Swans Commentary » swans.com December 3, 2012  



Anniversary of the Seattle WTO Protests
Time Ripe for More Action on "Free" Trade Issues


by Glenn Reed





(Swans - December 3, 2012)   Today I noticed an article about an "American" company that is suing Canada for an alleged World Trade Organization (WTO) violation.

Lone Pine Resources, Inc. is the epitome of the unaccountable multinational corporation. Incorporated in the State of Delaware and headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, it's objecting to the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for natural gas extraction ban in Quebec. This was recently enacted by the democratically-elected provincial government there.

This case reminded me of the anniversary of when protesters shut down the WTO meetings in Seattle: November 30. That time was a huge learning experience for me.

I was living in the Emerald City in the fall of 1999. One day, in early November, a co-worker came up to me and asked if I'd be participating in the upcoming protests against the WTO. I hate to admit it now but I hadn't given it a single thought. While passionate about social justice, labor, and environmental causes, I'd really paid no attention to boring trade issues. How could "free" trade be bad anyway?

This woman patiently made a few points to me regarding the power of the WTO and a light bulb went off as I connected the dots. Immediately I began reading everything I could about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the WTO, the World Bank, etc., including David Korten's When Corporations Rule the World.

Needless to say, I made it a point to participate in the Seattle protests. What were some of the things I learned?

First, I began to perceive the real scope of unchecked, undemocratic, global corporate rule. I was shocked that all of the negotiations for trade deals are conducted in secret and WTO cases decided by unelected officials. I learned how trade organizations and trade deals were designed to undermine local, state, and national governments in favor of corporate bottom lines and how they could invalidate labor and environmental laws/regulations. Your state wants to limit a mining practice because it pollutes the water? That's interference with corporate "rights" to maximize profit. A Third-World country seeks basic protections for garment workers? That cuts into the corporate bottom line and they must be compensated. Corporate rights trump all and there is no "common good" in "free" trade world. "Free" trade is not fair trade in the least. This is clearly illustrated by the current WTO suit against Canada. This case also connects the dots between many issues: "free" trade, fossil fuel extraction, water and air pollution, climate change, corporate rule.

Second, I experienced first-hand the incredible bias of the mainstream media in covering such events/movements. This applied to the local daily newspapers and TV stations in Seattle, which were editorially biased in favor of the sanitized, "it's good for jobs" storyline of the pols and "experts" in explaining "free" trade agreements.

As for local and national media's coverage and perceptions beyond the reality I experienced in Seattle's streets during the protests, I was astonished. People called me from "back east" and referred to the "riots." The only images they saw were of masked anarchists (there were an estimated 25-30 total), burning trash bins, and smashed windows, as in some war zone. Virtually unseen were the 50,000 peaceful protesters, a candlelight vigil proceeding from a church, union members and environmentalists working together on a common cause, unprovoked and violent police actions. Edited out were those like my friends who didn't participate but were arrested and tear-gassed when exiting coffee shops. Hidden away were the 600 or so protesters imprisoned and abused for days in city jails.

Third, I also more clearly saw that the lines between political parties in our country and even across national borders are largely illusory. For example, so many of my "liberal" friends would wax poetic about President Clinton. Yet this "liberal" president had pushed for NAFTA and was a big proponent of the WTO talks and further "free" trade pacts. He also sought "fast-track" trade negotiation authority, which would allow the president to parley trade deals and limit Congress to yes or no votes on them without modification. I also saw that traditional party lines fall by the wayside with trade issues, with many Democrats and Republicans supporting or opposing them -- often for quite different reasons. It made for strange bedfellows, such as Congressmen Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, who are both highly critical of "free" trade.

Accompanying that pulling back of the curtain on corporate power was the harsh reality of enforcement of that power. Sure, I'd grown up with images of the National Guard and police tear-gassing, beating, and even shooting down Vietnam War protesters. I'd seen the New Hampshire State Police assault activists outside the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant. But I'd never experienced, first-hand, such a level of aggression on peaceful protesters and the imposition of conditions more redolent of a totalitarian state, such as "no protest zones" and legions of police dressed as "Robocops." And this was in a "liberal" city. I'd never imagined talking to someone who was holding a "No WTO" sign on a city street corner and having him say "look behind you," then seeing a line of about fifteen faceless black figures. They were pointing rubber bullet-shooting guns right at us while helicopters prowled the night sky overhead.

The Seattle WTO protests were a key moment in the movement against "free" trade deals and global corporate rule. They were a real wake-up call for many that created alliances, such as between union members and environmentalists, that hadn't existed before. The effort seemed to accelerate with the massive protests at the 2001 WTO meeting in Quebec City and through actions against the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and "fast-track" trade authority sought, and later obtained by, President George W. Bush. Unfortunately, the 9-11 terrorist attacks and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq sidelined the movement for the next decade, where it has struggled to gain visibility along with other issues such as climate change.

The recent presidential campaign and debates reminded that in terms of "free" trade, the bonds between corporate power and Washington, D.C. remain firmly entrenched. President Obama pursued "free" trade agreements with Panama, South Korea, and Colombia with as much vigor as did his predecessors and there has not been a peep about rescinding his fast-track authority. Also, secret negotiations are currently being conducted among eleven nations (including the United States) for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This massive expansion in "free" trade will likely continue the approach of minor lip service to environmental and labor concerns and local sovereignty in favor of corporate "rights" to profits and the fallacies about economic benefits for all.

Though many are feeling relief that the Romney-Ryan ticket lost, this is a good time to remember some lessons from President Obama's first four years. First, he is not likely to take a progressive stance on most issues without grassroots pressure. Second, he seems as committed to "free" trade and as enamored of the neoliberal economic model as were his two predecessors. Third, he remains just one small component of an entrenched system that has most elected officials under its thumb.

On this anniversary of the Seattle WTO protests, it's the ideal time for activists to bring the fight against unfair trade agreements and undemocratic, global institutions back to the forefront. As with climate change and other issues tied to corporate rule, far too much is at stake not to do so.


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About the Author

Glenn Reed is a freelance writer who has worked in the non-profit world for nearly 30 years, both as paid staff and volunteer. He is also a lifelong activist for social, economic, and environmental justice. He currently resides in Fair Haven, Vermont.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published December 3, 2012