Sleepless In Seattle
New Internationalist 322 April 2000
Last November the world's trade ministers and corporate suits
gathered in the city of Boeing and Bill Gates for another cosy round
of free-trade deals. They got a shock. Anita Roddick kept a diary
of the week that shook the World Trade Organization (WTO).
I’m thinking on the flight to Seattle, all I want to do here is stuff my brain with information, tape the words of every speaker, pick up every leaflet and march with every protester. I want the experience of being here to expand my already growing disquiet at what our economic institutions have bought into. I want to find the best way to make a difference. I intend to be sleepless in Seattle.
I arrive on Friday to attend the International Forum on Globalization’s two-day ‘Teach In’ on the role of the WTO. The Forum is a spectacular organization, boasting an alliance of some 60 economists, activists, scholars and non-profit organizations (NGOs) from more that 20 countries. And what an event they organized! The 3,000-seat auditorium is packed to capacity. Energy levels are sky-high, with almost every speaker met by a lively chorus of approval.
Centre-stage overflows with passionate and well-informed opinion on the multiple impacts of economic globalization. Vandana Shiva (Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, India), Martin Khor (Director of Third World Network, a grouping of NGOs involved in development and environment issues) and author Susan George all expose and inspire. They give us alternatives, show us ways of humanizing the economy. The hundreds of trade and government bureaucrats from the official WTO delegations should have been here to listen and to learn.
Walking out of the meeting into downtown Seattle I get this wonderful feeling of citizen power, this feeling that millions – billions – of people not represented by the WTO: workers, farmers, students, indigenous peoples, the economically weaker groups, have a voice in the street. Back home, consumer power can be and has been wielded to stop the multinationals in their tracks. It’s that message we must get across.
I am inspired by yesterday’s speakers and feel my prepared speech repeats many of their thoughts and sentiments. So I decide to start again. As the only businesswoman speaker I want to contribute a business perspective and to talk about my own experience of trade that really benefits local communities. I call for a world trading system that proactively supports human rights, that is sustainable.
In the evening we listen to ‘Views from the South’, featuring some of the most prominent voices, notably Vandana Shiva and Martin Khor on ‘Third World opposition to globalization, the WTO and transnational corporations’. These powerful and authoritative speakers catch us up in an ever-growing sense of injustice at the current systems of global governance. We are enlightened with examples, shocked with facts, empowered with knowledge.
Saturday evening marks the end of this remarkable Teach-In – an intensive and deeply inspiring 48 hours of views, discussion and debate, preparing all of us for what promises to be a dramatic week ahead; and a long fight into the future for justice and equality in trade. It certainly gives all of us ammunition (an unfortunate term in retrospect...) for lively debates – and media interviews – to come.
NICK COBBING / STILL PICTURES
A morning of getting up to speed on the practicalities of the week ahead. Public Citizen, the US consumer organization headed and inspired by Ralph Nader, has organized an impressive schedule of debates and demonstrations. This Mobilization Against Corporate Globalization, as their newsletter is called, provides an extensive summary of events; the only oddity being a session ‘WTO for beginners’ on the following Friday. It is the media that need this session most – at the start of the week. The general public have no idea what the WTO is; they have no grasp of the real consequences of current trade rules. The media has so far failed to expose the true human and environmental costs of unregulated free trade. Through media interviews lined up this week, I hope to help dispel some of the more fundamental myths and to talk from experience about the reality of alternatives – fair trade that works.
The Public Citizen office is the alternative nerve centre. Television cameras jostle for space amongst the volunteers to get an angle on Mike Dolan – running the show – who gives a quick soundbite before turning back to us with a complicated logistical schedule. We finally head off to join the inaugural British NGO get-together. Hilary Coulby from ActionAid – the NGO on the official British delegation – chairs an informal briefing where everyone expresses their frustration at failing mobile phones or the lack thereof; confusion and overlapping briefings; with the irony that hardly a minute during the week is without an NGO briefing.
We spend the afternoon at a panel discussion on ‘Alternatives to corporate globalization’. Barry Coates, Director of the World Development Movement, and Susan George give powerful and punchy speeches on where our futures lie. No utopia – just a long fight. ‘If you stop fighting you go backwards,’ warns Susan George, who reminds us that there is no promised land. ‘We have got to figure out how to stop people that stop at nothing,’ she says, leaving us with a battery of soundbites and an empowering vision of the way forward in this ‘war’.
Later that evening we head to a huge warehouse – fired with energy and anticipation from the many different groups of activists and individuals planning their peaceful assault on the WTO. I meet The Ruckus Society, whose extraordinary puppets, banners and material creations I have helped to fund. They, along with many others, are at the forefront of the direct actions planned for Seattle.
Banners carrying slogans calling for the rights to democracy and fair trade are being quietly constructed, as more than a hundred activists are taking part in an impressively well-organized meeting to plan for the big protest day. Activists plan to converge on the Ministerial meeting from all corners of the city – the aim being to confront delegates with a human blockade.
We begin early with a strategy meeting over breakfast – logistics for tonight, where I will be speaking at the People’s Gala. The Gala, in Seattle’s Key Arena, is to be a popular alternative to the official cocktail party hosted by WTO Director General, Mike Moore. The rich, the powerful and the influential will be be toasting their good fortune while a collective group of NGOs, individuals and other groups celebrate their determination to raise the alarm and focus world attention on the failure of the WTO.
