As a journalist, muckraker, whatever and a long-time prairie populist the media-dubbed "Battle of Seattle" and the subsequent collapse of the World Trade Organization Ministerial talks left me unbeaten, ungassed, unarrested, but nevertheless leery, frustrated and angry.
Simple corporate greed, the bullying tactics by the United States trade representatives and their economic allies, and the lack of any semblance of genuine democratic process within the WTO itself clearly destroyed any chance that the 135 nations meeting in Seattle could arrive at any substantive agreements on world trade. At the same time outside of the city's Convention Center some 40,000 advocates of fair trade and a small handful of riot-prone protesters unmasked and dragged the WTO into the public spotlight.
Aside from such demonstrations the outcome of the WTO meeting was entirely predictable in view of the growing world hostility to a "Millennium Round" and the consequent failure of the year-long Geneva negotiations to even agree on an agenda for Seattle. Any continuing talks, most critics now agree, in that same direction are equally doomed to failure.
"The things people believe in are less secure," Don Seligman, head of the Sierra Club's trade office reflects. "Their communities are more fragile. They're more isolated, and it all adds up to a growing sense of insecurity and powerlessness despite the improving economy. And people are beginning to connect that to corporate power, media control, and politics stacked against them."
It was this feeling of "loss of control" amidst a world that is rapidly changing while unchecked global capitalism runs amuck that was dramatically played out on the streets and in the meeting halls of Seattle last month as labor, environmentalists, consumers AND farmers came together in solidarity and protest.
Yet, in their efforts to underscore and assert the fact that you cannot have political democracy without economic democracy those individuals and Non Government Organizations (NGO's) who came to Seattle exhibited a certain measure of disturbing flaws that unless recognized and addressed could in the long-term seriously undermine what some have called the "new radicalism."
In speaking truth to corporate power one has to be somewhat skeptical when they see people yelling for and cheering speakers rail against international McDomination at a labor rally and then dash across the street to grab lunch at a nearby McDonalds before participating in a parade protesting corporate power; when local television clearly shows a black-clad anarchist destroying a Nike store facade while wearing a pair of Nike shoes, when a young tear-gassed "protester" is asked why he wants to shut down the WTO meeting and with a blank look on his face asks "what's the WTO?"
Obviously, the Seattle Police Department underestimated the size and scope of the number of people who were to take part in the WTO demonstrations, despite warnings from organizers in the months prior that the city should expect some 50,000.
Mike Dolan, deputy director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch Program, later testified before a Seattle City Council hearing that he also wanted to dispel suggestions that police were misled by protest organizers who promised peaceful actions. He said Ruckus Society organizers made clear their goal was to shut down the WTO, and said only a naive police department would think that meant using only "clever signs and powerful chants," he said. "The Seattle Police Department was not sucker-punched," he insisted.
Once the demonstrations began local law enforcement clearly overreacted. Even after the demonstrations began the SPD's choice of who to gas and who to arrest remains highly suspicious given the fact that among the thousands who were gassed and the over 600 who were arrested not one of the 30 or so anarchists that were clearly instigating, who started destroying property, painting graffiti on buildings and creating general mayhem were among those arrested.
In the four days of violence the major media and politicians, including Washington State's own self-styled liberal U.S. Senator Patty Murray, got their predictions of such fulfilled. Unfortunately, also during those four days the alternative press, reporting from Seattle, in many respects mirrored their establishment media colleagues, focusing almost exclusively on the physical abuse at the hands of law enforcement that was taking place in the streets of Seattle as opposed to the brute force that was being exhibited within the WTO meetings by those who fashion our laws.
From this journalist's perspective the lack of communication during the "Battle of Seattle" between the NGOs witnessing the WTO proceedings and the people in the street was disappointing as, no thanks to reports in the major media, it was not until the last day of the proceedings that it became evident to many in the streets that the talks had failed and that no new agendas would come out of the so-called "Millennium Round."
This lack of communication was in marked contrast to the weeks and months prior to the Seattle meetings when groups from literally throughout the world were in constant communication with each other through the technology of the computer age (ironically an age pioneered by Microsoft's self-proclaimed innovator Bill Gates, who along with Boeing CEO Phil Condit were the co-chairs of the Seattle WTO Host Committee).
One had to have access to Nitya Chakraborty in the Hindustan Times, for example, to learn during the third day of the WTO meeting that "as the trade ministers of Latin American and the Caribbean countries said today that as long as the conditions of transparency, openness and participation of all members were not ensured, they would not join hands to provide the consensus required to meet the objectives of this meet.
"The joint statement of these members even said that they were concerned that the working groups set up by the WTO had ended up as an exercise in pretense rather than transparency. In fact, the target of all dissidence and protests at the WTO meet was Ms [Charlene]Barshefsky, [U.S. Trade Representative] who conducted the proceedings like a bully, caring little for the views of the Asian, African and Latin American countries. Indian delegates too had a taste of her partisanship. She functioned as if her only responsibility was to carry out the personal agenda of Bill Clinton."
Likewise, while the labor march drew considerable attention on the opening day of the WTO meetings other marches and rallies received frustratingly scant, if any, attention from both the established media and the alternative media. An excellent example was the treatment received by family farmers and their supporters.
