Attack of the Killer Kapitalists

Protestors rally to oppose the world trade organization.

While some critics are demanding reform of the WTO, others are calling for it to be dismantled, dropped in the dustbin of bad ideas in favor of a more populist process for trade rule-making. The flow of international trade must be met by the flow of international resistance, many activists argue. Whether or not activists succeed in influencing the talks immediately, they aim to come away from Seattle with a massive international coalition of resistance to a system that hangs dollar signs as blinders to the growing gap between rich and poor nations, and the rich and poor within nations. A decade ago, after being invited to the Mexican jungle to meet with Subcommandant Marcos of the Zapatistas, activists formed a network, the People's Global Action (www.agp.org). PGA sees the WTO as beyond reform. In its manifesto the group vows to "reject institutions that multinationals have built to take power away from the people; [to adopt] a confrontational attitude, since we do not think lobbying can have a major impact . . . [when] transnational capital is the only real policy maker; and call upon non-violent civil disobedience."

For the past few weeks an "international caravan," made up of environmentalists from Bolivia and Israel, human-rights workers from Panama and Tibet, and women's rights activists from Nigeria, among many others, has been making a cross-country road trip to Seattle. Along the way, it has stopped in 18 cities and towns to host anti-WTO teach-ins and to support local grassroots groups in actions of civil disobedience. "The purpose of the caravan is to show the links between the United States economy and the economy in other countries," says Michael Morrill, executive director of Pennsylvania Consumer Action Network, the caravan's sponsor.

On October 28 in an NYU classroom, PGA presented the first of its American anti-WTO teach-ins. Playing to a packed smells-like-college-spirit room, Stephen Smith strummed a folksy, meant-to-be-inspirational song, "Now Is the Time," the most inspiring aspect of which was his striking red-orange acoustic guitar, rubbed smooth around the sound hole from years of earnest picking. Seven speakers followed, and in impressively organized eight-minute clips they laid out the history of the WTO, how individual groups' causes are affected, and what concerned folk should do about it all.

One controversy discussed centered on the WTO's TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) agreement, which has allowed multinationals and industrial countries to usurp agricultural and medicinal knowledge of indigenous peoples. Companies who commit "biopiracy"—securing patents for traditional medicines, human DNA, or indigenous methods of growing food—are rounding up knowledge at the pace that Web squatters once gobbled up celebrity names on the Internet as investments, but with far graver implications. Taira Stanley, a member of the Youth Movement of Kuna in Panama, wearing canvas sneakers and a traditional Indian shirt, spoke through a translator, explaining the consequences of intellectual property rights and the WTO. "Everyone wants the knowledge about medicine and the earth that indigenous peoples have. Scientists from the Human Genome Project have even come and taken the blood of indigenous peoples and patented it, because we have immunities that you don't. The indigenous people have received no compensation for any of this."

While corporations seek the takeover of knowledge for profit, the Chinese government has become notorious for, among many egregious acts, taking over Tibet, an issue that was on the minds of many at the teach-in. Lhadon Tethong of Students for a Free Tibet spoke of the urgency Tibetans feel as their population dwindles and their culture is chipped away and the U.S. government goes along with it, claiming that China will change once in the WTO and subject to the pressures of globalization. " 'Constructive engagement with China' is Clinton's buzzword," said Tethong, "but China has a strike-hard campaign in which people are arrested for any infraction—having a photo of the Dalai Lama, or participating in silent prayer."

The Clinton administration's gleeful, backslapping celebration to announce that it had secured a deal with China that would enable the U.S. hopes will slip China into WTO membership before 2000 has only upped the ante of dissent. The possibility that China might grant development rights in Tibet to trading partners makes the prospect of returning the country to Tibetan self-rule that much more unlikely. (See Nat Hentoff's column for more on the issue of China and the WTO.)

The day after the teach-in, PGA joined the New York?based Reclaim the Streets to protest PR giant Burson-Marsteller for "whitewashing corporate crimes" such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill. On the road to Seattle they joined grassroots groups in Columbus, Ohio, to protest Kaiser Aluminum for locking out steelworkers, in L.A., against the Gap for using sweatshop labor in Saipan, and in a dozen other cities. "In India and Europe this year tens of thousands of people demonstrated against the WTO," says Morrill. "Seattle is where America will catch up."

As Seattle swells with people, reclaim the Streets (reclaimthestreetsnyc.tao.ca/), a network of activists dedicated to "reclaiming" the right to assemble publicly and en masse, will be one of the forces uniting a festive street party with nonviolent civil disobedience. RTS sprang from Britain's rave culture in the early '90s, and in the U.S. has also been inspired by the activism of foresters, squatters, and Earth Firsters. Under the aegis of the Direct Action Network (www.agitprop.org), a coalition of the more radical grassroots groups heading to Seattle, they promise a "carnival of resistance," and a rally surreal in spirit with 12-foot puppets, among them, grim reapers to represent particular corporations, and hundreds of sea turtles—just the sort of high-impact visuals they hope ABC won't be able to resist showing on World News Tonight . David Solnit, a puppeteer with Art and Revolution, explains, "We use culture and artmaking as an organizing tool, and as a weapon to infiltrate the mass media with messages."

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