Capitalism and its enemies face each other in city of corporate cool
Saturday 13 November 1999
The agit-prop radicals are busy training the masses in civil disobedience techniques such as scaling office buildings and organising street blockades. From across the United States, thousands of trade unionists, anarchists, Wobblies, Zapatistas, libertarians and animal rights activists are preparing to converge on the home of grunge, Microsoft and grande caffe latte for what they sincerely hope will be a crucial showdown to see out the old millennium and herald in the new: a collective kick in the pants for the world's multinational corporations and the free-trade agenda they have successfully impressed upon the governments of the industrialised world.
In just over two weeks, the 135 member nations of the World Trade Organisation will meet in Seattle to kick off a brand new round of negotiations to break down barriers to the free movement of capital and goods around the world. Already it is being billed the biggest trade meeting ever staged, with government leaders from Bill Clinton to Fidel Castro expected to head the list of 3,000 delegates. But the four-day event risks being overshadowed by a series of counter-demonstrations, culminating in a rally through the streets of Seattle on 30 November that organisers and police believe will attract about 50,000 people.
The charge being levelled at the WTO, with ever greater passion, is that it is a secretive, unaccountable body representing the interests of big companies, which aims to ride roughshod over the concerns of ordinary people simply to maximise corporate profits.
"This is an absolutely inevitable confrontation between civil society and global capital. It's about what kind of planet our grandchildren are going to be left," said Han Shan of the Ruckus Society, an agit-prop group from Berkeley, California, which has been organising in Seattle for the past three months. "This is not just a left-wing or fringe thing. It is the citizenry of the Earth taking to the streets to speak truth to power."
With memories still fresh of the spasm of violence that broke out in cities around the world, including London, during last June's Group of Eight meeting in Cologne, organisers of the WTO meeting are taking no chances.
The Seattle police have been boning up on riot drills, and hundreds of federal "emergency-response personnel" are barrelling into town, warning of the risk of biological or chemical terrorism - anything from salmonella in the delegates' banquets to anthrax spores let loose on the streets.
Downtown Seattle is being turned upside down as businesses are advised to send their employees on vacation, cancel all meetings and deliveries, and clear all vehicles out of parking garages.
A police circular recommends stocking up on plywood in case of window breakages and suggests shopkeepers avoid displaying their most precious items up front. Two months ago the Ruckus Society organised a week-long civil disobedience training camp in the Cascade mountains.
Although it insists it will adhere to a strict doctrine of non-violence, it has done little to dispel rumours of some big attention-grabbing coup in the offing. "It's going to be illegal. It's going to be high-profile. I'm nervous, but I'm also excited," Mr Shan said.
Far from abhorring the coming upheaval, Seattle is to some degree relishing it. Both the city and the county council have issued resolutions condemning the WTO's proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment - a key tool in overcoming government restrictions on foreign capital - and quite a few elected officials have announced they too intend to take to the streets to voice their opposition to the WTO. "If it is not reformed or put to an end, the WTO is the sort of thing that can start revolutions, because it has the power to destabilise the world," said King County Councillor Brian Derdowski.
"This meeting will be remembered more for what happens in the street than indoors, and, with luck, it will mark the beginning of the end of Clinton's one-world corporate-appeasement policies."
This is no left-wing radical talking: Mr Derdowski is a Republican who believes passionately that downsizing, outsourcing and the other attributes of modern capitalism, are eroding the core values of human existence.
In many ways, he represents the mixed feelings with which Seattle is hosting the WTO event. On the one hand it is a city built on international trade, with companies such as Boeing, Microsoft and Starbucks owing much of their prosperity to easy global trading. On the other, it is a city with staunch liberal values and a strong tradition of union and environmental activism.
Globalism is in Seattle's life-blood; naked capitalism at any price most definitely is not. And so the protests will be led by Boeing machine-tool operators riding Harley-Davidsons. There will be marches with giant puppets, music and dancing.
Speakers such as Noam Chomsky, the linguist and trenchant government critic, will address fringe meetings. Michael Moore, the prankster and social activist, will do his best to meet his namesake, the former New Zealand prime minister who is organising the WTO event - a meeting that one protest leader likened to the meeting of parallel universes, "the clash of matter and anti-matter". Nobody doubts the protesters are supremely well organised. Mike Dolan, field co-ordinator affiliated with Ralph Nader's Public Citizen consumer affairs watchdog, was on a plane to Seattle within 24 hours of the venue being announced last January and he has barely let up since.
When he hasn't been mobilising local opposition, he has been hounding the US Commerce Secretary, Bill Daley, on his free-trade promotional tours and parodying his snappy slogans ("trade globally, prosper locally" turning into "pillage globally, lay off locally"). "If trade becomes the supreme value, then all political activism dies," Mr Dolan said. "If the WTO had been around in the 1980s, Nelson Mandela would still be in prison."
Quite a few activists expect to end up in prison during the WTO meeting; what remains to be seen is whether public opinion will carry them back to freedom on a wave of triumph, as they hope, or merely abandon them apathetically to their fate.
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