When World Trade Organisation negotiators from more than 130 countries arrive in Seattle in November , they will be greeted by giant puppets, street dancers, anarchists, activists dangling from skyscrapers and a mass of protesting steelworkers and Teamsters.
Here, in one of the most trade-friendly spots in the nation, thousands of demonstrators are expected to take to the streets around the Washington State Convention and Trade Centre on Nov. 30 in what is likely to be the biggest protest in America against the globalisation of commerce.
The goal of opposition organisers was bluntly stated in a recent e-mail circulated among protest organisers:
Seattle Times Olympia bureau, September 1999
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"This is the time to really draw a line in the sand and say this is the largest and most influential corporate gathering of the millennium, and it is not going to happen," said John Sellers, director of the Berkeley-based Ruckus Society. His group will hold a weeklong training camp for protesters next week in Snohomish County.
The Seattle Police Department is doing its own special training for both VIP protection and crowd control, said Capt. Brent Wingstrand, who heads the department's WTO detail. "We have to plan for something big and then adjust our deployment to what the reality turns out to be," he said.
Likewise, Seattle organisers of the WTO meeting said they don't know what to expect. "We support people's right to express their opinion, and we hope they continue a Seattle tradition of holding demonstrations peacefully," said Susan Kruller, spokeswoman for the WTO/Seattle Host Organizing Committee.
Several activist groups see the Seattle meeting as the best opportunity to turn the tide of public sentiment against global free trade. The meeting's U.S. location guarantees it will be the most-covered WTO meeting. Its end-of-the-century timing gives it a millennial gloss.
Seattle, organizers hope, could be the Million Man March for WTO opponents, a sort of Earth Day in the efforts to build a sustainable anti-free-trade movement in the United States.
"We win in Seattle if we can peel off enough of the political elite, the trade ministers, the government functionaries from this slavish devotion to a corporate agenda and get them to look at the legitimate expectations of workers and the environment," said Mike Dolan, deputy director of Global Trade Watch, a part of Ralph Nader's Public Citizen.
Now on loan to the Citizens Trade Campaign, Dolan, a former trial lawyer and veteran political organizer, has opened a storefront office in Seattle to help coordinate dozens of protests during the WTO meeting.
People's Global Action, a year-old international group that calls for confrontational, nonviolent protest, is planning events around the world Nov. 30 and organizing a caravan to bring foreign protesters on a "direct action" tour across America. Members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, where an organizer's phone message says, "Remember, capitalism does suck," hope to be in Seattle. So do representatives of the Nicaraguan farmers' union.
And the trade ministers might take a close look at that concierge working the convention center. A California group recently circulated to fellow protesters some applications for volunteer jobs with the WTO host committee.
The WTO has chosen one of the most trade-dependent states in the country for its meeting. Boeing is one of America's great exporters, Microsoft has extraordinary global reach, and Washington farmers ship hundreds of millions of dollars worth of wheat and apples overseas each year.
Politicians of all stripes tout free trade, none more than Washington's high-profile governor, Gary Locke. Former Gov. Booth Gardner was the United States' ambassador to WTO's predecessor organization.
But recently, serious concerns on the Metropolitan King County Council almost prevented that body from approving a routine welcoming resolution to the WTO. Both the County Council and the Seattle City Council voted to oppose the Multilateral Agreement on Investment [MAI], a trade pact that will be discussed during the November meeting.
There has always been well-organized opposition to free trade. Many American labour unions worked unsuccessfully to stop the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In Europe, protests against the WTO resulted in riots this [northern] summer in London's financial district. In France, farmers dumped manure and tomatoes at McDonald's restaurants to protest [against] American trade policy.
But in the United States, the push for more open global markets has bipartisan backing in Washington, D.C., and is a hallmark of the Clinton administration's trade policy. Still, Congress recently defeated Clinton's request for "fast track authority" to negotiate trade deals. The Multilateral Agreement on Investments has picked up a long list of opponents.
Dolan said protesters have been buoyed by those victories: "Remember, for us, the enemy isn't these governments that comprise the WTO. The enemy is the trans-national corporate, free-trade lobby that uses these agreements like the WTO to move production around the world to the lowest wage area and the areas in the world with the least environmental standards. "We've got to remember who the enemy is here."
Opposition to the WTO has grown as the organization has become more powerful. The group is the international supreme court for trade rules. Countries that join agree to abide by the rules that are designed to eliminate trade barriers. Critics say that means the WTO and other international trade agreements such as NAFTA can essentially trump national, state and local laws, particularly on environmental and labor issues.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency loosened Clean Air Act restrictions after a complaint from Venezuela about a ban on contaminants in foreign gasoline.
Rulings by trade tribunals have weakened efforts to use the Marine Mammal Protection Act to save dolphins from tuna nets and the Endangered Species Act to keep giant turtles from shrimp nets.
Those disputes galvanized environmental opposition to the WTO. It also gave the opposition a simple story to tell. In a call for entries to a children's anti-WTO art contest, a local protest group boiled down the complex free-trade questions to this: "At the end of November this year, the people (WTO) who don't care about turtles and dolphins, but care about money, are coming to our city. We want them to know we don't like what they are doing, and we don't think you do either."
