Diverse Coalition Shuts Down WTO
For seven days, a motley coalition of locked-out steelworkers, tree-hugging environmentalists dressed as sea turtles, black-clad anarchists, Tibetan monks, Catholic nuns, crusty punks, and wave upon wave of working-class students and youth were in the streets of Seattle to fight the World Trade Organization.
The tens of thousands had come to protest an unaccountable, unelected body known to manage trade regulations for the benefit of corporations and overturn environmental and worker protection laws that get in the way of profit.
Boeing CEO Phil Condit and Microsoft CEO Bill Gates were named honorary chairmen of the WTO. Corporations willing to pay $250,000 were given exclusive access to thousands of trade ministers from the world over. Those who couldn't afford the price contented themselves with shutting the damn thing down.
People had prepared for weeks, even months for this event, and many traveled thousands of miles to participate. As the week wound down and the WTO talks collapsed, protesters could be heard chanting: "The WTO has got to go, the people came and stole the show."
In the three days before N30 -- the affectionate term given to November 30, the opening of the WTO -- thousands of activists attended workshops organized by the Direct Action Network -- a loose coalition formed for the sole purpose of shutting down the WTO by turning Seattle into a "Festival of Resistance." DAN held workshops on non-violent direct action, how to build jail solidarity if arrested, building low-tech barricades, maintaining communications on the streets, and combating the effects of pepper spray and CS gas.
At one workshop on non-violent direct action, protesters linked arms and role-played their attempt to block a building's entrance. In another workshop, hundreds of young people were chanting, "I choose to remain silent, uh-huh, uh-huh. I want to see a lawyer, oh yeah, oh yeah." On the sly, many were also learning the finer points of slipping out of plastic handcuffs, since the city didn't have enough metal ones to realistically deal with the crowds.
For the entire week, the city was one massive teach-in, both on and off the streets.
At a Labor Party forum, Cai Chong Guo, an exiled representative of the independent trade union movement of China, said: "Repression in China is focused on the independent labor movement. A trade unionist who attempts to organize laid-off workers is sentenced to 11 years in jail. All sorts of crocodile tears are shed about this repression by Clinton, but this repression is endorsed by [his] signing an agreement for China to enter the WTO. We had hoped to count on your political leaders, but now we know our base of solidarity and support is you, the working people of the USA."
The Voices from the South forum was standing-room only as people came to hear the stories of workers from Mexico, Columbia, El Salvador, India, and South Africa. Sanjay Mangala Gopal, from the National Alliance of People's Movements in India, addressed the crowd: "In India many farmers have committed suicide because they can't afford to buy new seed and are not allowed to reuse their genetically engineered seed. This is called theft, while what the WTO does is called free trade."
"For the first time, large numbers of workers are thinking globally," said retired longshoreman Howard Key Cook. "We can't solve our problems nationally anymore -- we need international solidarity and support.
By 7:00 am, protesters were braving freezing showers. Two marches moved towards the Convention Center, the first led by locked-out Kaiser steelworkers; the second by the movement for a Free Tibet. In downtown intersections, thousands of people were sitting down, locking arms, and chaining themselves together. The Battle of Seattle was joined.
Many blocks and a world away, the Teamsters were playing host to Senator Paul Wellstone. "We are here to shout that we intend for this global economy to work for working people," Wellstone bellowed. Teamsters Vice President Chuck Mack joined in the attack on capitalism: "This trade is not free; it is free for the transnational corporations and the beneficiaries of global capitalism. We will no longer accept a secret society that affects our lives."
Later, inside the stadium rented by the AFL-CIO, thousands of labor and environmental activists heard laid-off Huffy workers, Mexican maquiladora workers, and South African, Caribbean, and Chinese workers decry the WTO's attacks on the working class and the environment.
"What is good for a Ford worker in Detroit must also be good for a worker in South Africa," exclaimed a representative of the South African Labor Network, adding, "It must also be good for a Ford worker in Hermosillo, Mexico.
The president of the Sierra Club, in one of many appearances at labor events, yelled out: "Who the hell asked them for the WTO and NAFTA? Who the hell told them to protect intellectual property rights and not human rights?"
