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Showdown in Seattle

The World Trade Organization could spark the Super Bowl of protests

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Published 11/24/1999

When President Clinton and bigwigs from more than 100 nations hit Seattle in late November to discuss the global economy at the World Trade Organization's annual summit, they'll be greeted by more than spiffy fruit baskets in their hotel suites.

Awaiting the WTO delegates will be a sea of protesters, ranging from labor unionists to Marxist environmentalists to anarchists. Tens of thousands of activists from this country and abroad are expected to descend on the city to condemn the WTO's role in promoting economic globalization — and to decry what they see as the trampling of worker rights and the environment.

And these activists aren't just going to march downtown and wave a few banners. Seattle's WTO summit is shaping up to be the Super Bowl of progressive rabble-rousing: Activists want to block highways, take over tunnels and chain themselves to doorways. The AFL-CIO has rented the Kingdome — seating capacity 65,000-plus — for a rally. Other activists plan to infiltrate WTO meetings, parade puppets through the streets, sing songs, and maybe even throw a few whipped-cream pies.

The short-term goal: a clever brand of chaos. The long-term goal: to change attitudes about globalization and fair trade.

"It's a historic confrontation between civil society and corporate rule," says Michael Dolan, an organizer with Public Citizen, Ralph Nader's Washington, D.C.-based consumer group. Adds Jeremy Madsen of the Seattle-based People for Fair Trade: "There's never been anything like this, ever."

What makes the WTO such a target? Essentially, its role in promoting globalized trade. The 4-year-old organization, which has 134 member countries, acts as a forum for conducting international trade negotiations, administering trade agreements, reviewing national trade policies and settling disputes. Because the governments of member nations (and, of course, multinational corporations) want to make international commerce more efficient, the organization has streamlined — and in some cases eliminated— many trade barriers and regulations to allow for a freer flow of imports and exports.

Proponents argue that by boosting business, the WTO's trade-friendly policies have lowered unemployment and raised standards of living in many countries, including the United States. But critics say that the resulting "corporate globalism" sacrifices local regulatory control, dangerously weakening protections for workers and the environment. They point out that the WTO opposes local trade bans on nations accused of human-rights abuses.

Adding to the Seattle buzz is the WTO's guest list. In addition to President Clinton, the summit is expected to attract trade ministers from nearly every corner of the earth. Even Fidel Castro — whose country doesn't belong to the WTO — is rumored to be coming. And since big business has a major stake in the WTO's agenda, there will be a substantial corporate presence. Much of the five-day event is being underwritten by Washington state corporate kingpins such as Boeing and Microsoft; Bill Gates is on the host committee.

This only gets activists more excited. "Seattle could be the birthplace of a mass movement against corporate globalism in the U.S.," says Mike Prokosch, an organizer with the Boston office of the labor-activist group United for a Fair Economy, who is also going to the WTO summit. "The WTO meeting gives us an opportunity to pull together all the labor activists, food-safety groups, consumers, students, immigrants — everyone."

The WTO is getting used to this kind of reaction. From the first, it's been a lightning rod for protest, particularly in Europe and in developing countries such as India, where globalization has caused rapid change. A WTO summit in Geneva, Switzerland, drew more than 5,000 activists and was plagued by disruptions from minor property damage to the overturning of a delegate's car.

You have to wonder what the WTO was thinking when it selected Seattle as the site for this year's meeting. Though the region does have deep ties to international commerce (one in four local jobs is tied to either importing or exporting), it's also knee-deep in well-networked activists, many of whom are veterans of lengthy disputes with the timber industry, among other things. It's a bus trip away from the progressive hotbeds of Vancouver, Wash., Portland, Ore., Eugene, Ore., and San Francisco. And recently, officials of Seattle and surrounding King County passed resolutions making the area an "MAI-free zone," meaning it will not abide by the kind of multilateral agreements on investment endorsed by the WTO.

"I think it's incredible for (the WTO) to have chosen this place," says John Sellers, the coordinator of the Berkeley-based Ruckus Society, which teaches nonviolent protest techniques to activist groups. "I'm hoping that they've made a huge blunder here, and by stepping onto our home court, we can thump them pretty good."

Activists have already succeeded in whipping up a surprising amount of national attention. They've coined a buzzword — N30 — for the big round of protests on Nov. 30. Law-enforcement agencies are paying close attention. WTO officials now want to hold a "parallel summit" to address activist concerns. N30 activists have even landed on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

The idea is to create so much disruption in so many places around Seattle that it will throw the WTO meeting into disorder — or, better yet, shut it down. "I hope enough people go in November that they can kick the WTO out of this country," says Denis Moynihan, a Massachusetts labor activist who's planning on going to Seattle. Public Citizen's Mike Dolan isn't sure the protesters will be able to boot out the WTO, but he's certain they can make their presence felt: "We'll guarantee that the political elites will be very, very aware of (our) fair-trade agenda and, moreover, that the slavering minions of the philistine press lords will also understand the fair-trade agenda."

For activists, a lot is on the line. Some organizers believe that if the N30 protest goes successfully, it could trigger a rebirth of progressive activism in this country, especially around the issues of labor and corporate greed. "This is much larger than the WTO," says Ruckus Society coordinator John Sellers. "The WTO has afforded us this incredible opportunity and hung its ass out for us, but this is also about the corpotocracy that is going into the last untouched places on this planet and threatening the last indigenous communities."

"This is just the beginning of this movement," agrees Mike Prokosch of United for a Fair Economy. "We have a lot of catching up to do, but we're gaining."

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