US: Seattle WTO Protests Mark New Activist Age

The protests that all but shut down last year's World Trade Organization meeting may have been a surprise, but they were no fluke, organizers and observers say.

Instead, they marked the emergence of a worldwide movement against corporate globalization growing since at least the early 1990s.

And the movement, which already has sparked a resurgence in activism not seen since the Vietnam War, may just now be picking up steam.

"The coalition is intact and empowered, and actions are springing up all over the place," said Mike Dolan of Global Trade Watch, a charter organizer of the anti-WTO protests.

"What's exciting is that nobody's been turned off as of yet," said John Sellers of Berkeley, Calif.-based The Ruckus Society, which trained activists for WTO and more recent events nationwide. "We're building on a very powerful confluence that came together in Seattle, and we still have this relationship between labor and environmental and other activism that's building."

Some 50,000 activists gathered in Seattle on Nov. 30 last year to protest the meeting of the organization that sets the terms of global trade. Demonstrators blocked streets, provoked mass arrests and exulted when WTO delegates left town after failing to open a new round of trade talks.

Since WTO, a series of massive, colorful and confrontational protests have been staged in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Los Angeles and other cities hosting trade meetings, political conventions and other events.

"This is a global phenomenon," said David Olson, political science professor at the University of Washington, who traces the movement's origin to a worldwide spread of capitalism occurring at the same time as an expansion of democracy.

"The resistance to global capitalism comes from democratic participants, not surprisingly those who are odd fellows out of the global capital regime," he said. "So you get labor, you get environmentalists, you get human rights activists challenging global capitalism in the form of the WTO."

Ace Saturay, an organizer of upcoming Seattle demonstrations to commemorate the one-year anniversary of WTO, said he was helping stage anti-globalization protests as early as 1992, when the Asian-Pacific Economic Conference met in the Philippines.

"But during WTO, people became more aware," he said. "They saw that Seattle moved the mountain. People are starting to mobilize again."

"This is a movement that didn't start in Seattle, and it's not going to stop any time soon," said Patrick Reinsborough of the Rainforest Action Network. "Its growing and growing, and were seeing it expressed in communities across the country and all across the world."

The Canadian Security Intelligence Service, in a public report widely circulated among activists, agrees that a fuse has been lit.

"Seattle and Washington reflect how large the antagonistic audience has become, and the lengths to which participants will go in their desire to shut down or impede the spread of globalization," the service said of WTO and later World Bank protests.

And, the "wide variety of parading malcontents" first seen in Seattle are far more savvy than their activist parents were in protest tactics and technology, the report says.

"The Internet has had a profound impact, in part by enabling organizers to quickly and easily arranging demonstrations and protests, worldwide if necessary. Individuals and groups now are able to establish dates, share experiences and initiate a myriad of other taskings that would have been impossible to manage readily and rapidly in the past."

Sellers, who was arrested in Philadelphia and held on $1 million bail as an alleged ringleader of the most disruptive activists, contends that law enforcement has purposely begun to oversell any threat to public safety.

"The scarier they can make us look, and the more sinister and more advanced, the more they can get free rein to go crazy in the streets and buy their non-lethal arms," he said.

Olson said the most remarkable thing about the anti-globalization movement since Seattle has been its ability to keep historic enemies like labor and environmentalists -- the "Turtles and Teamsters" contingents -- working together.

"For the coalitions to have endured over the 12-month time period is striking," he said, noting that similarly broad protest movements of the last 50 years tended to fly apart fairly rapidly.

For Dolan, the WTO protests were most important for how they changed the public conversation about global capitalism.

"Really, what we're engaged in is a battle for the hearts and minds of opinion leaders, the political leaders and policy makers in the middle," he said.

"Can we wean them from their slavish devotion to the transnational corporate-trade agenda? The answer is, we have done that. Seattle was a very effective wake-up call for these political leaders. When Congress reconvenes, the debate has fundamentally changed."

A sampling of post-Seattle demonstrations in the anti-globalization movement:

  • WASHINGTON: More than 1,300 activists, many of them veterans of Seattle WTO, were arrested at the April meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, as police cracked down early.

  • CHIANG MAI, Thailand: More than 2,000 demonstrators dumped crowd-control barriers and confronted police at the meeting of the Asian Development Bank in May. They demanded the bank stop making loans that they say disrupt the lives of small farmers and the poor.

  • PHILADELPHIA: Some 400 protesters were arrested and a dozen police officers injured during the July 31-Aug. 1 Republican National Convention. Ruckus Society head John Sellers, a key organizer for Seattle WTO and alleged ringleader of the most disruptive RNC protesters, initially was held on $1 million bail. All charges against him were dropped earlier this month.

  • PRAGUE, Czech Republic: Some 5,000 protesters descended on the meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in September, throwing firebombs, sticks and rocks at police. More than 70 people were reported injured -- 55 of them police.

  • MELBOURNE, Australia: Thousands of demonstrators surrounded the hotel where the Asia-Pacific Economic Summit was being held in September, some slashing tires and jumping on the cars carrying delegates.

  • VICTORIA, British Columbia: Citing Seattle protests, organizers last month scrapped a planned NATO conference here over cost and security concerns.
    Thousands of anti-globalization protesters also descended on the Democratic convention in Los Angeles, a meeting of the Organization of American States in Windsor, Ontario, and the ``G-20'' meeting of industrialized and developing nations in Montreal, as well as smaller trade events in Cincinnati, Calgary and elsewhere.

AMP Section Name:Trade Justice
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  • 110 Trade Justice

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