Protests Could Drown Out Real Anti-WTO Message

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Serious critics of the World Trade Organization may be facing a problem familiar to that of moderate Republicans — making their voices heard above the extremist din in their own tent. President Clinton arrived in a Seattle under siege Wednesday, after police Tuesday imposed a curfew to curb the protests that disrupted the opening of the WTO summit. An impossibly broad coalition of activists — ranging from anarchists to environmentalists and the pillars of U.S. organized labor — have condemned the WTO as a forum of corporate interests with growing power to overrule national governments on such issues as protecting the environment and labor rights. Free trade advocates defend the organization as the harbinger of unprecedented global prosperity.

"Although many of them may be over the top, the demonstrators are tapping into something very real," says TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell. "Obviously we need a body such as the WTO to regulate the international economy, but such a body needs to consider the social and environmental impact of economic growth. Decisions that will have a huge impact on the way we live now and in the future can't be taken simply on a business basis." While nongovernmental organizations and even some governments are raising some of those issues inside the talks, activists will maintain a steady barrage of protests throughout the week. While headline-grabbing anarchic actions at the fringes — such as the trashing of a McDonald's outlet on Monday — threaten to disrupt and distort the underlying cautionary message being borne by the WTO's naysayers, the very scale of the street protests meant that it was anything but business as usual on Day 1 of the Seattle summit.