WTO protests rock Seattle

Mass citizen mobilization
holds lessons for us

By Chuck Armsbury, Senior Editor

The l999 summit meeting of the ultimate capitalist club, The World Trade Organization (WTO), collapsed in the presence of mass protests at the Seattle, Washington gathering in late November. As many as 75,000 people arrived from around the world to protest WTO's negotiations in Seattle.

Protesters contended that full implementation of WTO objectives for protecting corporate profits would in time nullify national laws regulating the environment, reverse organized labor's gains from a century's struggle, and smash accepted standards of human rights and dignity embraced by international law in this bloodiest of centuries.

In short, WTO goals and objectives became known to millions of people around the world, and tens of thousands of those millions came to Seattle shouting "No to the WTO!" Bear in mind, these thousands of diverse people converged on Seattle to successfully demonstrate human solidarity and the power of ordinary people moving together in large numbers.
A Seattle author mentioned in a Spokane newspaper, Paul Loeb, reported wading through "throngs of protesters and recognized cashiers from his neighborhood grocery store, local carpenters and airline pilots chanting among the crowds."

E-mail conversations with people around the country told us something quite different than the live and literal blow by blow we were viewing on regional news stations here in the Pacific Northwest. Only a few national news stories told the nation that the "Battle of Seattle" is a strong sign that Americans of all backgrounds are once again ready to confront their government as we did in the l960s. Media managers also did not say that police went berserk on many nonviolent protesters and uninvolved Seattle neighborhood residents.

The Chicago police rioted and smashed heads in l968. The Seattle robo-cops clubbed and gassed the Constitution in l999, and along with it, peaceful citizens who simply wanted to exercise their right to free speech and assembly.

Massive, well-organized marches and gatherings near Seattle's Space Needle were met with police violence seldom seen in the United States since the l960s. Television stations filmed scenes of unidentifiable, helmeted, visored, stutter-stepping 'storm troopers' in formation, rapping their riot sticks on the pavement. Lurid scene followed lurid, bizarre scene. A police jackboot on the head of one protestor was particularly shocking, as was film of a police officer chasing two female protestors trying to escape the tear gas. While only a couple of feet away, he shot the women in the buttocks with rubber bullets. A WTO representative falling to the pavement pulled out a gun as he rose. Tear gas everywhere, hundreds of arrests, protesters retreating as police advanced, protesters advancing where police fell back. A black Seattle councilman trying to join a meeting in the WTO conference area was pulled from his car and roughed up by police.

When the clouds of gas cleared, King County Jail was full of arrestees. The police eventually controlled themselves at a distance, and the lessons of the Battle of Seattle began coming in. Following are summarizing highlights of one week of massive, definite, democratic action in a major world city.

"The protesters managed to put squarely on the agenda the question of labor rights and environmental rights in a way that it can no longer be ignored by the American government," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a social historian at the University of Virginia.

Learning to gather in nonviolent solidarity with others is our first lesson. The huge size and passion of WTO protesters communicated to the world that people are on the move, voting with their feet and not afraid to act. The practical value of democratic principles and tactics was made clear­­business as usual won't happen if enough people mean to put labor, environmental and human rights' issues on the negotiating table alongside trade issues.

Viewers of Pacific Northwest television film were struck by the diversity among protesters, and not just racial diversity alone. Striking steelworkers linked arms with dreadlocked environmentalists, and a large number of people were women, Asians and youth.

Our membership in The November Coalition is racially and ethnically diverse. With over 22,000 names on our mailing list we are also prepared to consider alliances with other grassroots' groups seeking justice for prisoners and their loved ones. We are coalition builders.

WTO protesters told the world that profit is not the highest human value. "People before profits," chanted many voices. Coalition members can surely link up to this slogan while considering the profiteering objectives of the Corrections Corporation of America or the profitmaking policies of federal prison industries.

Finally, the mayhem caused by a minority of protesters put a spotlight on the mass demonstration. The window-smashing by a few amplified the attention given to messages of the nonviolent majority. However, a few unruly anarchists did not fail to deflect or hide the depth of honesty, concern and determination found in most of the people interviewed by reporters on the scene.

It is our hope that the year 2000 will be a watershed for The November Coalition and similar organizations opposing the rapid prisonification of our country. Mass demonstrations of human solidarity witnessed in Seattle hold out real hope for each and every ordinary person organizing to end the Drug War and bring our loved ones home.