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(en) Seattle - another comentary by participant

From OdM <red-red2@span.ch>
Date Fri, 31 Dec 1999 11:09:08 -0500

      A - I N F O S  N E W S  S E R V I C E

Impressions from the battle of Seattle
-Two years of mobilisations have brought the WTO into the spotlight as one
of the key institutions of « globalisation », that is to say of the new
phase of restructuring, internationalisation, and monopolisation of capital.
- But after having broken all kinds of resistances, capital’s new game
seems to be recomposing a very wide front of resistance - a new
- It should be no surprise that, as usual, the young radicals are the first
to feel this, and the most determined in the streets. It was their
demonstration which created the political event in Seattle, by physically
stopping the opening of the summit on November 30.

The standard right wing journalist’s criticism of Seattle was that this was
a sort of incoherent collection of different and often contradictory
causes. This is actually remarkably false. People came mobilised by very
different struggles, but they were converging, because there was a very
wide understanding that social and environmental problems, in the North as
in the South, had the same basic origins in the priority sytematically
given to « profits over people » by the WTO agreements and principles. And
in fact that, beyond WTO, their enemy was often actually the same
transnational corporation - or the same economic system.

An example of this is the new alliance between U.S. steelworkers and
environmentalists. 3000 steelworkers, on strike for more than a year
against the Maxxam Corporation, came to ally themselves with
environmentalists fighting the destructive forestry practices of the same
holding. (Since the Reagan deregulation, north-american forests are
destroyed as savagely as tropical ones.) Union workers, who had always been
told that ecologists were dangerous for their jobs, and environmentalists,
who thought that workers were insensible to environmental issues, formed
the « Alliance for the environment and sustainable jobs ». Bringing
together workers issues and world-wide environmental problems is
popularising a more radical perspective on the economic system.

For many, this rebirth of internationalism, this perception of a common
enemy, North and South and across different struggles, dates back to the
Zapatista uprising: an indigenous, southern movement which chose to revolt
on the opening day of a « free » trade agreement, not asking for support
from the North, but proposing that we fight neo-liberalism together.
One of the products of the Second Zapatista Encuentro in Spain, in August
1997, was the formation of an international network called People’s Global
Action against WTO and « free » trade (PGA). With the authority of massive
popular movements from the South (such as the KRRS to which Marina Fortis
was referring earlier), it clearly designated WTO not as just «
undemocratic » or in need of reform, but as the key capitalist institution
organising a new imperialism; world-wide blackmail and competition between
labor forces and « industrial platforms » (as States are now called); the
race to the bottom of social and environmental standards.

PGA is not an organisation. It just proposes an analysis, and calls to
coordinated actions all over the world during each WTO summit or other
events. In May of 1998, during the second WTO ministerial summit in Geneva,
several hundred thousand persons demonstrated in 29 countries.10 000 people
in Geneva managed to perturb and question the legitimacy of WTO. Another
call to action was issued for June 18, 1999, during the meeting of the G7,
to which people of 41 countries responded. The City of London’s financial
district was paralysed by the biggest, most determined demonstration since
the Poll Tax riots under Thatcher. At the same time, 450 southern farmers,
mostly from India, toured Europe for a month in the Inter-Continental
Caravan, demonstrating against centers of power and meeting with popular
forces of all kinds. With the french farmers of the Confederation Paysanne,
they started a new campaign of direct action, destroying GMO fields and
laboratories. For the Seattle summit, a call was issued together with the
left-wing american union International Workers of the World (IWW) and the
Direct Action Network (DAN), to which people in 74 cities around the world

So far, one of the particular successes of PGA has been in mobilising the
young radicals in northern countries, who have seen in PGA the chance to
attack not just a problem in a particular sector (squats or the repression
of illegal immigration, for example), but THE problem: the overall
capitalist logic which structures all our lives. To do this, they have made
determined efforts to link with others, progressive NGOs, unions, small

Despite many organisational problems, the idea of PGA has been fertile.
There has been a real « circulation of struggles », southern struggles
inspiring struggles in Europe, which have in turn inspired struggles in
North America.

