Saturday, April 14, 2007

Circus in Seattle

Unlikely bedfellows from steelworkers to treehuggers are coming together in Seattle to push their pet grievances about unfettered world trade with marches and made-for-TV guerilla theater.

by Jeffrey Benner

Members of the Direct Action Network protest the WTO at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Members of the Direct Action Network protest the WTO at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The thousands of officials gathering in Seattle for the World Trade Organization summit next week may be kicking off negotiations that will ultimately affect the lives of billions -- but the meeting itself promises to be about as exciting as, well, a meeting of trade bureaucrats. While the suits yawn, however, the scene outside the Washington State Convention and Trade Center promises to be a major-league circus.

As unlikely a candidate for animus as a trade conference may seem, the WTO has been singled out as the source of all that's wrong with the world by everyone from environmentalists to labor activists to indigenous-rights groups. Activists from around the country and the world are descending on Seattle to push their pet grievances. Representatives from roughly 700 non-governmental organizations from around the world have registered to attend the conference as observers. More than 1,000 organizations from 87 countries have signed a statement opposing further expansion of free trade. And tens of thousands of sympathizers will be taking their complaints straight to the streets.

The protests, which will begin this weekend and continue through the end of the WTO summit on December 3, will run the gamut from city-approved marches to made-for-TV guerrilla theater. Steelworkers and tree huggers, city council members and monkeywrenchers will all be making their presence felt, separately and in ad-hoc alliances. "You are going to see people who would never have a drink together come together in the street to stand in the way of the corporate agenda," predicts David Taylor, a full-time volunteer with the Direct Action Network (DAN), which is coordinating much of the protest action.

Opposition to the WTO has already forged unprecedented alliances between environmentalists and labor unions. In October, nearly 200 labor and environmental organizations, including the United Steelworkers of America, Friends of the Earth, Rainforest Action Network, and the Teamsters Union launched a formal coalition called the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment. A similar alliance of environmentalist and labor unions has pitched in to buy $40,000 worth of anti-WTO billboards and bus signs around Seattle.

The more radical wing of the WTO protest movement is centered around the Direct Action Network. For the past three months, dozens of full-time DAN volunteers have been working out of a small Seattle office to help orchestrate a slew of actions and events. DAN is sponsored by a coalition of 20 activist organizations, including Earth First, the Ruckus Society, Global Exchange, the National Lawyers Guild, Project Underground, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and the Mexico Solidarity Network. DAN members are also working to form coalitions with a broad range of other groups.

Some of DAN's more radical constituents, like People's Global Action (a coalition which emerged out of the Zapatista movement), want the WTO disbanded entirely. Says PGA organizer Michael Morrill, "Global capital is the enemy, of which the WTO is just a symptom."

Others, notably Public Citizen and Global Exchange, portray themselves as reformers rather than revolutionaries. They advocate "fair trade" as opposed to "free trade." Their core demands: democratize the WTO to make it more representative of environmental and labor interests, and impose a moratorium on any new agreements pending a review of the impact of all current trade agreements.

"We believe in a global economy that has values and institutions guiding global commerce," says Global Exchange activist Juliette Beck, "but we need globalization to be safe for the world, not the reverse."

For thousands of union members, protesters, delegates, the Seattle police, and nearly everybody else in town, Tuesday, Nov. 30 is D-day.

DAN hopes to put 100 autonomous "affinity groups" of 5 to 20 people each out into the streets to execute their own direct actions. On one corner might be the "radical cheerleaders," complete with pom poms, busting out a rant against corporate greed. On another, traffic may be snarled by affinity group members who have chained themselves to a stoplight. A modified stretch limousine belonging to the People's Global Action Caravan, which has been touring the States since Oct. 28, will be roaming the streets. With a cruise missile strapped to the top emblazoned with the words "for hire," it should be hard to miss. Unless of course you are distracted by a banner being unfurled from the side of a building by activists trained in such feats at a Ruckus Society camp in the Oregon mountains last October.

"This isn't going to be another easily ignored lefty civil protest," claims Han Shan of the Berkeley-based Ruckus Society. "People from all parts of civil life are saying no to the corporate agenda," he says. "This is going to be an organic uprising of citizens to form a watershed moment of humanity."