New and unexpected alliances are forming, giving new momentum to the opposition to global corporate rule. The power of these new strategic alliances is potentially huge – as we have seen in the GM/Monsanto campaigns. Corporations can be stopped in their tracks. The powers against them are gathering strength from thinking in new dimensions – in new partnerships. As an international company with a commitment to social justice, The Body Shop constantly explores effective partnerships to meet these ends. I hope Seattle inspires more such alliances and opens new doors to help shift the debate.
I join the Environment March to add my voice through on-the-spot radio interviews to focus attention on the environmental devastation perpetuated by current trading rules. A sea of slogan-toting turtles surrounds us. All to the rather bizarre backdrop of a row of heavily armed police propping up their mountain bikes in a militaristic row.
The American folk singer Laura Love gives it her all at the People’s Gala that night. She is a woman who celebrates the joys of womanhood. As I do. After a short speech, evoking solutions and my experience of community trade, I head off to do a live interview for breakfast TV in Britain – to talk about the significance to ordinary people of the WTO, to clarify why this meeting matters and to emphasize that whatever is decided by world trade ministers, it is consumers who have the ultimate power.
The Big Day. The day of protest, the day when the WTO is going to make world headlines – for the right reasons at last. Exposed as the focus of tens of thousands of protesters’ attention and anger as an undemocratic closed shop, with the multinationals hoarding the cash for their own ends. We demand that people should be at the forefront of a trading system that benefits those who need it most. We want to expose the violations of justice, show the reality behind the myths.
As we gather at 6.00 am, it is absolutely pouring with rain. The early-morning protesters are a sea of red and yellow anti-WTO ponchos punctured with banners and puppets, standing out in the dark drizzle.
We bump into John Vidal from the Guardian newspaper in Britain, poncho-less and soggy, and head off with the crowd, alongside a jaunty papier mâché cow propelled by six legs. We march towards the Paramount Theatre, where the opening ceremonies for the WTO’s Third Ministerial are to be held. Protesters’ groups meet and break up and we wonder where the plot is. Short rows of ridiculously overdressed police seem relaxed.
But not for long. Outside the Sheraton Hotel protesters soon gather in strength, lock arms – and the strategy to stop the meeting kicks in. Suited and frustrated delegates try to dodge past us. We tighten our grip on neighbouring arms and stand firm. Many delegates give up and stand, helpless, in confused, suited groups on the other side of the street, clutching their papers and wondering what to do. The crowd of protesters thickens, the rows of police tighten. Anticipation and tension seep into the air. And the time ticks on, past the supposed opening ceremonies of the WTO.
The faceless, black-geared, over-armed figures of the Seattle police look like something out of Star Trek, with a heavy portent of potential brutality. Their long truncheons poised at an identical angle, their visors down and their feet the same distance apart. We chant the very American ‘WTO – Hell, No!’ slogans and drums fill the air, everyone reminds everyone that this is a peaceful protest, and we sit down in the road in front of the police. Our right to non-violent and effective demonstration against injustice.
NICK COBBING / STILL PICTURES
Then, with the whole world watching, everything changes. An armoured tank appears clad with police. The row of police bends down and puts on gas masks. They face us and tighten the straps of their masks.
We don’t get any warning. But we are running with the crowd, spluttering in shock as the first cloud of tear gas in the Battle of Seattle bursts into the air. Some still sit – covering their eyes in pain. We are momentarily rooted to the spot as we watch a protester being beaten by police across the front of a truck. The cry of ‘Shame!’ goes up and is chanted in outrage. The momentum shifts as people turn to face the police. I shout until I feel hoarse. The sound of that cry will always stay with me.
The images fill front pages around the globe. The reality shocks me to the core. And enforces my resolve to do whatever I can to campaign for human rights, abused and ignored by trade rules which cut to profits – no matter the human cost.
I’m holed up in a Seattle bedroom, doing radio interviews – the media are particularly interested in my perspective as a businesswoman. All I can hear are police sirens. I’m a few blocks away from the protest march. Clinton is on the TV referring to the protest as a Hoopla! Here he is, falsifying with another myth – that the WTO is helping an already endangered species in America, the family farm. He is comfortingly soothing the world with the notion that they are direct beneficiaries of globalization. Hasn’t anyone told him that the only ones that receive subsidies in America are huge agribusinesses? Hearing this you certainly get a feeling of institutionalized untruths. Kennedy said it all: ‘The great enemy of truth is not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth – persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.’
The result of Seattle will be a radicalization of the anti-globalization movement. Seattle has made the alternative possible on a global scale – the devastation wrought by continued globalization is not inevitable. We have really seen that it is possible to turn this ‘oil tanker’ around. But we have only just started pulling on the brakes. It’s what happens now that counts. We have created a window of opportunity – the significance of which is almost unthinkably enormous.
Something else has happened in Seattle. It has become even more clear to me that The Body Shop has been living a protest against the WTO simply by its absolute belief in community trade. We’ve seen in Nigeria what international corporations have done and we’ve seen in Ghana what community trade does – and we know which works. Co-operation for the best, not competition for the cheapest, is a slogan that will carry us forward in this long fight.
and Co-chair of The Body Shop.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.