Seattle: something greater yet to come

Issue 

By David Bacon

SEATTLE — Those who marched or stood or sat in the streets here last week made history, and they knew it. And like the great marches against the Vietnam War, or the first sit-ins in the south in the late '50s, it was not always easy to see just what history was being made, especially for those closest to the events.

Tear gas, rubber bullets and police sweeps, the objects of incessant media coverage, are the outward signs of impending change — that the guardians of the social order have grown afraid. And there's always a little history in that.

Poeina, a young woman sitting in the intersection at the corner of Seventh and Stewart, waiting nervously for the cops to cuff her and take her away in her first arrest, knew the basic achievement she and her friends had already won: "I know we got people to listen, and that we changed their minds".

It was a statement of hope, like the chant that rose on November 30 from thousands of demonstrators as the police moved in: "The whole world is watching!"

The Seattle protests put trade on the road map of public debate, making WTO, the World Trade Organisation, a universally recognised set of initials in a matter of hours — what it took a year of debate over NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) to accomplish. But perhaps the greatest impact of Seattle will be on the people who were there.

Just as anti-war demonstrations and civil rights sit-ins of decades ago were focal points from which people fanned out across the country spreading the gospel of their movement, Seattle is also a beginning of something greater yet to come. What will the people who filled its downtown streets take back into this city's neighbourhoods or similar towns and cities across the country?

A certain understanding of the world was forged in the streets here — a realisation based, to begin with, on who was there. Environmentalists came protesting against the impending destruction of laws protecting clean air and water. Animal rights activists came to protect sea turtles.

Trade unionists came fighting for jobs, and protesting against child labour. Fair trade campaigners arrived ready to debate corporate domination of the process by which trade rules are decided.

Even the generational culture of the protesters started to spill over from one group into another. Environmental activists in their 20s came with tactics from the battles in the forests of northern California and the Pacific north-west. They carried giant puppets, dressed themselves in costumes rather than carrying signs, and laid down in busy intersections in the morning rush hour.

In groups of 20 and 30, they chained their arms together, slipping metal sleeves over hands and chains to make it hard for the police to cut them apart. Two years ago, this tactic was answered by Humboldt County sheriffs, who swabbed pepper spray directly into the eyes of protesters at Pacific Lumber Company.

Even for veterans of civil disobedience, the chains are a tactic that demands determination to face down the fear of violent response. As police rushed in to make arrests and cut them apart, a young woman stood to the side, crying out in tears to the helmeted and shielded officers, "I'm your daughter!".

Later that day, tens of thousands of union members marched into downtown. Having shut down all the ports along the Pacific Coast from Alaska to San Diego, union members chanted and waved picket signs as their ranks filled the streets as far as the eye could see.

Each union's members marched together dressed in the union's colour jacket or T-shirt, each carrying banners and signs printed for the occasion. Many of the morning's young protesters were visibly impressed by the strength of the numbers and organisation. For Annie Decker, "The power and size of it made me feel joyful. I was proud that we were together, bringing the WTO into the public eye."

In the midst of the tear gas, it was not hard to see that this culture of protest is starting to spread, whether through union jackets on protesters in the redwood forests, or giant puppets on union picket lines in Oakland. Under the culture is the germ of an idea — the linkage.

For unionists, the global trading system has pitted workers in many countries against each other in a race to the bottom in wages and workers' rights. Environmental activists see a system which values profits over laws protecting health and the environment. Rather than creating an atomised assembly — each group pursuing its own interests in isolation — protesters came ready to see what they had in common.

Decker, an organiser and observer at an intersection filled with sitting bodies, called her own realisation liberating. "We don't have to just express an opinion on one issue", she said. "Trade and the power of corporations are affecting us in so many areas that we can all make connections, and see the common element behind the problems we share."

President Clinton may regret planning a summit of the powerful which has become overshadowed by street protest. But in the long run, he will regret this realisation more. It is an indictment, not of a particular company, or even a single country, but of a whole economic order which is uniting its enemies in opposition to it.