The Progressive
January 2000


Now What? Seattle Is Just a Start


By John Nichols

Before the mass rallies, before the trashing of chain stores, before the tear gas, rubber bullets, and arrests, local businesses in Seattle got an inkling that something was up. At the Gap, Starbucks, McDonald's, and other street-level symbols of the relentless expansion of multinational corporations championed by the World Trade Organization (WTO), cash drawers began to fill with money bearing an anti-WTO symbol. These defaced dollars, fives, tens, and twenties circulated in ever-widening areas. Within days, there were reports of the bills turning up as far away as Washington, D.C.

"Who knows how far they'll ultimately go?" wonders Mike Dolan of Public Citizen, who helped organize the anti-WTO protests that swept Seattle. "Just think: Bill Clinton or Trent Lott will be buying Christmas gifts and get anti-WTO dollars in change."

This distribution of the funny money symbolizes the spirit and the style of protest that activists hope will flow from Seattle, where the streets filled with the largest outpouring of anti-corporate sentiment on U.S. soil in decades. Organizers like Dolan hope that "the Battle in Seattle" will prove to be a turning point in a long and often frustrating struggle to make the debate between corporate greed and human need a front-burner issue in America. Already, they have helped stall the WTO's plans to launch a new "Millennium Round" of trade negotiations.

"History has been made in Seattle as the allegedly irresistible forces of corporate globalization were stopped in their tracks by the immovable object of grassroots democracy," says Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch campaign. "The momentum from the victory will enable us to move from successfully resisting a new round of WTO expansion to starting a turnaround. Our task now is to fight for a global trading system that is democratically accountable and aimed at meeting the needs of people, not simply the world's largest corporations."

More than 1,200 labor, environmental, consumer, religious, farm, indigenous peoples', academic, women's, AIDS, human rights, and animal rights groups from roughly ninety nations got the process rolling when they signed a call for the governments of the world to halt the expansion of the WTO. Most of those groups were present at the WTO session in Seattle, with U.S. organizations — ranging from the AFL-CIO and the Sierra Club to the Humane Society and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom — the best represented.

At the headquarters of the Direct Action Network, on the edge of downtown, grandmothers in sensible shoes stood next to teenagers with spiked mohawks and pierced lips. The Steelworkers held a joint rally with Earth First environmentalists seeking to preserve ancient forests in Northern California. Not to be outdone, machinists marched next to animal rights activists dressed as giant sea turtles.

Farmers showed up for the 40,000-strong labor march on Tuesday, November 30, and union members returned the favor by crowding into the family farm rally on Thursday.

This was a movement that marched together beneath banners that read Sea Turtles Say No to WTO and Neoliberalism Sucks Ass.

When police jailed hundreds of nonviolent protesters and teargassed activists, unions organized a march in solidarity with the Direct Action Networkers. As crowds of young people held a sit-in outside the King County Jail to demand the release of their comrades, the Teamsters supplied cookies.

"We have people working together who have never even been in the same room before — except maybe to yell at one another," says Dolan. "Substantial differences were transcended in order to build the Seattle coalition. I think the WTO has pushed globalization in so many directions that it has touched just about everybody. And, suddenly, everyone recognized that this threat was bigger than their differences. A lot of these groups have come to respect one another and to see that they can work together on an ongoing basis."

Some of the most exciting alliances were those among groups in the developed world and those in the developing world. While the official WTO sessions were characterized by deep divides between delegations from the Northern and Southern hemispheres, there was an unprecedented level of North-South unity on the streets. Farmers from around the world came together as part of actions organized by the cross-border group Via Campesina. The huge AFL-CIO rally cheered speakers from close to a dozen countries. And after events organized to highlight the devastating impact that globalization was having on women in the Third World, throngs of women from Africa, Latin America, India, Europe, and the United States marched together in human chains through the streets of downtown Seattle.

"These are the coalitions that the multinational corporations fear the most," says Indian physicist Vandana Shiva, a leading foe of genetically modified foods. "When we see women from every country coming together to say that we will not abandon one another in this fight, it is a very powerful force. And once we have recognized that power, I do not believe that we will let it go."

