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Canada: World Inc. Under Siege

Summit Mayhem Isn't Like Anything We've Seen Before

by Vinay MenonThe Toronto Star
July 29th, 2001

Activism has never been so misunderstood.

From Muggles to Wombles, to the A-17, M-1 and S-26 protests. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The creation of the Quebec Wall. White Overalls. Black Bloc. Fast track. Free trade. Structural adjustments. Life improvement. Death economy.

To the uninitiated, the frenetic images of the costumed protesters are equally baffling: Some are dressed as endangered sea turtles or genetically modified tomatoes. There are mad cows and sad hawks, Zapatistas and Sandinistas, giant Uncle Sams and stylized Grim Reapers.

This is the anti-globalization movement. Sprawling, disparate, powerful. A political force unto itself that, given its international scope and staggering number of participants, is unprecedented in history.

And, it would appear, at a significant crossroads.

"We are at a very important juncture," says Antonia Juhasz, project director for the San Francisco-based International Forum on Globalization. "We are simultaneously feeling out our strengths and weaknesses. As such, we are in a place of tremendous responsibility."

A responsibility that only grows as world leaders stop to take wide-eyed notice.

"There is a much more significant phenomenon behind all this and that's the rise of a civil society, of non-governmental organizations and activist groups as players in the game of world politics," explains Ronald Deibert, a political science professor at the University of Toronto.

"And this raises some profound questions about the nature of world politics; first-order questions of political theory that we used to talk about on a domestic scale. But now it's global."

Like previous social movements - anti-nuclear, civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, women's rights, the environment, identity politics - anti-globalization has reached a fork in the proverbial road where internal considerations are overtaking external strategies.

"There are definitely some serious issues that the movement is now grappling with," says David Robbins, trade campaigner with the Council of Canadians, the country's largest citizens' watchdog organization.

"Violence is clearly one of them, but I would add to that issues around race, inclusion and exclusion. And also issues of gender, in terms of who holds power within these groups."

In the last two years, anti-globalization messages have been distorted through a haze of pepper spray and rock throwing, rubber bullets and Molotov cocktails, hurled insults and blasts from water cannons.

"The public is in a sense of confusion right now," says Robin Wagner-Pacifici, a sociology professor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. "I don't sense that the public is writing off the protesters as a bunch of troublemakers. But, on the other hand, I don't think they are completely sympathetic, and that has to do with the segment of protesters that use violence."

Tracing the genesis of the anti-globalization movement is at best a subjective exercise. Some say it started in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Some say it was the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, a couple of years later. Maybe it was the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But many believe the movement gained flashbulb momentum in 1996, when it was revealed that a line of clothing from talk-show host Kathie Lee Gifford was manufactured in Honduran sweatshops by young women who toiled in abysmal conditions for below-subsistence wages.

At that moment, a confluence of factors crystallized: distrust of much-publicized (but nebulous) trade agreements, growing antipathy toward laissez-faire principles and a gnawing sense that multinational corporations were dictating the international political agenda.

"There are a lot of people suspicious and angry about the ascendancy of corporate power and how much influence big business has in the U.S. and around the world in shaping policy," says Han Shan, program director for the California-based Ruckus Society.

In December, the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington think-tank, released a study titled Top 200: The Rise Of Corporate Global Power. The report found that 51 of the 100 largest economies in the world were corporations.

Meaning, as a measure of gross domestic product or annual sales, General Motors is bigger than Denmark. General Electric is bigger than Portugal. IBM is bigger than Singapore. Hitachi is bigger than Chile. Sony is bigger than Pakistan. Nissan is bigger than New Zealand.

The study also found that combined sales from the world's biggest 200 companies is 18 times larger than the combined annual income of the 24 per cent of the world's population who live in severe poverty.

Between 1983 and 1999, profits from the top 200 companies grew by 362 per cent, while the number of people they employed grew by only 14 per cent.

"If you were to land on Earth today, you would see a world of tremendous inequality," says Joshua Karliner, executive director of CorpWatch. "The vast majority of people on this planet are living in poverty and without access to the wonderful technological, medical, informational and scientific advances that humanity has achieved.

"And that is what this is all about."

As Juliette Beck, economic rights co-ordinator for Global Exchange, puts it: "We are fighting for economic justice to stop the growing divide between rich and poor. How can you not be concerned that every major ecosystem on the planet is in decline? Our fisheries, our topsoil, our air, our water are all in decline and being devastated by unsustainable economic policies."

This concern reached a watershed in Seattle, where approximately 60,000 protesters from all political, social and environmental persuasions managed to shut down a meeting of the World Trade Organization.

Once perceived as staid centres of international bureaucracy, the WTO, as well as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), are now targets of anti-globalization activists, who regard these institutions as murky cabals - unaccountable, undemocratic and unwitting facilitators of the corporate agenda.

So, instead of just targeting companies such as Nike, Starbucks, McDonald's and The Gap for exploiting workers and promoting "global monoculture," protesters have new power structures to burn in effigy.

