On November 30, 1999, when the World Trade Organization (WTO) opened its third round of ministerial meetings, the three thousand official delegates, two thousand journalists, and other registered observers were greatly outnumbered by the tens of thousands of protesters who came from all over the world to denounce the organization. Estimates of protester numbers ranged to forty thousand, according to the Seattle Times, which told its readers that the demonstrations were larger than those of 1970, when twenty to thirty thousand people (ten thousand according to the Seattle Times) shut down Interstate 5 to protest the Vietnam War. The parallel is appropriate. The still-growing movement in opposition to efforts of institutions such as the WTO to take over the management of the international economy may well be larger than any popular pro test movement of the last twenty years or more.
President Clinton, mindful that his vice president's chances of succeeding him rested in the hands of the Democratic Party's core constituencies, and that these constituencies were in the streets of Seattle, played a two-faced game. And so did the city's mayor, mindful that so much of his city supported the demonstrators and their concerns, despite daily newspaper and TV reports drumming away at how important "free" trade was to their prosperity. The president, having first tried to present the issue as a choice between free trade on capital's preferred terms or no trade at all (the alleged choice of the "Luddites"), instinctively moved to his (by now) threadbare "feel your pain" rhetoric. Environmental and labor rights issues were, rhetorically, to be piously supported, while in fact corporate freedom to pollute and exploit were to be given still greater scope.
The mayor of Seattle, under a similar guise of "concern," failed to explain why thousands of nonviolent protestors blocking intersections were shot at close range with injury-producing rubber bullets, pepper-sprayed, and teargassed. Nor could they explain why the actions of small numbers of "anarchists" were used to criminalize peaceful protests, and to justify arbitrary arrests of those who refused to yield their right to protest peacefully or who were simply, according to the police, in the "wrong place." The mayor proudly claimed to have supported free speech while effectively preventing it, just as the president claimed to stand for labor rights and the environment while supporting corporate greed's full agenda, as he has done consistently through his shameful career.
This attempt to manipulate, or "spin," the protest was a resounding failure. There can now be no misunderstanding of the strength, or the level of commitment and comprehension, of this emerging radical movement against corporate globalism. In anticipation of the Seattle meeting, some eight hundred grassroots organizations from over seventy-five countries called for resistance to the growing power of corporate greed. The WTO was an appropriate focus, because of its contribution to the concentration of wealth, increasing poverty, and an unsustainable pattern of production and consumption. The organizations charged that the WTO's rules and procedures are undemocratic, and serve to marginalize further the majority of the world's people, enmeshed in the instability and social degradation of the process of globalization without social control. In the wake of Seattle, this movement is stronger and more committed, and likely to be even larger and more effective, as well.
Since most citizens do not know what the WTO is, let alone how its actions affect their lives, groups--ranging from the United Church of Christ Network for Environmental and Economic Responsibility to Pax Romana in Thailand, from Green Action in Tel Aviv to Green Library in Latvia, from human rights groups in the Cameroons to the Indigenous People's Biodiversity Network in Peru, from Pax Christi in Florence to the United Students Against Sweatshops--have been involved in a coordinated effort to present a view of the WTO from below. …