"Remember when we used to talk about multinational corporations, and people would roll their eyes?" asks former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower. "Now, we've got tens of thousands of people in the streets — marching, rallying, in some cases even risking arrest — to challenge the excessive power of the corporations and the WTO's efforts to expand that power. I think this is a historic turning point. Ninety percent of the American public, who had not heard of the WTO before, are suddenly asking: What are people so upset about that they're willing to get their heads beat in over it? And, as they read on, they find that there really is a lot to be upset about."

Despite fears that instances of violence — which drew the lion's share of media attention — would undermine their message, the demonstrations proved to be a huge success.

"The protests became the story, what was happening in the streets ended up being a bigger deal than what happened inside the WTO sessions," says Wallach. "I know that a lot of the attention went to the Direct Action Network's protests — and especially to the shutting down of the city. But I don't think that people watching this from afar missed the point that tens of thousands of people object to how the WTO operates."

"We have already won a stupendous victory," Susan George, author of A Fate Worse Than Debt (Grove Press, 1988) and The Debt Boomerang (Westview, 1992), told a standing-room-only crowd gathered for a teach-in at the King County Labor Temple. "The fact that we are all here in Seattle, the fact that the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal are writing about what we are doing, that is a tremendous victory."

Even so staid a player as John Sweeney, the poker-faced AFL-CIO president, was waxing poetic, quoting William Blake's "Jerusalem" and preaching about the "historic nature" of the confrontations in Seattle. "Each generation and each country confronts the power of unregulated capitalism," bubbled the labor chieftain.

"We organizers have an axiom we go by: We educate people in order to organize them. We don't organize them in order to educate them," says Dolan. "What we've done over the last year, culminating in the convergence in Seattle, is a great deal of education." Dolan's point is well taken: At the start of 1999, few Americans could even identify the WTO — a circumstance that was fine by the shadowy trade group.

Yet, despite a serious lack of media attention to trade issues, polls show that Americans are increasingly ill at ease with free trade policies that boost corporate profits while cutting wages, ending farm subsidies, and deregulating environmental and consumer protections.

A USA Today/CNN/Gallup survey conducted on the eve of the WTO session found that 59 percent of Americans surveyed thought that free trade as it is currently practiced hurts American workers, while only 35 percent felt it helped. Bill Clinton, who suffered a major embarrassment with the collapse of the talks, admits, "There's actually more division and controversy about whether trade is or isn't good today ... than there was in 1993 or 1994 when we joined the WTO and set off this explosion of economic activity. I think it's because people are afraid that Americans always get a raw deal."

While Americans sense the raw deal, they have been slower to identify the raw dealer. Until Seattle, there was little awareness of the critical role played by the WTO — the 135-member organization that pressures governments to remove "barriers" to free trade, including workers' rights laws, food safety regulations, and environmental protections. After Seattle, the WTO is the subject of a lot more living-room conversations in the United States, as is the question of how citizens can and should act to control the excesses of multinational corporations and economic globalization.

"Americans have been very unaware until now of the whole issue of globalization. The WTO, I think, is something Americans had not even discussed," explains José Bové, the French farmer who drew international attention by wrecking a McDonald's in France to protest the ill effects of free trade and the genetic modification of food. "For those of us who live in the rest of the world, this American ignorance has been very frustrating. You see, it is extremely important that this be an issue in the United States. The movement has begun in Europe. It is strong and it will not weaken; and the same is true of the movement in other regions of the world. But, until now, the question has always been: Will the people of the United States learn enough about this struggle to join us? We know we cannot do this alone. And now, I think, we can answer the question by saying that, yes, the American people will be with us in this fight against globalization."

Building a mass mobilization is one thing, but it's another thing entirely to sustain a movement that aims to dethrone the regime of free trade. And make no mistake: The WTO agenda in Seattle may have been upended, but the WTO has not been destroyed.

