Saturday, April 14, 2007

Uncommon Ground

Even as tear gas filled Seattle's streets and demonstrators its jails for a second straight day, the wildly diverse collection of protesters gathered there to oppose the World Trade Organization appeared to maintain their surprising unity -- and even more surprisingly, good will from political figures from President Clinton to Pat Buchanan.

by MoJo Wire correspondents

A police officer sprays an unidentified gas into the face of a WTO protester in Seattle.
A police officer sprays an unidentified gas into the face of a WTO protester in Seattle.

Tens of thousands of activists swarmed the streets Tuesday and Wednesday, forcing a delay in the opening of the WTO summit. Topless Lesbian Avengers and steelworkers, sea turtle-costumed protesters and Harley-riding machinists, French farmers, Gray Panthers, Zapatistas, and a panoply of others marched together to denounce the excesses of global capitalism, which they charge with subverting the environment, workers' rights, and local sovereignty to profit. Though the substance of the protests has been overshadowed in the media by the scattered violence from some demonstrators and by the ensuing heavy-handed crackdown by Seattle police, Washington state troopers and the National Guard, one of the most striking aspects of the events has been the coming together of an unprecedented international, multi-issue coalition against the WTO. Students, blue-collar workers, radical leftists and religious leaders are finding themselves not only on the same page, but in the same marches for the first time in decades. Even environmental and labor groups, frequent foes, have found common ground. Sample conversation overheard between two union marchers:

"I'm just learnin' more and more about this WTO thing everyday, man, and I'm learnin' about things I didn't know about before. Like those sea turtles."

"Sea turtles? What are they doing to them?"

"They're killing them in other countries because of the way they do shrimp fishin', and it's a simple thing they could prevent with a simple device."

"What, let me guess, is the WTO telling them not to use it or something?"

"Yeah, it's just like that. Man, I'm learnin' more and more everyday."

At a pre-march rally Tuesday, international labor leaders -- as well as one Chinese dissident -- from Malaysia, Singapore, Latin America, India, South Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe all came to show solidarity with US labor's demand that the WTO member states enforce basic labor rights such as a ban on child labor and workers' right to organize. Many complained that they were tired of being told by their domestic governments and industries that the workers could not have fair wages or organize because it would undermine their countries' competitive advantage.

At another Tuesday assembly, an enthusiastic crowd packed the spacious First United Methodist Church to hear invocations by representatives of the Christian, Muslim, Baha'i, Hindu, Native American, Jewish, Buddhist, and Unitarian communities.

The overwhelmingly peaceful protests were marred Tuesday when a small faction of young anarchists decided to try destroying capitalism literally, by smashing an assortment of downtown store windows. Agitated police were soon firing tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators who were blocking the streets and access to the convention center.

By mid-Tuesday, Seattle mayor Paul Schell declared a state of emergency, called in state troopers and the National Guard and imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew enforced by police in armored personnel carriers. Downtown looked like a battleground, with protesters running, heckling, throwing things at the cops or staggering around gagging on pepper spray and tear gas.

Curiously, though, in the midst of all of it, a few ordinary citizens were still trying to get their shopping done. And a block away, Falun Gong aficionados sat meditating in public, playing Chinese music through a boom box.

Most of the protestors denounced the violence on both sides. Some actually took up positions in front of the shattered windows to prevent looting. Wednesday morning, after the curfew was lifted, one group was even seen helping to clean up the damage from the previous nights rioting.

Many locals were not amused. "They came here and trashed the city we live in and I'm pissed," said Seattle native Melody Townsend, 21, as she stood in front of a vandalized Gap store.

Still, Seattle '99 is a far cry from Chicago '68. Despite the mayhem in the streets, the protestors continue to receive words of support from the most unlikely quarters. Many delegates expressed respect for the exercise. "It's good, it makes policymakers sit up," said one delegate from Ghana. Opined a top aide to the US trade representative: "The clear expression of concern by ordinary workers has to be taken into consideration."

Even President Clinton had mostly fond words for the activists. "I condemn the small number who were violent and who tried to prevent the meeting, but I am glad the others showed up," he told WTO delegates on Wednesday. "The represent millions of people who are now asking questions" about the impacts of world trade.

Nor is it only liberals who like the protestors. Pat Buchanan, also in Seattle for the event, praised the protestors for confronting the "embryonic monster" of the WTO. A cause that draws support from the wild-eyed left to the radical right? Seattle might just be the start of something that will be remembered long after the tear gas clouds have cleared.