Date: Thu, 14 Oct 1999 22:52:50 -0500 (CDT)
For Seattle, Triumph and Protest
By Sam Howe Verhovek, New York Times, 13 October 1999
SEATTLE -- When Seattle beat 40 other U.S. cities early this year for the right to be the host of a meeting of the world's governing trade organization, local leaders were exultant. Here in what is often called the most trade-dependent region of the nation, they said the conference would be a chance to showcase Seattle as a world-class center of high-tech innovation and a friend to global trade.
All that may still happen when 5,000 delegates and dignitaries from 134 nations -- including President Clinton -- gather to start a new round of global trade negotiations here in November. Those negotiations will encompass some of the most politically sensitive issues facing the world's trading nations, including rules on agriculture and new technologies. But it is increasingly clear that the largest free-trade meeting ever held in this country has also become a giant protest magnet for a broad array of environmental, labor and other groups that say the trade body is a handmaid to corporate interests whose authority should be sharply curtailed.
Three hundred groups are vowing to bring 50,000 people or more to downtown Seattle to picket, demonstrate, hold teach-ins and cause general disruption during the Nov. 30-Dec. 3 meeting that could turn the city's streets into a carnival of protest and, perhaps, a morass of gridlock.
It is a sign of how crucial trade issues have become to average people that a meeting once might have excited only policy experts now has drawn the attention of a cross-section of America that includes farmers, fishermen and assembly-line workers.
The W.T.O. has already been entangled in spats over items that include Caribbean-grown bananas, hormone-fed beef from the United States, gas refined in Venezuela and Japanese imported liquor.
Even more contentious issues loom: over loss of price supports for American farmers and over rulings about what kinds of genetically modified foods countries can offer to consumers on supermarket shelves.
Underlying all the individual issues is a fundamental disagreement about the proper role of the trade organization. Proponents say it serves a crucial role in bolstering the world economy by tearing down trade barriers all over the globe. But opponents believe that the W.T.O. is using its power as an arbiter in trade disputes to systematically undermine laws passed by various countries to promote health, food safety, environmental protection and better working conditions.
It is from those diverse concerns that a vigorous protest movement has emerged. Just how extensive or disruptive any protests will be is difficult to gauge, partly because even the groups themselves, more than 300 at latest count, are not exactly of one mind. Some say they have no plans to be unduly raucous and simply want their perspective to be heard by the trade negotiators, while others are boasting that their goal is to bring the city to a standstill with guerrilla-like tactics like scaling skyscrapers to unfurl huge banners, lying in the street to stop traffic or chaining themselves to buildings and trees.
But the city is already budgeting $6 million for a major security operation and Mayor Paul Schell, noting the potential for disruption, has taken to joking: "I'm hoping for rain, frankly." While Seattle is indeed likely to get some rain at that time of year, it may not dampen the fervency of the protesters.
"I'm in the camp that wants to shut the W.T.O. down," explained John Sellers, director of the Ruckus Society of Berkeley, Calif., which recently helped to lead what was called a "Globalize This!" training session for protesters at a farm near the Cascade Mountains, outside Seattle.
"I think this is the largest gathering of unaccountable corporate power that has ever occurred on this planet, and it should be stopped," said Sellers, who described his group as "open to work with anyone who is working for progressive social change on the left side of the spectrum."
In some ways, the protesters have already scored important victories and in Seattle, a city with a long history of union activity and a decidedly favorable bent toward environmental causes, they are clearly generating some sympathy. The local King County Council, for instance, recently haggled over and nearly failed to approve wording for a routine resolution of welcome to the W.T.O. delegates.
"I was thrilled when Seattle was selected," said Michael Dolan, a field organizer for the protesters, who is deputy director of the Global Trade Watch program of Public Citizen, a group founded by Ralph Nader. "It's almost like they're giving us home-field advantage. There are great labor unions here, great labor energy, all these environmentalists."