Thursday had been designated as Food and Ag Day at WTO. Farmers from more than 30 countries participated in a day-long series of press briefings, panel discussions and workshops. One of the highlights was a noon rally to support small farmers that attracted 5,000 people to the city's historic Pike Place Market. Speakers at the rally included Jim Hightower, Ralph Nader, India's Vandana Shiva, Roger Allison, Helen Waller, Peter Rosset, Uruguay's Alberto Villarreal, Canada's Corky Evans, and yours truly. Also speaking at the rally was José Bové, the French farmer who's become a leader in efforts to stop the globalization of genetically engineered foods and the destruction of local agricultural communities.
In addition to several hundred farmers from around the U.S. and the world, the crowd included a broad spectrum of representatives from environmental, labor, and human rights organizations. None of the violence that was in evidence in the city during the previous two days marred Food & Agriculture Day.
After the rally a large contingent marched over a mile along the Seattle waterfront to Pier 86 to hold a small peaceful demonstration outside the fence of a police-encased Cargill grain elevator, leased for the past 30 years by the nation's largest private corporation from the Port of Seattle.
The kickoff event of the Food & Ag day activities was a Farmer Breakfast at the United Methodist Church in downtown Seattle. The breakfast, hosted by the Vashon Island Growers Association, featured an abundance of organically grown foods produced by local farmers and drew several hundred people.
Following a series of press briefings, panel discussions and the noon rally, there were workshops in and near the Market on the topics that included Globalization & Food Safety, Food Security in a Global Economy, Farm Worker Issues, and Genetic Engineering. These events included farmers from England, Belgium, Norway, Finland, Japan, Korea, India, The Philippines, Thailand, Bangladesh, Senegal, Ghana, Uruguay, Mexico, Brazil, and Peru.
Participants in Food & Agriculture Day included representatives of the National Family Farm Coalition, the French Farmer's Union, the Peasant Movement of the Philippines, the Japanese Independent Farmers Union, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Food First, Northern Plains Resource Council and both Seattle and Washington Tilth.
Aside from two and three short paragraphs which appeared in Seattle's two daily newspapers, the Food and Ag activities went virtually unreported in both the major media and the alternative media. Likewise, in the various stories coming out of the "Battle of Seattle" environmentalists, labor, consumers, sea turtles, "tree huggers," etc., etc. were all given their proper due. The hundreds of farmers from throughout the world who were present were rarely mentioned as being major participants in the demonstrations, despite the fact that agriculture was the centerpiece of the failed trade negotiations in Seattle.
Much was made of the fact that when, on the eve of his arrival in Seattle, Bill Clinton told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that he wanted a proposed WTO working group on trade and labor to develop labor standards that would eventually be enforceable by trade sanctions. That comment, although welcomed by labor groups, irritated developing nations concerned that they would suffer as a result.
While there is no denying the matter of developing international labor standards is a complicated question and one that deserves careful thought it is also undeniable that Clinton's appeal was more geared to achieving a short-term domestic political gain than addressing reasonable and democratic long-term economic development. As Ralph Nader so adroitly put it, referring to Clinton and presidential candidate Al Gore's newfound sympathy for the victims of globalization, "Where were they five years ago when they rammed all this down the throats of Congress in an autocratic, fast-track maneuver?"
Finally, as a resident of the Pacific Northwest and someone who has had a lifelong fondness for its "Emerald City" I have found myself angry over the image of it that has been given to the nation and the world. The WTO was a meeting that Seattle did not need to lower itself to stage, but rather was induced and seduced into staging it by a small cadre of local self-serving corporate interests.
As Seattle P-I columnist Art Thiel has rightfully noted: "The assumption that bigger and bolder is always better may be valid in software and planeworks, but it is not always so for a neighborhood, a downtown or a civic sensibility."
He adds: "In the inevitable round of recriminations that will follow the WTO debacle, it would be foolish for citizens to xenophobically turn inward, spurning every convention, sports event or party that would draw significant out-of-town crowds. What is worth revising is how we do civic business. For years, this town held a reputation for process second to none in America. Whether that's good or bad is another issue. But there was no debate on WTO, only a wink and a pat on the head from the poobahs.
"Nor was there much help from the media before the deal was done. Neither the Post-Intelligencer nor The Seattle Times did an adequate early job of representing the threat or the significance of the WTO. Local TV news is so helpless on complicated stories, it's not even worth blaming. Explanations are in order, but I am not too excited about spins from the media, Boeing spokespeople, Microsoft shills or front people."
Neither should those people living outside of Seattle, for such spins on the "Battle of Seattle" have and will vary from the ridiculous to the absurd, as evidenced by New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani who opined, "It indicates the remaining damage that Marxism has done to the thinking of people."
Not only did the surreal scenes of chaos on Seattle streets obscure the substantive work of grassroots groups from around the world that is being done to bring social and economic justice to the "new world order," but it also obfuscated the faulty and undemocratic structure of the World Trade Organization itself, and once again confirmed the words of the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer:
"All truth passes through three stages.
First, it is ridiculed.
Second, it is violently opposed.
Third, it is accepted as being self-evident."
A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, P.O. Box 2201, Everett, Washington 98203-0201; web site (www.ea1.com/CARP).