstore in the South End and an editor of We Dare Be Free, a local anarchist newspaper. "But I don't know if pompously promoting that one is going to happen is the way to go. It doesn't seem tactically smart."

And there will be plenty of people prepared to stop a riot should one occur. Throughout the summit, Seattle will be patrolled by local and state police as well as the Secret Service, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and a gallimaufry of security entourages protecting foreign delegates. Several N30 organizers have already met with Seattle police to discuss strategy and clear the air. "That's part of our normal job," says Seattle police spokesperson Pam McCammon. "Seattle is known for having pretty good relationships [with protesters] and allowing people to speak their minds as long as they don't put other people at risk."

For activists, a lot is on the line. Some organizers believe that if the N30 protest goes successfully, it could trigger a rebirth of progressive activism in this country, especially around the issues of labor and corporate greed. Prior to the summit, traveling caravans will crisscross the country, stopping in cities and holding teach-ins on the WTO and the globalized economy. Satellite protests will be held in dozens of cities; Boston's is scheduled for December 1. "This is much larger than the WTO," says Ruckus Society coordinator John Sellers. "The WTO has afforded us this incredible opportunity and hung its ass out for us, but this is also about the corpo-tocracy that is going into the last untouched places on this planet and threatening the last indigenous communities."

"This is just the beginning of this movement," agrees Mike Prokosch of United for a Fair Economy. "We have a lot of catching up to do, but we're gaining."

Jason Gay can be reached at jgay@phx.com.

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