Monday, Mar. 31, 2003

A Generation Takes a Stand

Nov. 29, 1999

I spent that Tuesday in Seattle with 50,000 of my closest friends, some wearing turtle costumes, some carrying union banners, and everybody chanting "They say free trade; we say fair trade" and "Hey hey, ho ho, WTO has got to go." To almost everyone's surprise, we managed to shut down the World Trade Organization's Seattle conference and sent the WTO's leadership hightailing it back to Geneva without what they came for: an agreement for a new round of closed-door negotiations on global trade rules. An expert at a progressive think tank in Washington described it as "a kick in the groin of the ruling class."

I believe the cops started the real violence, however. Early in the day, when the delegates couldn't get to the convention center through the ring of activists, the police sprayed gas and shot rubber bullets at people engaging in civil disobedience by linking themselves together with pipes and locks. That was the first violence, although the media focused more on young white guys in black ski masks who broke store windows later in the day. While I disapprove in principle of property destruction, I've often wondered whether we would have got as much press as we did without the Starbucks trashing.

I had been in Seattle on and off for nine months, helping organize this mobilization on behalf of the advocacy group Public Citizen, with a coalition of unions, environmental groups, faith-based and human-rights networks, family farmers and consumers. We knew this confrontation between civil society and corporate rule was going to be exciting when we went to the Ruckus Society's direct-action camp in September and learned how to scale overpasses, hang banners and get busted. We knew it was going to be big when we joined the AFL-CIO in planning sessions to mobilize workers from all over the U.S., and when local politicians participated in our critique of so-called free trade.

For the organizers, the experience was an epiphany: none of us could remember a time when such divergent organizing traditions blended so seamlessly in a single action. The legacy of that week is felt today in the movement against war in Iraq and manifest in groups like the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment, an exemplar of "blue-green" solidarity forged that day. The legitimate expectations of working families and the imperatives of sustainable development are now a part of the conversation about the direction of U.S. policy in an increasingly globalized economy.

Dolan is an organizer with Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch