Cheryl was in Seattle from November 26-December 2, 1999 for the World Trade Organization meetings. This is her report on that event.
Hi all. I'm back from Seattle and wanted to fill you in on what's happening there. I know the Seattle protests have been in the news every day this week, and thought I'd add a little personal perspective.
Who would have ever thought that the issue that would pull this number of people together would be trade? It was amazing to see university students, steelworkers, grandmothers, environmentalists, trade activists, health care workers, teachers, and people representing a number of other causes all together. Nearly 20,000 people marched on Tuesday in the union march, and another 15,000 were downtown blocking delegates from attending the opening reception of the World Trade Organization. The issue that unites these marchers and protesters is a dissatisfaction with the way the WTO operates. Students, workers, and environmentalists don't feel their voices have been heard in the process of establishing trade policy, and these protests, by, I might add, peaceful non-violent means, are an effort to be heard.
The WTO is an organization with delegates from 135 member countries. Historically, their meetings to determine trade policy have not been open and no appeal process has been set in place for the policies they set. Many people feel that corporations have far too much say in trade policy to the detriment of the majority of the people in the world. Key among criticisms of the WTO are concerns about free trade, labor conditions, and the environment.
Monday, I participated in a very peaceful, relatively small Sierra Club march downtown. I saw no police officers throughout this several block march. You may have heard about the sea turtles. The Sierra Club and the Humane Society decided to use the sea turtle as a symbol of not sacrificing animal protection laws for free trade. About 100 people donned sea turtle costumes - large cardboard fronts and backs and matching headgear - for the march. Certainly the sea turtle became the champion of animal activists and environmentalists at these meetings. Monday night there was a "People's Gala" at Key Arena with musicians Laura Love and Spearhead. A number of people came to talk to people who planned to march the next day - Tom Hayden, Jim Hightower of Austin radio fame, Anita Roddick (?) from the Body Shop International, etc. The mayor of Seattle also came to see that Seattle is a city for free trade and for the environment and asked that marchers respect the city. His basic message was please don't trash our city.
Tuesday, marches started at 7 a.m. to keep delegates out of the WTO sites. Although I saw no police on Monday, they were present on Tuesday a.m. A number of people (including myself and FTF Board Chair Deborah James) barred intersections downtown and blocked entrance into key meeting sites. Delegates were wandering around downtown trying to figure out how to access the convention center. The press was out in force. Seattle TV started 24-hour live coverage without breaks for commercials. The early morning was very carnival-like - music, speakers, dancing, holding hands around intersections. Perhaps a total of 10-12 downtown intersections were blocked by circles of people sitting locked together in the middle and a number of people around the perimeter. Dumpsters and newspaper boxes were pulled into the streets to block traffic. At 9:30 a.m. when the police starting firing tear gas and rubber pellets, I was gassed standing on a sidewalk at a street corner. It surprised me that they didn't begin where most police forces begin in a situation like this, with arrests. Rather they began fairly aggressively tear gassing, pepper spraying, and spraying rubber bullets. Tear gas, of course, affects everyone in the area - people standing on street corners, delegates trying to find their way to meetings, the press, children and babies. As this continued throughout the morning, when many street corners were still held by protesters, anger began to turn toward the police for their aggressive action toward non-violent protest. As you know from the news, by afternoon things had escalated out of control. Dumpster contents were burned, standoffs with the police began, and major destruction of the downtown area through broken windows and graffiti began. This standoff went well into the night even with the curfew the police imposed. Most of the protesters dispersed around 5:30, feeling they had successfully delayed the start of the WTO meetings, which was their goal.
In my opinion, the police were largely responsible for the escalation of protester activity. Sitting peacefully in a street and being fired on is sure to make anyone angry. I know I was enraged. There was a photo on the front page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on Wednesday morning showing SWAT team members in full uniform - face shield, gas mask, vest, etc. - aiming a tear gas gun at protesters sitting on the ground covering their heads. Those protesters don't look like much of a threat to me! The escalation of police activity certainly coincided with the arrival of President Clinton.
By Tuesday night, downtown Seattle had become a police state with National Guard reinforcements on the way. Armored vehicles were brought into the city and access was extremely limited and a curfew was put into place.
On Wednesday morning, many store windows - Nordstrom's, NikeTown, The Gap - were completely boarded up. Some because they were broken; some because they didn't want them to get broken. There was a lot of unintelligible, non-political graffiti on the buildings. I hope that in the press they were clear that this damage and looting was primarily the work of a small number of people. They broke windows, flattened police car tires, and put graffiti on police cars. Some protesters started clean-up downtown and others who disagreed with this strategy ran by to steal their cleaning supplies. The police were out in force on Wednesday morning. They were definitely profiling. I was allowed downtown because I looked a certain way; the guy walking down the street next to me was not allowed across the line because he looked like a protester. Ridiculous. Police were blocking many intersections, as protestors had the day before, and allowed access to no one through those intersections. Police decided to take an even more aggressive stance on Wednesday and started arresting first thing in the morning. During the looting/damage the day before, they stood by and arrested only 12 people. On Wednesday they arrested 400, many of whom were assembled outside the no protest zone. They refused to get off the bus on which they were placed until they could talk with lawyers. They were still there on Thursday. By Wednesday afternoon, the police started spraying tear gas over wide areas and pepper sprayed people in the face including area business workers who were trying to get home from work. Since the protesting didn't stop on Wednesday night, I'm certain it will go through the rest of the meetings.
Also on Wednesday, the steelworkers had a waterfront protest where they dumped tethered styrofoam "beams" in Elliot Bay to represent foreign-made subsidized steel being dumped on the US market. (They were monitored from the water by the Coast Guard and a boat SWAT team.)
So, what should we make of all this? I think the real issue here is that the WTO isn't working and needs to be scrapped or fixed. The vast majority of protesters and marchers weren't fringe folks, they were mainstream people trying to find a way to send the message that reform needed to happen. Fortunately, President Clinton brought this message inside when he addressed the WTO. He stated "For those who came here to peacefully make their point, I welcome them here because I want to them to be integrated into the longer-term debate." Of course, this received a frosty reception by delegates who preferred to think there were only "a few 100" protesters who disagreed with them.
From my position as Executive Director of the Fair Trade Federation, what I'd like people to understand is that they do have a say in global economic trade. Every one of us needs to be a watchdog of our own consumption patterns. Our individual consumer power is one of the ways we vote in the international trade market.
Overall, this was a fantastic learning experience. I had the chance to attend a number of top rate presentations on world trade issues and learned more about the effects of free trade, viewpoints of a number of groups opposed to the WTO, and about issues I hadn't given much thought to in the past like a global minimum and maximum wage. I'm encouraged that people are sitting up and paying attention. I also had a chance to meet with my counterpart directors of fair trade organizations from Europe and Japan.
So now it's time to share the information. I did an interview/photo with our local paper this morning, and will be the opening news story (2 minutes - live) on tonight's local news (KTVO). Let me know if you have specific questions. I'd be happy to fill you in! Cheryl
Fair Trade Federation