The seattle tea party

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The showdown over the WTO was NOT about stopping trade

Getting the diverse parts of a people’s political movement together and moving in the same direction at the same time is about as difficult as trying to load frogs in a wheelbarrow. But, in Seattle, we got it together and got it rolling! More than 50,000 strong, the Seattle Rebellion brought labor together with environmentalists, farmers with consumers, the Raging Grannies with the youth of the Ruckus Society, and hordes of others representing just about every issue on the map (although I didn’t personally meet any members of the Lesbian Teamsters Society to Save the Whales, surely they were there). But the unique and important fact about Seattle was that this was way more than another collection of disparate groups gathering to raise a cacophony of independent issues. Everyone was totally focused on the central issue that united us: Global corporate power is out of control and attempting, through secretive anti-democratic entities like the World Trade Organization to enthrone itself as the world’s supreme decision-maker. The media, the politicians, and corporate powers tried to cast the protest as “anti- trade” and the protesters as know-nothings (“a Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates” sniffed the supercilious sycophant Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, a man with an unnatural proclivity for kissing corporate butt). In a typically asinine headline, US News & World Report blared: “Hell No, We Won’t Trade,” but no one in Seattle was chanting anything about stopping trade. The chants and the signs in the streets declared: “No Globalization Without Representation;” “Whose World? Our World;” “Let’s Try Democracy;” and—my favorite — “Jesus Hates The WTO.” This phenomenal citizens’ uprising was indeed targeted at the World Trade Organization, but it had nothing to do with trade . . . and everything to do with democracy.

The people were there to challenge the agenda of the multinational conglomerates, which would strip the world’s workers, environmentalists, farmers, human rights advocates, religious leaders, and everyone else of our people’s sovereignty, replacing it with corporate rule. This concern is not based on conspiracy theory, but on real experience:

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[bullet] Already, the WTO has ruled on behalf of its global corporate creators against U.S. laws, forcing our so-called leaders in Washington to repeal, for example, our law prohibiting the importation of tuna caught in nets that also trap and kill dolphins.

[bullet] The WTO was used by oil companies to suspend our Clean Air Act, allowing them to bring dirty gasoline from Venezuela into our markets.

[bullet] During the past year, Japan, Russia, and other nations illegally dumped steel into our country, unfairly undercutting our steel producers and costing at least 10,000 steel workers their jobs—yet President Clinton refused to implement our anti- dumping laws, saying they violate WTO rules.

[bullet] When Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa proposed legislation to ban the import of goods made with child labor, the Congressional Research Service advised that his bill would be in violation of the WTO.

[bullet] States are beginning to feel the sting of this faraway corporate sovereign. Mitsubishi, Sony, and other multinational giants have initiated a WTO case challenging a Massachusetts law that prohibits state tax dollars from being used to buy goods from companies that do business with the dictatorial thugs who rule Burma. None of your business who we do business with, say Mitsubishi et al. You no longer have the authority, even based on concerns about human rights, to restrict how your state tax dollars will be spent.

Other nations find their laws and policies under assault by the WTO as well, which is why Seattle was filled with protesting rebels from Europe, Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere. For example, should multimillionaire Carl Lindner of Cincinnati, Ohio, be allowed to tell Europeans where they must buy their bananas? The WTO says “Yes!” Lindner, a big giver of political funds to Democrats as well as Republicans (he got a sleep- over in the Lincoln bedroom), owns Chiquita Bananas, and the Clinton administration actually filed a WTO complaint to force European consumers to buy bananas from Lindner’s Central American plantations rather than from the small farmers of the Caribbean.

Such is the reach of corporate power in the new world order.

Democracy is the REAL issue

Just as the dumping of tea in Boston Harbor by the Sons of Liberty in 1773 was not about tea, neither was the Seattle Tea Party about whether nations should trade. Both events—1773 and 1999—were about being a free people with the inalienable right to self-government, and both were in rebellion against arrogant, autocratic powers that would deny us even the right to decide from whom we buy our bananas. The fundamental question being thrust into public consciousness by the 50,000 citizens of the world who rallied in Seattle is this: Who the hell is going to be in charge—a handful of elite profiteers, or We the People? This is the defining question for a whole new American politics for 2000 and beyond—a politics that neither of the Big Two political parties has a clue about, and a politics that crosses the political divide between liberal and conservative, with the potential to realign and reinvigorate the electorate.

