[caption id="" align="alignright" width="309" caption="Marchers commemorate the Battle in Seattle and protest the World Trade Organizations Ministerial meeting in Geneva last week. Photo: Janae Schiller"]|
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Pedestrians braving the icy winds that cut through downtown Portland, Ore. last Saturday witnessed what would have at first appeared to be a random assortment of activist sentiment. The crowd of protesters - filling the street sidewalk-to-sidewalk for about a block and a half - carried signs expressing their dissatisfaction with everything from corn ethanol to healthcare to global warming. Timber industry union members marched alongside black-clad anarchists. Ten-year-old kids held signs that claimed 9/11 was an inside job and their grandparents followed with t-shirts reading "I paid more for this shirt than most corporations pay in taxes."
This flare-up of dissent didn't come out of nowhere. Those gathered actually did have a common purpose, and it was two-fold: to ask for radical change in trade policy from the World Trade Organization, which met in Geneva last week, and to commemorate those who did the same ten years ago at the infamous Battle of Seattle.
Actually, "ask" is too mild a verb for what happened in Seattle in 1999. The World Trade Organization is an international panel of industry and government representatives that designs trade policy with little or no regard for the environmental or labor issues that come with it. When the WTO convened in Seattle for its ministerial meeting in 1999, 50,000 protesters took to the streets to express their disapproval. They formed human chains and physically blocked the path of delegates on their way to meetings, and the attention they drew to the WTO's doings actually slowed its expansion for years to come.
[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="350" caption="Union workers, environmentalists, health-care reform advocates, anarchists and dozens of other groups united in opposition to the WTO. Photo: Janae Schiller"]
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Of course, the legacy of this event is not always related to the specific political statements that were made. Mention the "Battle of Seattle" today to anyone who wasn't involved with it and they would probably shrug it off as a mere riot. Riot or not, it was a powerful reaction to the ravages to free trade that nobody expected that November. In fact, the meetings were held in Seattle because the originally planned location in Europe was considered too risky - the natives there were restless. The U.S. probably seemed like a safe alternative at the time. Sure, certain groups were vocal about things like war and environmental issues, while others stomped their feet about job loss and labor rights, but overall there wasn't enough communication between those communities to cause any problems.
As it turned out, the WTO greatly underestimated the power of these groups to organize. As activists who were at both the Seattle event and the demonstration that took place last weekend noted, '99 was really the first time in protest history that "turtles and teamsters" - environmentalists and union members - united under a common cause. Even if many of them hadn't ended up getting tear gassed and hauled off to jail, that was a development worth paying attention to. It meant that institutions like the WTO were causing problems that go beyond the loss of American jobs or pollution or third-world hunger, that the idea behind the whole system - placing profits over people - was finally identified as flawed.
Unfortunately, this is not how the Battle in Seattle is usually remembered. Activists describe a unified front of citizens fighting for justice while being pushed at on all sides by cops in riot gear. Those who didn't participate saw the news coverage and believed those activists were a bunch of domestic terrorists standing in the way of free trade and progress. This rhetoric hasn't changed - last week, when 5000 protesters in Geneva gathered to oppose the WTO meetings there, the media focus was on the car burning and looting caused by a small number of those demonstrating. Meanwhile, peaceful protests took place all over the world and were largely ignored by the press. Portland's event (dutifully covered by the Willamette Week), was well organized, with a website and the endorsement of 80 separate interest groups.
Despite the popular support, those who were expecting something like Seattle '99 in Portland '09 would have been understandably disappointed. The rally, organized in partnership with the local police department and billed as "family-friendly", drew a crowd of 700 that together generated just enough venom to allow passers-by to dismiss the whole spectacle as a gathering of wing-nuts. It lacked a goal beyond commemorating Seattle and expressing a wide range of disagreement with war, environmental destruction, job loss, bank bailouts and just about any other problem that can be tied back to the WTO and free trade. Although it was a good outlet for the collective frustration of people from across the region, many were left wanting more.
[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="490" caption="Sentiments and solutions to world trade inequity ranged from anarchy to simple WTO reform. Photo: Janae Schiller"]
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It would be easy to blame the gradual decline in protest activity (and its mainstream acceptance) since its heyday in the 1960s on the flaccidity of the current generation, the success of new crowd-control tactics or even a change in the political reality. The truth is, as usual, more complicated. Young people are finding a more effective voice in the online realm than in direct action on the streets. Thanks to cell phone cameras and other technology, cops have a much harder time getting away with the unnecessary use of force. And despite the change in political leadership, the WTO has permeated the trade negotiation process to a level that it couldn't when it was only four years old back in 1999.
When it comes down to it, the Battle of Seattle took place at the right place and right time both to generate widespread participation and make an actual impact on trade negotiations. Those conditions are not likely to occur again, and they definitely didn't in Geneva or Portland last week. That doesn't mean activists are becoming irrelevant or that the WTO has to become a permanent part of the political power structure. It just means that marching and sign-waving may not be enough this time.
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="244" caption="This woman, like many at last Saturday's protest, was also present at the infamous Battle in Seattle in 1999."]
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To their credit, the speakers at the Portland rally effectively directed participants' attention to an important new piece of legislation that could use a bit more popular support. This bill, known as the TRADE Act, could allow for the renegotiation of harmful WTO trade deals like the GATT and NAFTA. TRADE stands for Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment, and it takes measures to protect workers and the environment from the devastating effects of free trade. The bill was proposed last year and currently has the support of 131 Congress members.
Over the past decade, the WTO has liberalized trade to the detriment of developing nations and the benefit of global conglomerates with control over media, agriculture, consumer goods and just about everything else. But, at the same time, there have been positive new developments in the ways we think about trade. "Fair Trade" has become a household term, and, thanks to the economic crash, people aren't as trustful of schemes to liberalize markets as they once were. There's a palatable sense of outrage over the way the overall economy is structured. Let's hope that the next ten years provide more opportunities to harness that outrage to bring compassion and responsibility to global trade.