Radical groups in various United States and canadian cities had already
participated in the earlier PGA mobilisations. For Seattle, the Direct
Action Network, a network of committees in eight west coast cities from
Vancouver, Canada to Los Angeles, was formed. Citing the PGA « hallmarks »,
inspired by the blocking of the City of London by Reclaim The Streets on
June 18th, they organised - in an incredibly efficient and determined
manner - to non-violently block all the entrances to the WTO summit on
November 30. A 20 page manual detailed how to organise, how to respond to
media, to police (before and after arrestation), necessary equipment,
radios... and above all the formation of « affinity groups » - groups of 15
to 20 persons equiped and trained to block the 13 roads leading to the
summit. Several thousand of demonstrators in these groups actually had
training sessions in the week before the demonstration. An independent
media center and teams of lawyers and first aid medics were ready.
Thus Seattle was not a spontaneous explosion, but the result of months of
preparation. People came mostly from nearby, but others from thousands of
kilometers away. People of all kinds realised (many students in particular)
that this was their chance « to make a statement », to say what they really
thought of this regime. They practically all came prepared, with signs,
banners, costumes, theatre and the determination to be heard.
This was why it was possible (myself, I could not believe it!) that
thousands of people were there at 7 in the morning (on a weekday!), in the
dark and rain. They descended in two columns (one led by the PGA North
American Caravan, the other by progressive steelworkers who had joined the
radicals), surrounding the summit convention center. At each crossroads,
the designated groups established barriers (usually by handcuffing their
hands together inside steel pipes). The police had obviously underestimated
the problem and seemed at first to have orders to break the siege with a
minimum of violence. As this proved impossible, the cops moved from
intimidations and shoving to pepper gas and rubber bullets. But the people
were incredibly stubborn, holding the lines, often sitting in the gas (many
had gas-masks). Those who were too intoxicated went to be treated and their
places were taken by others. When the police attacked people would
sometimes leave, but walking -not running - and came back right after:
Delegates whose transport was blocked tried to enter on foot, but were
turned back by demonstrators chanting « Go home! Go home! ».The police
finally managed to clear a passage, with tear gas and explosive grenades,
but it was too late. The opening ceremony had been cancelled for want of
delegates! At mid-day, the big (30 000 persons), legal demonstration of the
unions and NGOs approached the scene of the action. (after some hesitations
and discussions!). A good part of these demonstrators abandoned the
official route and joined the siege of the summit, which continued until a
final charge of the police around nightfall.

Generally speaking, the tone in Seattle was surprisingly radical. People
weren’t just demonstrating against WTO, but against the « bosses » and the
system in general. The people of Seattle were often openly sympathetic,
workers on construction sites and in offices stopped work to cheer as
demonstrations passed. Young radicals and unionised workers seemed to mix
more easily than in Europe.

What a beautiful start for the new century: 30 years of « Reaganomics »,
disinformation and manipulation washed off overnight by the birth of a new
popular movement that dares to say « We will make revolution irresistible!
». The old mole breaking the surface again! Fundamentally, people know the
problem, know the enemy. The DAN’s agenda after Seattle includes the PGA
North American conference, Mayday 2000 and another trans-continental

Concerning WTO, the opposition, encouraged by its success, seemed to be
often going beyond reforms such as « social and environmental clauses ».
After Seattle, the canadian trades unions, for example, were criticising
the principles of WTO itself. This is important, because the dominant
powers will probably now try to force through such a « reform ». If
northern oppositions accept this agenda, they will be divided from southern
states and popular movements, for whom such clauses will only give new
powers to the ruling elites in the North to exercise selective
protectionism against the South.

After all, who can really believe that the same people and institutions
(WTO, FMI, World Bank) which organise the competition between poor
countries, the deterioration of the prices of their exports, the Debt, etc.
- all the mechanisms of the aggravation of exploitation - are sincerely
interested in fostering workers rights in the world? And for the
environment, who fixes the agenda? The USA may want to protect turtles
against southern fishing techniques, but when will they be made to pay for
their overwhelming responsibility concerning global warming?

We must not think of « reforming » (and thus legitimising and
strengthening) WTO, but of how to weaken it: taking sectors such as
agriculture, culture, public services and intellectual property - which are
obviously not reductible to simple merchandises - out of its authority;
leaving States the right to reserves and exceptions and clearly
subordinating WTO to multilateral agreements on the environment and social
and human rights.

OdM, 16/12/99

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