Rage against the machine
Despite, and because of, violence, anti-WTO protesters were heard
By Richare Lacayo
December 6, 1999
Web posted at: 1:30 p.m. EST (1830 GMT)
At the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organization, the
bureaucrats may not have accomplished all that much last week.
The chaos that surrounded them did. In this moment of triumphant
capitalism, of planetary cash flows and a priapic Dow, all the
second thoughts and outright furies about the global economy
collected on the streets of downtown Seattle and crashed through
the windows of NikeTown. After two days of uproar scented with
tear gas and pepper spray, Americans may never again think the
same way about free trade and what it costs.
At the very least, the dull but profound business of trade
rules--which are usually hammered out by technocrats in closed
meetings with corporate lobbyists hovering outside--will figure
differently in the thinking of the millions of Americans whom
the decisions affect. That might even happen soon enough to
influence the next U.S. election, which helps account for some
of the ways that Bill Clinton, who arrived in Seattle smack in
the middle of the chaos, positioned himself when he got there.
But neither Clinton nor U.S. Trade Representative Charlene
Barshefsky was able to avert what must be viewed as a disaster:
the WTO representatives' failure to reach agreement on launching
the "Millennial Round" of trade talks. The delegates went home
Not so WTO opponents, who left claiming victory, believing that
what they hate about globalization will now come into focus as
clearly as the familiar arguments in favor of it--that freer
trade creates jobs for everybody and lower prices for consumers.
Indeed, free trade has been an important reason for the '90s
boom. Even as Seattle assessed the damage on Friday, the Dow was
soaring nearly 250 points on news that the unemployment rate was
stuck at its 30-year low. But the protesters were in Seattle to
insist that globalization has become another word for
capitulation to the worst excesses of capitalism, a cover for
eliminating hard-won protections for the environment and
workers' rights. "Before Seattle, we were dead in the water on
trade," says George Becker, president of the United Steelworkers
of America. "The big companies had their way completely. Now
we've raised the profile of this issue, and we're not going
back." Says Larry Dohrs, an activist with the Seattle chapter of
the Free Burma Coalition: "Strong majorities of American voters
support basic labor rights and environmental provisions in trade
agreements. It's that simple."
Trade issues are anything but simple. Demonstrators who want
justice for poor nations were reminded last week that Third
World delegates to the WTO don't want developed nations to force
them to allow union organizing. Cheap labor is their competitive
advantage. Environmentalists who want the WTO to keep its hands
off U.S. laws that protect endangered species would happily
force Venezuela--against its sovereign will--to clean up its
Because it deals with so many separate issues, from farm
subsidies to intellectual-property rights, the WTO attracts a
very mixed bag of opponents, which is one reason that opposition
to it has been hard to focus. Some of the WTO opponents want to
reform the organization. Some want to abolish it. Virtually all
of them resent the secrecy in which the WTO makes decisions that
its 135 member nations are supposed to abide by.
Dohrs' Burma group mobilized against the WTO in part to advance
the right of states and localities to boycott companies that do
business in Burma, now called Myanmar, which is one of Asia's
most saw-toothed dictatorships. But the U.S. State Department
sees such boycotts as a violation of federal sovereignty and
free trade. Then there are the environmentalists. To protect sea
turtles, an endangered species, they want an import ban on
shrimp caught in nets that don't have escape hatches to let the
turtles swim away. Congress has adopted such a ban, but the WTO
forbids it; member nations can't block imports on the basis of
the way they are produced. The organization may also eventually
forbid American "antidumping" laws that bar the import of
low-cost foreign steel. Those laws are important to American
unions. The WTO used the same logic in siding with the U.S.
against European nations that wanted to prohibit the import of
American beef fed with hormones that Europeans believe may be
In the aftermath of the Battle of Seattle, no single objection
to the WTO may stand out any better than it has before. But from
now on, every objection will be illuminated by the fires of last
week. The WTO trade ministers and other delegates had come to
Seattle to draw up an agenda for a new round of global trade
talks, which are scheduled to last about three years and take up
issues like European farm subsidies--of huge importance to U.S.
and Canadian agricultural exporters--and whether to tax sales on
The backlash in the streets started Tuesday morning, several
hours before more than 25,000 largely peaceful marchers headed
from a union-backed rally at Memorial Stadium, near the Space
Needle, toward the shops and hotels of downtown. Many thousands
of other protesters were already converging there, some engaged
in peaceful sit-ins that blocked traffic. Things got serious
when scattered groups of self-described Black Block anarchists,
wearing all-black outfits with handkerchiefs or hoods covering
their faces, started to smash windows and trash businesses,
giving special attention to companies such as the Gap and Nike
that have been accused of using low-wage or child labor to
produce some of their merchandise. Peaceful protesters,
horror-struck, shouted, "Shame! Shame!" at the rioters. Once
word got out that the streets were haywire, however, a wave of
garden-variety thugs headed downtown to smash the windows at
Radio Shack and walk off with CD players. Anarchist websites
subsequently complained that their boys in black were blamed for
the apolitical looting by the later group that ruined their
well-planned attack. But the thing about anarchy is, it has a
way of getting out of control.
