Issue 237 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
|Sharon Smith reports on the protests in Seattle and their resonance across the US||
'The whole world is watching!' That is a chant that hasn't been heard in the US since the late 1960s. But this is what anti-WTO protesters chanted as they were pepper gassed by police in Seattle on 30 November. When 30,000 trade unionists and environmentalists marched through downtown Seattle, carrying signs and chanting against 'corporate bloodsuckers', they gave voice to the seething anger felt by millions of people across the US and around the world.
When thousands of protesters linked arms to prevent the WTO officials from entering the building, delaying the start of the talks by several hours, they showed the world the power of organised numbers. Kofi Annan was trapped in his hotel room and missed his scheduled address. Madeleine Albright too was pushed off the speaking schedule.
When hundreds of Seattle longshoremen called a one day strike and blockaded the doors of the WTO's conference centre, they showed the potential power of the working class. When more than 9,000 dockers along the west coast went on strike in solidarity with their Seattle union brothers on 30 November, they showed the world that US workers can and will fight back. In the face of such solidarity from below, the governor of Washington not surprisingly declared a state of emergency. Paul Schell, the mayor of Seattle who often boasts that 'this administration has people who marched in the 1960s', called in the National Guard to crack down on protesters. Schell declared the downtown area of Seattle surrounding the WTO talks a 'no protest zone', and vowed that anyone in the area after a 7pm curfew would be arrested.
It was the police show of force unleashed by government officials, not the protesters, which turned the city of Seattle into a battle zone for three days, until the WTO talks ended on 3 December. Police shot rubber bullets and tossed percussion grenades and pepper gas at thousands of protesters, while armoured personnel carriers roamed the streets, teargassing and terrorising entire residential neighbourhoods until late into the night. By the end of the WTO's second day of talks, more than 600 protesters had been rounded up and thrown into jail. As eyewitness Bill Capowski of the Centre for Campus Organising reported, 'Several neighbourhoods are, at 1am Pacific Time, still being deluged by police running through their streets and throwing teargas canisters...regular non-political neighbourhoods, middle aged folks, residents, with their kids watching them out the windows, yelling at the police to go home, while their eyes and throats are burning [from the teargas].'
Hundreds of protesters--including trade unionists, students and other activists--who had been arrested during the police sweep on 1 December, were still in jail two days later. Police threw teargas canisters into buses holding protesters. Once they reached the jail, they targeted individual activists and threw them into solitary confinement. On the inside, the prisoners organised themselves as one group, refusing to be arraigned in court until those in solitary were released. Meanwhile, several thousand demonstrators rallied for their release outside the jail in a spontaneous outpouring of anger. On the last day of the WTO talks, with the protesters still jailed, the King County Labour Council called a demonstration at the courthouse--which was inside the 'no-protest zone'.
These events resonated well beyond the city of Seattle. For days city newspapers all across the US featured front page photos of the events as they unfolded, with headlines explaining, 'Demonstrators believe free trade and global capitalism come at the expense of human rights and environmental concerns.' Newspapers felt compelled to document the evidence against the WTO, so ordinary people could read in a single news article how the WTO forbade South Africa from producing lower cost Aids drugs because the drugs are the 'intellectual property of pharmaceutical corporations'; how the WTO's idea of free trade includes child and sweatshop labour; how corporations produce dangerous genetically engineered food to maximise their profits. People were able to see for themselves pictures of the mass demonstrations that united workers and students, unions and environmentalists. The television news featured footage of police in riot gear gassing and kicking peaceful demonstrators, and shots of looting and window breaking at McDonald's and Gap. City officials blamed 'hooligans'--a small number of anarchists who broke store windows--for starting the violence.
But these claims were contradicted by newspaper reports which left no doubt that the police were actually targeting, not the anarchists, but the thousands of peaceful protesters who had linked arms to stall WTO officials. The Chicago Tribune, for example, wrote that, 'when more than 35,000 people had gathered in the streets of the Emerald City and started to accomplish their goal, police in riot gear fired tear gas to control the crowd to keep the conference running on time... Initially, police allowed vandals and looters to roam the streets with impunity, because they were blocks from the convention centre.'
Clinton himself barely mentioned the violence during his address to the WTO. He said, 'I condemn [the protesters] that were violent, but I am glad the others showed up.' While Clinton's motives for this statement are undoubtedly suspect, he helped bring legitimacy to the protest. Suddenly ordinary workers and students began talking about economic issues that only a week ago had been left to droning academic 'experts'. Even New York Times columnist Andrew Kohut recognised this when he wrote, 'For lower-paid Americans, the Seattle protests may resonate.' Mary Schmich, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, was more direct. She wrote, 'People who last week had never heard about the World Trade Organisation are now wondering, rightly, who are these trade guys? And are they really running the world behind our backs? People who don't usually pay attention to business news are suddenly talking about child labour, environmental abuses and low wages in countries they couldn't find on a map.'
It is no exaggeration to say that the outcry against the WTO has shifted the ideological terrain in mainstream US society. The US ruling class--so used to running the world without fear of an outcry from below--has been caught with its pants down, in its own backyard. The lessons learned from the battle in Seattle are many and they will not soon be forgotten.
Police fired teargas to keep the conference running on time