The focus is now on state laws. The European Union has filed WTO complaints about a Massachusetts law barring state contracts with companies that do business with Myanmar [Burma]; a small-business program in Kentucky; and the income-tax laws in 16 states and the District of Columbia governing how foreign corporations are taxed.
Concerns also have been raised that WTO rules could stop states, including Washington, from pursuing insurance and other claims of Holocaust survivors.
Under WTO rules, the federal government must side with the unhappy foreign corporations and governments, not states or local governments. If the WTO finds against a state or local law, the federal government must pursue every avenue to repeal it, including filing lawsuits.
A bipartisan coalition that included conservative Republican "trade patriots" and liberal Democrats tried recently to get Congress to pass an amendment denying funding for any WTO-related federal lawsuit against state and local governments. It failed on a close vote.
Worries about the loss of U.S. sovereignty through trade agreements galvanise the left and the right. Locally, the Green Party on the left and the American Heritage Party on the right have similar anti-free-trade planks in their platforms.
But the sovereignty issue is a "straw man," says Des O'Rourke, a professor of international marketing at Washington State University and director of the International Marketing Program for Agriculture, Commodities and Trade.
He says a loss of sovereignty is an essential element of any treaty. "Once you sign a free-trade agreement, you are signing away, temporarily, your right to control certain things. It's like any other treaty, like an anti-ballistic-missile treaty, you're lending your sovereignty because most of these treaties can be repudiated within six months," he said.
"Most countries don't see treaties as being forever." [But, the MAI would have bound nations for 15 to 20 years!] O'Rourke said environmental and labour issues do not belong in trade agreements, which work best when they focus on the relatively simple issues of tariffs-and-trade barriers.
"If the potato quota is 20,000 tons, it is pretty easy to get people to move it up to 25,000 tons," he said. "But to get India and Indonesia and Brazil to agree on child-labour laws with the U.S., that's quite difficult."
No one knows how many protesters will be in Seattle Nov. 30. Dolan says there will be at least tens of thousands. Some of his staffers hope for more than 100,000.
Wingstrand said the Seattle Police Department is confident it can keep crowds of any size under control. "Seattle has a long history of trying to work with groups that want to express opposing ideas and help them do that without it being illegal, disruptive or violent. And that's our aim again this time," he said.
Dolan's office wall is lined with a huge, three-month calendar on which he tracks all the organized protests, meetings, teach-ins and puppet shows. Many of the groups will apply for permits with the city; Dolan said others may not agree on rules of engagement for the protests. "You know, with the anarchists from Eugene, it'll be, `Badges? We don't need no stinking badges,' " Dolan said.
Dolan said Seattle police have been cooperative. But he worries federal authorities will take control of WTO security, forcing demonstrators to stay blocks away from the meetings. "If the feds say six blocks and it's a hard perimeter, that's when things are probably going to get rowdy, and not because of me," Dolan said.
Wingstrand said Seattle police, not federal authorities, will remain in control.
Some of what unfolds on Seattle's streets will be the responsibility of the Ruckus Society. The 4-year-old group trains activists from as far away as Tibet and Burma on protest strategies and techniques. One of the activities protesters train for is scaling buildings, like roped rock climbers, to draw attention to their cause. Sellers said he'd like to see some building climbs happen during the Seattle event.
Later this month, the group will hold a weeklong Globalise This! Action Camp in Snohomish County. Only what they describe as "advanced" protesters have been invited. At past camps, there were training sessions on the history and philosophy of nonviolence, clandestine scouting-evasion techniques, climbing, radio communications, blockades and a workshop to "learn how to lock your head to something," according to Ruckus Society literature.
"I'd love to see mass Gandhi-like civil-rights-style resistance; giant sit-ins and shutting down streets and blockades," said Sellers, the group's director. Sellers is well aware that anti-WTO protests in Europe in June turned violent. He said violence must be prevented in Seattle because it will turn off the public and set the anti-free-trade movement back in the United States.
"Europe is years ahead of us," he said. "The public is much more
ready to see really radical action in the streets." -- ©David Postman,
Seattle Times Olympia bureau, September 1999. David Postman's
phone number: 360-943-9882. The Seattle Times website is at
Advocates for the five-year-old trade organization and the 1948 framework pact that preceded it, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, known as GATT, say it [the World Trade Organisation, W.T.O.] is helping to bolster the world economy and lift workers out of poverty by bringing down barriers to trade all over the globe. ***
But opponents believe the W.T.O. is using its power as an arbiter to systematically undermine laws passed by various countries to promote health, food safety, environmental protection and better working conditions.
In just one such case, several Asian nations won a preliminary ruling from the trade organization last year after they charged that the U.S. laws intended to protect sea turtles from shrimpers' nets unfairly blocked their exports to U.S. markets. The protesters also say a ruling in favor of Venezuelan gas exporters had the effect of weakening anti-pollution laws in the United States.
"The record of the W.T.O. speaks for itself," said Jeremy Madsen, an organizer with the Citizens Trade Campaign, a coalition of dozens of groups opposed to the W.T.O. "It's not something that is beneficial for workers, it's not beneficial for the environment. It has an atrocious impact on everyone but the elite, the very wealthy." *** -- New York Times, October 13, 1999, Wednesday, "For Seattle, Triumph and Protest," by Sam Howe Verhovek, 1836 words. The NYT website is http://www.nytimes.com/
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