"As hard as this was to put together, as much of a challenge as it was to pull all these coalitions together and organize all these demonstrations, the bigger job and the bigger challenge lie ahead," acknowledges Dolan. "We can't avoid the responsibility that comes with this. We have educated a lot of people. We've made a lot of good points. We've had a lot of fun in Seattle. We've made a lot of noise. We've gotten ourselves noticed. And we've even scored a historic victory. But we have to make sure that Seattle is not the end of anything; Seattle needs to be seen as the next step — an important step, I'll grant you, but still the next step — on a very long road."

Mark Ritchie, who heads the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, which played a critical role in getting farm and food safety groups into the Seattle coalition, is even more blunt. "If Seattle is the high point of this movement, we're in trouble," he says. "Everything that happened in Seattle has to be seen as a prelude to a much larger, much more effective movement to change trade and economic policy in the U.S. and around the world."

So how should the tens of thousands of trade unionists, farmers, environmentalists, human rights activists, and others who trekked to Seattle — and the millions who cheered them on from afar — carry on the fight?

Even before the WTO summit was done, organizers were asking one another how this coalition could next be put to use. Public Citizen, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, the Sierra Club, and the Alliance for Democracy all left Seattle with plans for how to hold the coalition together and spread its reach.

Dolan talks of using sophisticated Internet linkages and other new communications technologies to maintain the momentum.

Still, a movement needs a ready supply of targets. Wallach says a logical first one will be the proposed permanent Most Favored Nation status for China, a move that is broadly opposed by labor, religious, and human rights groups. Congress takes up this issue next year, and it ties in directly with the WTO.

Wallach, who helped lead the successful efforts against the "fast track" expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the sweeping Multilateral Agreement on Investment, is busy building the cross-party base to stop the China deal.

The coalition also hopes to build grassroots support around the country for efforts to protect the right of local governments to pass laws aimed at restricting trade with countries that commit human rights violations. In its crusade to strike down barriers to trade, the WTO is expected to target communities that pass such laws.

U.S. Representative Dennis J. Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio, is spearheading this effort in Congress. "People are genuinely concerned about losing the ability to legislate at the local level. They see that as an incredible usurping of local power. And they're right," says Kucinich.

But what of the WTO itself? How does this movement that showed so much strength in Seattle continue to put the pressure on the organization to change? Or, failing that, how does it pressure the United States to withdraw from the organization and seek its abolition?

South African poet and activist Dennis Brutus, who was in Seattle, met recently with representatives from across Africa and Asia to come up with a strategy. They decided to call for a consortium of non-governmental organizations around the world to conduct a review of the record of the WTO over its first five years of existence.

"The record will show that the WTO has consistently ruled on behalf of companies and against the people," says Brutus. "We believe that the record is destructive and that, when that destructiveness is detailed, it will lead to a call for the abolition of the WTO."

An ambitious goal? Definitely.

But not so much more ambitious than the goal of countering the WTO's first-ever gathering on U.S. soil with a mass outpouring of opposition to trade policies dictated by multinational corporations.

"What I've seen here is incredibly heartening and encouraging," says California State Senator Tom Hayden, the 1960s anti-war activist who became a Democratic Party officeholder. "Even if people don't always get along on every issue, they've started to recognize that they can't get along without each other — not against something as powerful and insidious as the WTO."

Hayden thinks that the fight to maintain the power of states and municipalities to pass their own laws on trade could build even broader coalitions. "I don't care if local officials are liberal or conservative or whatever, they don't like being told by some agency in Geneva what laws they can pass. And I think that as people become aware of what's at stake, you'll see some genuine activism around this issue."

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader agrees. "The energy you saw in Seattle is going to go home to Main Street America," he says. "You're going to see people talking about these issues in church basements, union halls, and community centers. They're going to start making connections that haven't been made before. They're going to organize, and they're going to make Seattle the turning point for a movement that is going to fundamentally change how America — and the world — does business. The inherent power of the people is more than enough to turn the tide. If people realize what's at stake, they've got the power to prevail and win."


John Nichols is Editorial Page Editor for The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. He wrote "Where Are the Doves in Congress?" in the October 1999 issue.


Copyright © 2000 by The Progressive, Madison, WI.