Where did this issue come from? Why would so many travel so far to protest something so arcane as a meeting of the WTO? The general public had never heard of this obscure outfit based in Geneva, much less realized that our President and Congress had surreptitiously surrendered much of our national (and state and local) sovereignty to it when U.S. membership in the WTO was approved by a lame duck session of Congress in December 1994. (Thank you, Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton.) Of course, the conglomerate-owned media have kept the entire issue of corporate globalization buried in the business pages, where they exalt it. Otherwise the media treat it as a “yawner” of an issue (New York Times) that should be of no concern to ordinary people.

But the week after Thanksgiving, 50,000 ordinary people put the issue—and the workings of this odd organization from Switzerland—on people’s minds. Returning to Austin from Seattle, my cab driver was interested to learn that I had been there; I asked him what he made of the WTO as a result of the media coverage: “They didn’t tell us much about it,” he replied, “but I figured it out. It means the rich’ll get richer, the poor poorer.” Bingo!

The anti-globalization powder keg

As with all democratic outbursts, Seattle did not happen without a steady buildup of grassroots pressure. I first sensed that something big was developing around the issue of globalization in 1997 when I was on the radio opposing the “fast track” authority that lets presidents ram NAFTA-style trade scams through Congress without any effective debate. Fast track was and is just another way of saying “railroaded.” To my delight and surprise, my listeners (a majority of whom consider themselves “conservative”) did not find this a “yawner” of a topic. They grasped its anti-democratic essence instinctively, and became “radio-active” with me and others (especially Lori Wallach and Mike Dolan of the Citizens Trade Campaign, a grassroots project of Public Citizen). Citizens deluged lawmakers with such a chorus of “No fast track” that the White House had to withdraw its request for the authority, stunning Wall Street’s barons and Washington’s power brokers. In the spring of 1998, I got another glimpse of the simmering power of this issue when I traveled with the Citizens Trade Campaign and a small delegation of congressional populists into Georgia and Florida, then later into California. There we talked with hundreds of workers, farmers and others who’ve been whacked by corporate globalization.

In the salons of Washington and the suites of Wall Street, “globalization” is a hip buzzword that has no downside, but out in the countryside, I found that ordinary folks are not swallowing the hype. They’re being hit by the realities of lost jobs, lost farms, lost communities, lost faith. They not only know the term “globalization,” but they know the names of the global giants that are stomping on their middle-class aspirations, and, in most cases, they know the names of the CEOs who are getting unfathomably rich by doing the stomping. I realized that this seething political anger was only going to spread, and that Bill Clinton (along with Al Gore and Bill Bradley) had put the Democratic Party on the losing side of a corporations-versus-people divide.

In late ’98 and ’99, I got another sign that globalization had the makings of a political volcano. Suddenly, America’s college campuses were active—protest marches, teach-ins, lists of demands, sit-ins at the presidents’ offices. The issue was sweatshop labor, one of the legs on which the global corporate agenda stands. The media were not covering it, but this issue of gross labor exploitation—a reality far-removed from the actual lives of protesting students—had sparked a prairie fire of outrage among 19, 20, and 21-year-olds. They were on the march, focused on the profits that their own universities draw from sales of campus merchandise produced mostly by girls and young women working in the putrid sweatshops of the new global economy.

From a handful of campuses in the fall of ’98, what is now known as United Students Against Sweatshops (“You-Sass,” is how you say it) has spread to more than 150 campuses. Numbers aside, the message of USAS is that corporate globalization has ignited the powerful torch of social justice among students.

Nor are they alone—it was no accident that “protest central” in Seattle was the First United Methodist Church, which turned over all of its facilities (including the sanctuary) to protesters
to serve as a headquarters, meeting center, rallying point, kitchen, press- conference site—and even a “Radio Free Seattle” broadcast studio, from which Susan DeMarco and I beamed our talk show during all five days of the protest. The clergy was front and center in Seattle, and the impacts of globalization increasingly are being raised as moral questions from America’s pulpits.

And that’s why Seattle was not merely a big protest, but the coalescing of a major political movement.

What did we achieve?

