Saturday, April 14, 2007

Bare breasts, green condoms and rubber bullets

Bare breasts, green condoms and rubber bullets

The WTO has united labor and the radical, countercultural left in a way the anti-war movement never could.

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By David Moberg

Dec. 1, 1999 | SEATTLE -- United Steelworkers of America secretary-treasurer Leo Girard was busy explaining to a group of foreign delegates to the World Trade Organization why they couldn�t get through the human blockade of protesters sitting in and milling about the streets of Seattle. "We�re starting the revolution in America here today," he explained matter-of-factly, a big smile beneath his moustache.

It was easy to understand the hyperbole as the protests unfolded Tuesday morning, preventing the opening of formal WTO activities. Ten years ago, who would have thought that Teamsters and kids in dreadlocks would be marching together, let alone under the banner of "fair trade"? The WTO has united labor and the radical, countercultural left in a way the anti-war movement never could.

Things turned uglier Tuesday night, when police charged protesters who refused to disperse after Mayor Paul Schell declared a 7 p.m. to dawn curfew in the city. Many of the trained non-violent protesters and labor activists who'd descended on Seattle had left for dinner, or a well-attended WTO debate featuring Ralph Nader.

That left behind a harder-core direct-action contingent, some of whom had been spoiling for confrontation. Police fired tear gas, and Gov. Gary Locke called in the National Guard, expected to arrive Wednesday -- the same day as President Clinton.

But the day started more peacefully, at a park near the city�s famous Pike Place Market, where thousands of protesters gathered in the pre-dawn dark as a chilly rain fell. Singers, rappers and speakers talked about the giant, labor-organized rally coming up later in the day, and the stop-work action taken that same morning by longshoremen up and down the West Coast. They displayed their varied causes with costumes and street theater.

Placards proclaimed, "Secrets are not democracy" and "No Globalization Without Representation," while others declared support for rebels in Chiapas, human rights in Burma and the ethical treatment of animals. People dressed up as dolphins and sea turtles, both of which are endangered by WTO decisions rejecting U.S. laws as trade barriers. Then there was Genetically Modified Man, a costumed character in street theater, one of many objectors to bioengineered food.

The early morning protesters snaked their way through the streets near the Paramount Theater where the opening session was scheduled. Police, carrying clubs and tear gas, wearing riot helmets and gas masks, lined up across the street. Protesters linked hands or sat down in the streets, blocking access to the theater. A few groups -- mainly masked young people dressed all in black -- tried and occasionally succeeded in breaking windows in a McDonald�s, a Nordstrom and other downtown stores. But plenty of others gave the whole affair a joyous flavor by juggling, dancing, playing music and wheeling kids in strollers.

The vast majority were peaceful. When police pulled up in an armored vehicle and began using tear gas, most began chanting, "No violence, peaceful protest." Eventually police made a dozen arrests in the morning, mainly of people who had consciously decided to be arrested as an act of civil disobedience. Police shot some rubber bullets and sprayed a form of tear gas at demonstrators during the morning.

But as the morning blockades slowed down, the action picked up in the stadium north of downtown. There were speeches by labor leaders from the United States and around the world as well as environmentalists and other allies, such as Students Against Sweatshops.

Then the labor delegations began their march downtown. The odd juxtapositions continued. Greenpeace sponsored a green condom made of about 30 foods (the message: "WTO -- Practice Safe Trade"), and a contingent of young women with bared breasts chanted for justice with slogans like "No BGH" -- the artificial hormone used to stimulate cow milk production -- as a giant Steelworkers dirigible floated over their heads.