Impressions from the battle of Seattle
Friday, 31. December 1999

For information, a text on Seattle, as I saw it. You might want to cut the presentation of PGA.


Impressions from the battle of Seattle

The standard right wing journalist's criticism of Seattle was that this was a sort of incoherent collection of different and often contradictory causes. This is actually remarkably false. People came mobilised by very different struggles, but they were converging, because there was a very wide understanding that social and environmental problems, in the North as in the South, had the same basic origins in the priority sytematically given to « profits over people » by the WTO agreements and principles. And in fact that, beyond WTO, their enemy was often actually the same transnational corporation - or the same economic system.

An example of this is the new alliance between U.S. steelworkers and environmentalists. 3000 steelworkers, on strike for more than a year against the Maxxam Corporation, came to ally themselves with environmentalists fighting the destructive forestry practices of the same holding. (Since the Reagan deregulation, north-american forests are destroyed as savagely as tropical ones.) Union workers, who had always been told that ecologists were dangerous for their jobs, and environmentalists, who thought that workers were insensible to environmental issues, formed the « Alliance for the environment and sustainable jobs ». Bringing together workers issues and world-wide environmental problems is popularising a more radical perspective on the economic system.

For many, this rebirth of internationalism, this perception of a common enemy, North and South and across different struggles, dates back to the Zapatista uprising: an indigenous, southern movement which chose to revolt on the opening day of a « free » trade agreement, not asking for support from the North, but proposing that we fight neo-liberalism together.
One of the products of the Second Zapatista Encuentro in Spain, in August 1997, was the formation of an international network called People's Global Action against WTO and « free » trade (PGA). With the authority of massive popular movements from the South (such as the KRRS to which Marina Fortis was referring earlier), it clearly designated WTO not as just « undemocratic » or in need of reform, but as the key capitalist institution organising a new imperialism; world-wide blackmail and competition between labor forces and « industrial platforms » (as States are now called); the race to the bottom of social and environmental standards.

PGA is not an organisation. It just proposes an analysis, and calls to coordinated actions all over the world during each WTO summit or other events. In May of 1998, during the second WTO ministerial summit in Geneva, several hundred thousand persons demonstrated in 29 countries.10 000 people in Geneva managed to perturb and question the legitimacy of WTO. Another call to action was issued for June 18, 1999, during the meeting of the G7, to which people of 41 countries responded. The City of London's financial district was paralysed by the biggest, most determined demonstration since the Poll Tax riots under Thatcher. At the same time, 450 southern farmers, mostly from India, toured Europe for a month in the Inter-Continental Caravan, demonstrating against centers of power and meeting with popular forces of all kinds. With the french farmers of the Confederation Paysanne, they started a new campaign of direct action, destroying GMO fields and laboratories. For the Seattle summit, a call was issued together with the left-wing american union International Workers of the World (IWW) and the Direct Action Network (DAN), to which people in 74 cities around the world responded.

So far, one of the particular successes of PGA has been in mobilising the young radicals in northern countries, who have seen in PGA the chance to attack not just a problem in a particular sector (squats or the repression of illegal immigration, for example), but THE problem: the overall capitalist logic which structures all our lives. To do this, they have made determined efforts to link with others, progressive NGOs, unions, small farmers.

Despite many organisational problems, the idea of PGA has been fertile. There has been a real « circulation of struggles », southern struggles inspiring struggles in Europe, which have in turn inspired struggles in North America.

Radical groups in various United States and canadian cities had already participated in the earlier PGA mobilisations. For Seattle, the Direct Action Network, a network of committees in eight west coast cities from Vancouver, Canada to Los Angeles, was formed. Citing the PGA « hallmarks », inspired by the blocking of the City of London by Reclaim The Streets on June 18th, they organised - in an incredibly efficient and determined manner - to non-violently block all the entrances to the WTO summit on November 30. A 20 page manual detailed how to organise, how to respond to media, to police (before and after arrestation), necessary equipment, radios... and above all the formation of « affinity groups » - groups of 15 to 20 persons equiped and trained to block the 13 roads leading to the summit. Several thousand of demonstrators in these groups actually had training sessions in the week before the demonstration. An independent media center and teams of lawyers and first aid medics were ready.
Thus Seattle was not a spontaneous explosion, but the result of months of preparation. People came mostly from nearby, but others from thousands of kilometers away. People of all kinds realised (many students in particular) that this was their chance « to make a statement », to say what they really thought of this regime. They practically all came prepared, with signs, banners, costumes, theatre and the determination to be heard.
This was why it was possible (myself, I could not believe it!) that thousands of people were there at 7 in the morning (on a weekday!), in the dark and rain. They descended in two columns (one led by the PGA North American Caravan, the other by progressive steelworkers who had joined the radicals), surrounding the summit convention center. At each crossroads, the designated groups established barriers (usually by handcuffing their hands together inside steel pipes). The police had obviously underestimated the problem and seemed at first to have orders to break the siege with a minimum of violence. As this proved impossible, the cops moved from intimidations and shoving to pepper gas and rubber bullets. But the people were incredibly stubborn, holding the lines, often sitting in the gas (many had gas-masks). Those who were too intoxicated went to be treated and their places were taken by others. When the police attacked people would sometimes leave, but walking -not running - and came back right after: Delegates whose transport was blocked tried to enter on foot, but were turned back by demonstrators chanting « Go home! Go home! ».The police finally managed to clear a passage, with tear gas and explosive grenades, but it was too late. The opening ceremony had been cancelled for want of delegates! At mid-day, the big (30 000 persons), legal demonstration of the unions and NGOs approached the scene of the action. (after some hesitations and discussions!). A good part of these demonstrators abandoned the official route and joined the siege of the summit, which continued until a final charge of the police around nightfall.

Generally speaking, the tone in Seattle was surprisingly radical. People weren't just demonstrating against WTO, but against the « bosses » and the system in general. The people of Seattle were often openly sympathetic, workers on construction sites and in offices stopped work to cheer as demonstrations passed. Young radicals and unionised workers seemed to mix more easily than in Europe.

What a beautiful start for the new century: 30 years of « Reaganomics », disinformation and manipulation washed off overnight by the birth of a new popular movement that dares to say « We will make revolution irresistible! ». The old mole breaking the surface again! Fundamentally, people know the problem, know the enemy. The DAN's agenda after Seattle includes the PGA North American conference, Mayday 2000 and another trans-continental caravan.

Concerning WTO, the opposition, encouraged by its success, seemed to be often going beyond reforms such as « social and environmental clauses ». After Seattle, the canadian trades unions, for example, were criticising the principles of WTO itself. This is important, because the dominant powers will probably now try to force through such a « reform ». If northern oppositions accept this agenda, they will be divided from southern states and popular movements, for whom such clauses will only give new powers to the ruling elites in the North to exercise selective protectionism against the South.

After all, who can really believe that the same people and institutions (WTO, FMI, World Bank) which organise the competition between poor countries, the deterioration of the prices of their exports, the Debt, etc.
- all the mechanisms of the aggravation of exploitation - are sincerely interested in fostering workers rights in the world? And for the environment, who fixes the agenda? The USA may want to protect turtles against southern fishing techniques, but when will they be made to pay for their overwhelming responsibility concerning global warming?

We must not think of « reforming » (and thus legitimising and strengthening) WTO, but of how to weaken it: taking sectors such as agriculture, culture, public services and intellectual property - which are obviously not reductible to simple merchandises - out of its authority; leaving States the right to reserves and exceptions and clearly subordinating WTO to multilateral agreements on the environment and social and human rights.

OdM, 16/12/99

Seattle Reports | PGA