For starters, the light of public awareness was shined for the first time into the dark cave of the WTO and into the blinking eyes of its startled corporate creators. They will never be the same. Like my cab driver, the general public has now heard of the WTO and is at least generally aware that there is something so wrong with it that tens of thousands of people would go out of their way to put their bodies on the line against it. Even with the negative media coverage of the protests, people are asking: “What is this thing?” This is not happy news for the CEOs and global elites used to operating without public questioning. Since Seattle, they’ve been suffering something akin to the hunter’s nightmare, in which someone shouts: “Look out, the rabbit’s got the gun.”

And the Seattle Rebellion has put the fundamental issue of people’s sovereignty on the table. Important political constituencies are now couching their issues within the framework of protecting and expanding self-government. As Ralph Nader put it, quoting Cicero from 2,000 years ago: “Democracy is participation in power.” As Seattle showed, people worldwide know that voting, writing to your “representative,” and other traditional avenues of democratic expression increasingly are exercises in futility, and citizens are not going to be satisfied with anything less than participation in the decision making that affects their lives.

Finally—and I think most important—people felt their own power in Seattle, and this is not a sensation that will go away. Disparate democratic interests showed that they can come together in big numbers, strategize together, and act together, asserting their right to protest effectively, peacefully, and with great imagination.

Young people—the under 30s— are proving to be especially onto the reality of the corporate control and the threat it poses. They were informed, creative and colorful in their protest, willing to go smack into the face (and armed might) of corporate power, and determined to carry the cause back home and to the next level. Leo Girard, vice president of the Steel Workers union, came up to me Wednesday night beaming—”Hightower,” he said, “these kids get it, they’re fearless, and they’re organized.”

At a rally on Thursday of some 12,000 environmentalists, farmers, steel workers, anti-genetic-engineering activists, and others, I put it like this: “The Powers That Be can gas us, shoot us, and try to rip up our Constitution, but they can’t shut us up and can’t stop us, because the people are on the move. Seattle is only the beginning. This week, you have opened up a big can of kick ass, and they won’t be able to put the lid back on it again.”

Behind the Shrub

His Royal Shrubness, who has been on a promenade along a golden-bricked road to the GOP presidential nomination, keeps stumbling over our Bill of Rights. We reported earlier (June 1999) that Gov. Bush had Texas citizens jailed for daring to protest peacefully on the public sidewalk in front of the Governor’s mansion. Protests are okay, he explained, but they should be relegated to a “designated protest area”—which turned out to be a parking lot. In an effort to give him a refresher on Civics 101, the ACLU hauled his butt into court on this one. But like the prince of privilege that he is, Bush continues to crack down on those who criticize him. Editor & Publisher magazine recently ran a cover story called “Bushwhacked: Freedom of Speech All Theory and No Practice at Texas A&M’s Bush School.” Aggie Land, remember, is home to Daddy Bush’s presidential library and The Bush School of Govern-ment and Public Service. In at least four instances, faculty members at the Bush School have been reprimanded at the behest of Gov. Bush’s associates for having made less than glowing comments in the press about the would-be president. The muzzling has gotten so bad that three political scientists have rejected professorships at the school.

Meanwhile, there’s the man who really gets Bush in a lather: Zack Exley, a 29-year old computer programmer from Boston with an impish Web site that parodies the Shrub — Go there and you’ll find a shot of W with a straw up his nose, gleefully inhaling a white powder. It’s obviously fake, and Exley uses it to point out the hypocrisy of the governor’s draconian drug policies. Such Internet parodies (and there are others, including are in the rich tradition of freewheeling political speech, going back to the lampooning of another GW—George Washington—as a jackass.

But Governor High-and-Mighty has no sense of history (or humor) when it comes to personal criticism, so he publicly lambasted Zack as “a garbage man” and, in a chilling statement, said: “There ought to be limits to freedom.”

Then, he really got repressive, unleashing his lawyers to file an action with the Federal Election Commission, demanding that Exley be forced to register his satirical Web site with the FEC and have it regulated as a political committee. Never mind that Zack Exley is not a political committee, Bush is out to shut down the free expression of this free spirit . . . and any others like him. The FEC, a major-party lap dog, actually is considering W’s demand—a move that has Netizens of all political stripes up in arms, since an FEC rule bowing to Bush would subject every political expression on the Internet to government censorship. Bush claims to be a conservative, but he’s showing himself to be an autocrat—the kind of “conservative” King George III would have loved.

By the way, did you know that the Bush family traces its ancestry back to the British royals?

I’m making moves!

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