UAW President Steve Yokich gave one of the best speeches. "Enough speech-making," he said. "We all know why we're here. Lets hit the streets! Let's go, lets go!"
Yokich was followed by a steady stream of International Presidents, but nearly half the stadium was empty by the time Jimmy Hoffa Jr. asked the crowd, "Are you ready to rumble?" By the time labor's march started, people had been occupying the streets of Seattle for over five hours.
WHOSE STREETS? OUR STREETS
The DAN had divided downtown into a pie structure, with slices emanating from the convention center. The aim: block every slice of the pie so no traffic could go in or out. No one expected to make it all the way up to the convention center, so the plan was to use the next best means to shut down the WTO - close downtown Seattle.
The 15,000 or more protesters engaging in direct action were divided into affinity groups of five to 15 persons. Each chose its own slice of pie and developed its own plan for raining mayhem on the Emerald City. When the cops charged, the crowds dispersed into their affinity groups then regrouped in the streets. There was no way to control them.
Protesters reported that the first windows across from the Sheraton Hotel were smashed by police tear gas canisters. Before long, protesters had smashed every window at Nike Town and were busy twisting off the individual metal letters atop the entryway. Over $3 million in damage was done to such corporate sweethearts as GAP, Nordstrom, Nike, Planet Hollywood, Fidelity Investment, Bank of America, and US Bancorp. Corporate America was under attack.
This attack was accompanied by heated debate between the pacifists, who felt property destruction was violence, and anarchists, who felt they were defending the world from corporate violence while causing no harm to humans.
In reality the vast majority of people who carried out the attacks on property were not wearing black, and the crowd was fairly evenly divided between those who jeered the property destruction and those who cheered it.
Among the signs carried that day: "I don't know what a WTO is, but I hate fucking rich people."
PROUD TO JOIN THEM
The labor march finally reached the zone of conflict around 2:00 pm, an hour behind schedule. The IAM provided over 1,000 marshals to help ensure a peaceful march, and organizers decided to change the route to avoid the Direct Action crew. Many of the marchers had other plans.
Jeff Engels, an organizer for the Inlandboatmen's Union of the Pacific, said: "They tried to direct us from going down with the students, but about 200 of us marched right down there with them. We were proud to join them."
"We were concerned that the union leaders moved the way the march went and we weren't able to get anywhere near the WTO," said Kathy Hackett of SEIU Local 1000. "There were lots of young people. I was very impressed. It's the first time I've seen a coalition like this. It's wonderful, but I hope we can participate more actively in the future.
While the bulk of the 35,000-strong labor march did follow the marshals and stay out of the zone of conflict, a significant portion remained behind. Thousands of workers representing every union imaginable mingled with different groups of environmentalists. Workers wielding picket sign sticks helped keep the riot police from pushing forward.
"Whose Streets? Our Streets!" everyone chanted in unison.
By 5:00 pm, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell declared a State of Emergency and imposed a 12-hour curfew. Anyone found on the streets between 7:00 pm and dawn would be arrested.
"I was expecting to get arrested hours ago," one woman said. The activists had not expected to win.
But they did. Throughout the day, the business of the WTO was put on hold. Only 500 of the 3,000 delegates were able to reach the opening ceremony, which was cancelled.
With the WTO unable to meet, and an ominous-sounding curfew in place, protesters began to disperse. As the crowds thinned, police began their attack. The police furiously sprayed, gassed, and shot at the crowd until it dispersed. They pursued the remnants back into the Capitol Hill district, still resisting until 2:00 am.
"Sure, the WTO cost me my job, but now I can buy cheap guns from China," read a sign from Peace Action, Oregon.
The news the next day was shocking. A 50-block no-protest zone was created -- a zone that miraculously grew any time large protests massed on its perimeter. By week's end the zone would reach all the way to the waterfront.
The national guard was called in. Police confiscated all of the banners and communications materials used by the DAN. "We're doing things our way now," they growled. Anyone attempting to enter downtown had to present ID, including WTO delegates. By 9:30, 240 people had been arrested for sitting in the no-protest zone. By the end of the week, over 600 arrests were made.
At 2:00, people gathered at the IBEW hall for a Steelworker's march. The Steelworkers planned to march down to the water and dump steel in a symbolic act of defiance.
After about an hour, the group started to march, with bewildered labor leaders still delivering speeches. As the march reached the edge of the no-protest zone, the police, without warning, fired volleys of rubber bullets, concussion renades, and CS gas directly at the crowd.
The police were doing things their way. The crowd was divided and pursued through the streets. Bewildered commuters, stuck in rush hour traffic, found tear gas canisters billowing from under their cars. One young girl was hit in the mouth with a tear gas canister; she sat on the edge of the sidewalk in shock.
Reports of police brutality were rampant. One pregnant woman walking through downtown miscarried after being tackled without warning. Another man was pepper-sprayed directly into cuts on his face.
Afterwards, Kaela Econosi, a visibly injured student, wore a sign around her neck: The Police Did This To Me. I was standing outside of a restaurant, waiting for a friend," she said. "We were three blocks from the protesters. I felt an arm around my neck, and then my teeth and face were smashed into the sidewalk. These plain clothed police hustled us into an alley so we couldn't be seen. We were arrested for 'Failure to Disperse,' but we were never told to disperse."
Teamsters and Longshoremen sat in the middle of intersections before approaching police. People with water bottles walked through the crowds to help wash out stinging eyes. And many Steelworkers joined in the protests and were gassed with the rest of the crowd.
Wednesday, the WTO was able to conduct business -- and Clinton's appearance went off without a hitch -- but they had to convert Seattle into a police state to accomplish it. Hundreds of police sped through the streets in black armored vehicles, attacking crowds with glee, and demanding ID on random street corners.
A favorite sign that day read: WTO Ends Democracy.
A GOOD WEEK...
Wednesday, at the small farmers' march, a farmer from Montana sparkedthe crowd when she said: "When oppressors are governments, it is called repression. When the oppressors are multi-national corporations, it is called efficiency."
The final mass march was on December 3. Organized by the local Labor Council in conjunction with other protest organizers, this was a controlled affair with marshals carrying two ropes on either side to control the crowd.
Jenny, a student from the Bay Area was not impressed: "This is so different with police actually providing an escort," said Jenny, a student from the Bay Area. "There's nothing disruptive about it. It lets the police look good."
But it wasn't only granola eaters and punks who wanted to stay and fight. Mike, a construction worker wearing his hard hat, yelled at the marshals: "If people followed the official marches in the 20s and 30s, we wouldn't be here standing as labor today."
That night, as word spread that the WTO meetings had ended in failure, energy surged through the different crowds. The WTO delegates were never able to recover from the stress and delays caused at the beginning of the week, and this aggravated their own internal divisions. Protesters in the streets erupted in cheering, dancing, drumming, and singing.
The Battle of Seattle was a magnificent show of force. No one had expected that the attempt to Shut Down
the WTO would be as strong or as militant. Had people been prepared for success, and had labor decided to take a direct action role, the WTO might have been shut down for the entire week.
Criticism aside, labor's presence in Seattle was tremendous. Union jackets could be seen everywhere. The Longshoremen closed the ports from Alaska to San Diego on November 30. Seattle taxi drivers went on strike the same day to press their own demands for changes in city laws.
"It's been a good week," said SEIU member Kim Cook. "The coalition was the best part of it all. It was a stretch for some people in the labor movement, but it was good for it."
The WTO, which was an unknown entity before, is now a household word, and labor surveys show that public opinion is solidly against it.
Many hope this portends the birth of a new mass radical movement in the United States. While that may be a little premature, Seattle has proven that it is possible.
Across the world, from India to Mexico, workers watched in awe as the U.S. was the scene of such massive and effective protests. Millions of activists the world over were invigorated by the victory in Seattle. People from all over the world who were lucky enough to be in Seattle took the story back to their communities to packed and excited crowds.
"We shut them down," they said.
Teofilo Reyes represented the Labor Notes staff in Seattle at the history-making events protesting the World Trade Organization's corporate-empowerment agenda. Although inhaling tear gas and dodging rubber bullets, Teo returned unscathed.