"We do not have a voice when these rules are being developed. This is not democracy and that's really apparent," says Anna Dashtgard, an anti-globalization activist and organizer for Common Front On The WTO, a coalition of more than 60 Canadian organizations, including those championing labour, the environment and social and human rights.

"For perspective on how big this is in Canada, the anti-globalization movement, at this point, is way more powerful than the NDP. There is no question about it."

With size comes publicity, power and influence. And, in turn, opposition.

It's not surprising then, activists say, that politicians and corporate executives denounce the movement as misguided and hopelessly misinformed.

Critics like Thomas L. Friedman, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author of The Lexus And The Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization, argue that globalization is why the living standards for one-quarter of humanity quadrupled within a generation.

George W. Bush says free trade is the only way developing nations can adjust and thrive in the new, information- and services-based economy.

Others lambaste anti-globalism activists and raise the spectre of First World protectionism, calling the protesters parochial, radical, obtuse and purveyors of "chic activism." Many critics observe, with great cynicism, that most of the protesters are white, middle-class citizens "with really cushy lives."

As the WTO's Mike Moore said recently: "The people that stand outside and say they work in the interests of the poorest people...they make me want to vomit. Because the poorest people on our planet, they are the ones that need us the most."

Juhasz, of the International Forum on Globalization, is quick to take exception. "I would encourage people to look at the millions upon millions who have protested in the developing world against globalization policies. And then ask, `By what standard do you judge that the developing world wants trade?'

"More people have been protesting and dying - dying! - in the developing world against these policies than have ever lifted a finger in the north."

She says mass protests, such as those in Bolivia, Argentina, India, Haiti, Brazil and Indonesia, get almost no attention from mainstream Western media. To attract the cameras, it seems, flag-waving protests need to be unfurled against an industrialized backdrop.

This becomes most pronounced when a protest turns nasty and confrontation becomes the central focus of satellite-fed coverage.

And since Seattle, the protests are more violent.

Last month, in Goteborg, Sweden, 25,000 demonstrators clashed with police at a European Union summit. There were dozens of arrests and injuries, including three people who were shot by police. Similar protests unfolded in Quebec city, Barcelona, Salzburg, Davos, Melbourne and Washington.

Last September's IMF-World Bank summit in Prague was particularly fierce, with more than 130 people injured, including nearly two dozen police officers.

The mayhem reached a new, frightening level two weeks ago, when an Italian protester was killed by police during demonstrations in Genoa that attracted more than 100,000 people.

It is perhaps not surprising that the movement's first Western death was recorded in Italy, a nation with a long history of anarchist groups and extravagant politics. The country is home to sects like Ya Basta! and Tutte Bianche. At Genoa, these groups were joined by bands like Wombles (White Overalls Movement Building Libertarian Effective Struggles) and Black Bloc.

The Bloc was instrumental in N30 - a reference to Nov. 30, the first day of the Seattle protests. The month/date pairing has become a shorthand form to communicate protest dates on the Internet. Notes Deibert: "It's phenomenal the way the Internet plays a part in all of this."

It was the Internet that also helped spread the word from Genoa that an activist had been shot by police. The killing and the consequent bedlam stunned many organizations.

"If you look at some of the talk within the organizations and groups involved in orchestrating these protests, this is now the hot talk," says John Delicath, a professor of communications at the University of Cincinnati.

"There seems to be an overwhelming consensus that there needs to be moves and public gestures to condemn the violence."

Which may be why, at a grassroots level, some of the world's anti-globalization groups are rethinking the "Summit Formula." When the WTO assembles for its post-Seattle meeting, in Doha, Qatar, in November, there may be a change in strategy.

"It will be the first time since Seattle that instead of having one big mass action, the emphasis will be on community-based actions at the local level," predicts Dashtgard.

Adds Shan: "What a lot of people are trying to figure out is how to stop focusing on these giant, international summits...and get back to the business of local, community organizing."

It's a conscious attempt to jump away from the cops-versus-protesters scenario. ("Because that obscures the fundamental cultural conflict," Shan says, "which is a system that worships money versus a system that worships life.")

Amory Starr is an activist, sociology professor at Colorado State University and author of last year's Naming The Enemy: Anti-Corporate Movements Confront Globalization. She disagrees with the decision to return to local protesting.

"It's clear that we are doing really well, because they are scared of us," she says.

"There's tons of scholarship on our side documenting how free trade does not benefit the poor. That argument is a neo-liberal economic argument that has not changed in 50 years."

And that's another challenge anti-globalization protesters face: Many members of the public can't grasp the abstract, socio-economic principles upon which the movement is based. So critics start dismissing groups as "militant radicals," "Yuppie freaks," "Hippie wannabes," "flat-Earth advocates," "neo-Marxists," "neo-Luddites" and "anti-capitalist pipe dreamers."

Even the term "anti-globalization movement" is misleading. There is no formal structure, no hierarchy. No one leader. No one platform. For some, there isn't even an "anti" - they believe it's not a question of "if we globalize," but how.

There are, instead, widely different groups, with widely different agendas. And these groups will only get bigger and more effective, professor Deibert says. It's a trend.

"Citizens are side-stepping traditional structures of political participation and becoming active participants, as opposed to spectators in the game of world politics."

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