Organically uprisen watershed or not, the protests will certainly be hard to ignore, thanks in large part to the contributions of labor unions. DAN volunteer Taylor, a university student taking time off to fight the WTO, has been trying to coordinate protest efforts with Seattle longshoremen, who are among the most vociferous of the WTO's labor critics. On Nov. 30, they plan to shut down every port in the state of Washington and take to the streets.

Meanwhile, the nation's largest labor organization, the AFL-CIO, will host a rally the same day in a 12,000 seat outdoor stadium. Six planes, 125 buses, and a "union train" from Portland have been chartered to help bring folks in to hear AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, musical group Sweet Honey and the Rock and others. At 12:30 p.m., the workers will pour out of the stadium and march 40 blocks up Fourth Avenue, which should already be teeming with roisterous affinity groups. Unlike the unruly activists, the unions have worked closely with city officials to plan the march, and aim to train 1,000 of their own marshals to make sure everything goes smoothly.

Around 3 p.m., the union marchers will turn up Pike Street -- the city will rename it Union Way for the day -- and head straight for the perimeter of police who will be surrounding the Convention and Trade Center. There, union leaders intend to hand deliver a copy of their demands: They want the WTO to enforce six essential principles of fair labor practices, including freedom of association for workers, a minimum age for child labor, and workers' right to collective bargaining. The AFL-CIO is pushing for violation of any of these principles to be considered a "non-tariff trade barrier," meaning that countries which violate them could be subject to punitive tariffs from other WTO member states.

While banner-hanging and street theater promise to be grabbing many of the headlines, plenty of educational- and policy-oriented forums are also planned for the week in Seattle. The International Forum on Globalization (IFG), a progressive think tank dedicated to finding alternatives to globalization in its current form, is hosting a "teach in" about the WTO. The teach-in, scheduled for Nov. 26 and 27 in a 2,500-seat auditorium, will feature policy experts assessing the WTO's impact on agriculture, the environment, human rights, and other issues. On Nov. 30, in the Seattle Town Hall, Ralph Nader of Public Citizen and other WTO critics will square off against officials from Procter and Gamble, the federal Commerce Department and others for an IFG-sponsored debate on free trade.

So far, the WTO's diverse detractors have done a surprising job of maintaining a more or less united front, joining together for the goal of making a big splash in Seattle. Whether this unity will survive past Nov. 30, however, remains to be seen.

If nothing else, the movement has already demonstrated its media savvy. The Ruckus action camp made the front page of the Wall Street Journal, and the PGA Caravan has staged media-grabbing demonstrations in 20 cities across the country during a month long sojourn from New York City to Seattle. On Nov. 20, at the Caravan's San Francisco stop, protesters made a "human banner" reading "NO WTO" and chartered a plane to fly journalists overhead so they could capture the action on film.

The Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund, along with several other groups, will be publishing 10,000 copies of a free daily newspaper in Seattle giving the activists' perspective during the WTO week. The first issue of the World Trade Observer is already available online. Meanwhile, culture jammers ®TMark have jumped on the bandwagon with a WTO parody Web site.

But will all this hubbub actually lead anywhere? Even the radical fringes of this improvised movement seem to understand that a PGA Caravan heading to Seattle is a far cry from Lenin on a train to St. Petersburg. Caravan participant Guido Espana, who studies river pollution in his native Bolivia, admits with a wan smile that at many of the demonstrations they have held, "there are more police than people." Nevertheless, he is optimistic about the coalitions between activists he sees forming. "If we have solidarity between many people from around the world," he said, "we can be strong."

And, in fact, the protest movement has already had an effect. Last week, President Clinton announced that no future trade agreements would be implemented until their impact is assessed. While this fell short of the fair trade movement's demand that the impact of all existing agreements be assessed, Clinton has evidently recognized the need to at least sound conciliatory to the opposition. The WTO has responded similarly. The organization recently published its own assessment of the impacts of free trade, which acknowledged for the first time that there are legitimate concerns about globalization's impact on jobs and the environment.

Overall, David Taylor is pleased with what has been accomplished already. "A year ago no one had heard of the WTO. Now there are critiques of it on the front page of major newspapers," he said. "No matter what happens on Nov. 30th, we've already succeeded."