The protesters have commanded the attention of local news organizations and, in what was clearly a bid to defuse some of the potential for conflict, the Clinton administration has taken the unusual step of pressing the W.T.O.'s leaders to hold a one-day meeting just before the conference gets under way to listen to the protester's concerns. The president also plans to send several members of his cabinet to Seattle in the weeks before the conference to talk up the benefits of free trade.
The new director-general of the Geneva-based trade body, former New Zealand Prime Minister Mike Moore, was in Seattle earlier this month and used a forum at the University of Washington to concede that the trade body had not done an adequate job of explaining its mission to the public.
"I thought the case had been made," Moore said. "But I guess we have to back up the truck and explain how we got here. We've never reached out."
Advocates for the five-year-old trade organization and the 1948 framework pact that preceded it, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, known as GATT, say it is helping to bolster the world economy and lift workers out of poverty by bringing down barriers to trade all over the globe.
But opponents believe the W.T.O. is using its power as an arbiter to systematically undermine laws passed by various countries to promote health, food safety, environmental protection and better working conditions.
In just one such case, several Asian nations won a preliminary ruling from the trade organization last year after they charged that the U.S. laws intended to protect sea turtles from shrimpers' nets unfairly blocked their exports to U.S. markets. The protesters also say a ruling in favor of Venezuelan gas exporters had the effect of weakening anti-pollution laws in the United States.
"The record of the W.T.O. speaks for itself," said Jeremy Madsen, an organizer with the Citizens Trade Campaign, a coalition of dozens of groups opposed to the W.T.O.. "It's not something that is beneficial for workers, it's not beneficial for the environment. It has an atrocious impact on everyone but the elite, the very wealthy."
Business groups, clearly alarmed at the attention the protesters have already generated here, plan to organize their own campaign to promote the benefits of free trade. However, as a spokesman for one such group said, they do not exactly plan to rappel down the Space Needle to explain their point of view and therefore may not draw as much attention.
"I think the story in terms of media coverage is that we do pretty well in print, but we lose big-time on the pictures," said Scott Miller, a lobbyist with Procter & Gamble who is chairman of the United States Alliance for Trade Expansion, a group backed by business and based in Washington, D.C. "That will continue to be the dynamic."
Some opponents of the trade organization say the organization has adopted secretive operating rules that are practically forcing critics into public protests. Even when Moore came to Seattle on his scouting trip, he was met with protesters who carried signs that said "Stop child labor now" and "No globalization without representation."
"There isn't all that much left, really, because the system is so closed," said Patti Goldman, managing lawyer of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, an environmental group. "It isn't democratic. There's no participation process for the public to play a role. That is a fundamental problem."
Schell, among others, is clearly walking a bit of a political tightrope, but he says he simply wants to make sure that the city is a good host to both those attending the trade conference and those who come here to protest it.
"I've been on the other side of the picket lines, and so have a lot of people here," the mayor said in an interview. "They need to be heard. Seattle likes hosting these kinds of things. We see ourselves as an open city, a center for creative debate.
"Now," he added, "one of the things I'm going to try to convey to the protesters is that they are more likely to be effective if they find the right ways to be heard. People listen better when they're not being shouted at."
Madsen of the Citizens Trade Campaign said the protests would be respectful.
"The intention of everyone involved is to have a very peaceful event, or series of events, that really speak to the issues," he said. "The goal is not really to disrupt the city per se. Traffic probably is going to get clogged, it's going to be hard to get downtown. But a lot of that won't have anything to do with us, it will have to do with security perimeters set up by the police, the FBI. The potential for real catastrophe is being greatly exaggerated."
But with such a widespread call to protest, and with some groups already vowing disruption, the potential is certainly there, said Walt Crowley, a local author and director of a Web site of Seattle history, historylink.org.
"Clearly the labor movement, the environmental movement, and other interest groups have legitimate concerns and even grievances with the W.T.O.," said Crowley.
"They're trying to reform a process and the structures for guiding international trade, they're not trying to blow them up," he said. "But they kind of have a protest going on with festival seating, which means you really have no control over who's sitting next to you. And I think there's some anxiety that the theatrics of protest are going to eclipse the content."