Most of the WTO visiting dignitaries--including U.N.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Secretary of State Madeleine
Albright and Barshefsky--spent part of Tuesday trapped in their
hotels. With the morning's opening ceremonies canceled,
frustrated delegates spent the hours muttering into their cell
phones. By late afternoon, as police moved through downtown in
armored personnel carriers, a stunned Mayor Paul Schell asked
Washington Governor Gary Locke to send in the National Guard.
Schell also slapped a dusk-to-dawn curfew on the city's downtown
and imposed a 50-square-block no-protest order on downtown,
which left demonstrators furious.
On Wednesday, police arrested about 500 demonstrators, dragging
many of them feet-first into buses and speeding them off to
detention centers, where some of them idly communicated among
themselves by flashing in Morse code with their laser pens.
Schell and his police chief, Norm Stamper, seemed taken by
surprise by the calamity caused by the demonstration. If so,
they were the only ones. Protest leaders had long promised as
much, and websites have been bubbling for months about the
gathering. Hundreds of would-be demonstrators attended camps in
civil disobedience this summer in preparation. In a building not
far from downtown, organizers literally mapped out about a dozen
areas where they planned to choke off central Seattle so that
delegates could not reach their meetings.
The police lost control first of downtown and then, in some
cases, of themselves. Many of the demonstrators complained that
the cops were using rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray
against nonviolent protesters while a few blocks away vandals
freely roamed the city throwing litter baskets through store
windows. These complaints were seconded by angry residents of
the city's Capitol Hill district, where police pursued
protesters with tear gas and concussion grenades despite the
fact that the area was outside the no-protest zone.
Early Wednesday morning Bill Clinton arrived. After being driven
through the streets of broken glass and police lines, he
ascended to a suite on an upper floor at the Westin Hotel and
flipped on local news, where he saw for the first time the
scenes of chaos that had raged all around his hotel earlier that
Clinton moved quickly to adapt to the new conditions, keenly
mindful of the fact that labor unions and environmental groups
are crucial parts of the coalition that Al Gore hopes will take
him to the White House. At two appearances the following day,
Clinton departed from his prepared text to emphasize that it
would be necessary from now on to explain to people more clearly
the ways that trade benefited them and to open up the WTO so
that its rulings were more legitimate in the eyes of the people
they affected. "If the WTO expects to have public support grow
for our endeavors, the public must see and hear and, in a very
real sense, actually join in the deliberations," said Clinton.
Before the president left, an interview with him appeared in the
Seattle Post-Intelligencer that unnerved some WTO delegates
almost as much as the rioting had. Low-wage, developing nations
at the meeting, led by India, Egypt and Brazil, were incensed
that Clinton told the paper he wanted a working group on labor
to be established within the WTO to develop "core" standards for
wages, working conditions and other labor issues, and that such
standards should be part of every trade agreement. Ultimately,
he said, they should be enforced through trade sanctions, the
WTO's ultimate weapon.
The word sanctions sent delegates from developing nations up the
wall. Thailand's Minister of Commerce, Supachai Panitchpakdi,
who takes over as WTO chief in 2002, warned that if Clinton
insisted on the issue, developing countries could "walk away
from any agreement on a new round" of talks. To them, Clinton's
words were nothing but protectionism wrapped in progressivism.
But that position happens to be the one taken by the AFL-CIO.
Unhappy about the White House trade deal to admit China to the
WTO--an agreement that labor is now better armed to fight in
Congress--the unions had pressed Clinton to push their case on
labor rules in Seattle.
By late Friday night, negotiations to get agreement on an agenda
for a new round of global-trade negotiations collapsed.
Exhausted WTO delegates said they would try again next year in
Geneva to bridge huge differences.
Public attention will eventually shift from the mayhem of last
week, but a new political sensitivity may endure--one that gives
unionists, environmentalists and others a platform for concerns
heretofore ignored by the WTO bureaucrats and elected
representatives alike. "In America trade policy has been
conducted by elites inside the Washington Beltway," explains
Craig Johnstone, senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of
Commerce. "Now the issue is very visibly moving out into the
streets. Those who want to promote trade are going to have to
make their case much more vigorously to all the American people."
It is a pretty compelling case. And if they can make it with
anywhere near the vigor that was demonstrated by the antis last
week in Seattle, free trade may yet win the day.
by Adam Zagorin and Steven Frank/Seattle, Margot Hornblower/Los
Angeles and Jay Branegan/Washington
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Cover Date: December 13, 1999