‘THOSE WHO were arguing they were going to shut the WTO down were in fact successful today.’ That was the frank admission of Seattle police chief Norm Stamper on Tuesday of last week.
A huge protest of workers, students, environmental activists and many others had spoiled the showpiece opening ceremony of the World Trade Organisation talks. US president Bill Clinton, government ministers from across the globe and the heads of the world’s mightiest corporations were in Seattle to plan how they could increase their domination of the planet. Seattle is the original home of Microsoft, one of the biggest of the global corporations and run by the world’s richest man, Bill Gates. The city is also home to one of the world’s biggest industrial corporations, Boeing.
But last week tens of thousands of protesters gave a glimpse of the power of ordinary people to challenge the rule of this global elite. People across the US and around the world watched in amazement the live television coverage of the protest and the repression unleashed to try and crush it. Demonstrators were met with pepper spray, beatings, rubber bullets, armoured cars and billowing clouds of teargas.
But all the repression and all the official denunciation cannot hide two crucial facts. The demonstrators won, and they won because of a unity forged between trade unionists, students, environmental activists and many others. The WTO opening ceremony was cancelled. Delegates simply could not reach it through the protest-filled streets.
THE FULL weight of state repression came down on Seattle on Wednesday of last week. I was teargassed three times and hit by a hail of rubber bullets, simply for taking part in a peaceful, 1,000 strong worker-led protest. The police tore into us without any warning. They continued to fire gas and shoot pellets as they forced us into rush hour traffic. At one point squads were firing from both ends of a street, pure brutality.
I was in South Africa during the 1980s state of emergency. I saw the apartheid security forces at work. In Seattle last week they were equally brutal, except for the use of live ammunition-and that did not seem at all impossible. It was just revenge, revenge for the defeat they had suffered the day before. The WTO has blood on its hands, the blood of capitalism’s victims everywhere. To that the US authorities have added the burnt lungs, streaming eyes and bruised bodies of thousands of people in Seattle this week.
In the ‘land of the free’ the WTO has met behind a wall of guns and gas. But nobody can take away our victory on Tuesday of last week and the effects of those events will echo for years into the future.
THE EFFECTS of last week are momentous. The WTO became a focus for many concerns-from child labour, to debt, the environment, working conditions and union rights. The power of the protest will have shown millions that the corporations can be halted.
Many more people will see that they can do something about the bitter frustration they feel after years of wage cuts, insecurity, longer hours, privatisation and poverty. Others will have seen the myths of a free country exposed on their TV screens. They will know that protest is tolerated only if it is ineffective, that dissent is permissible only if it does not question the real interests of the system.
Tens of thousands of trade unionists have marched with people they previously regarded as a bit ‘weird’, their concerns marginal. Many young people will have seen the power of the unions, glimpsed the possibilities of a revolutionary workers’ movement. Some will realise why the working class is the key to changing society. Across the country phrases like ‘global capitalism’ and ‘corporate governance’ have become part of the general discourse.
Last week has shifted debate firmly leftwards. The events in Seattle will strengthen those who target the enemy as the multinationals, the governments which protect the corporations, and capitalism as a whole. The ‘Battle in Seattle’ has opened up a new chapter in politics, given hope for a new beginning of struggle and change.
‘WE WERE on the frontline of taking on the rule of money,’ says student Margaret Saufley. She was one of thousands of mainly young people who clogged the streets outside the WTO meeting as police began firing teargas.
Two miles away a vast 40,000 strong trade union rally was gathering. Groups of workers were dressed in their union ponchos to ward off the rain. A great bank of yellow showed the teamsters were there. A wedge of blue signified the steel workers. Elsewhere was the green of the health workers’ union, the purple of the public sector union, the white of the painters, and many more. ‘When I look round this stadium I can see an alternative to the global governance of the corporations,’ truck driver Bud Brusa told Socialist Worker.
The workers’ march moved off towards the town centre, but the trade union leaders were determined to keep the demonstration away from the convention centre. Union officials tried to channel the demonstrators down a side street. Unwillingly the first group obeyed their instructions. Then came the longshoremen (dockers). Their large contingent was packed with people who had stopped work in protest at the WTO-1,200 out in Seattle, a similar number at Tacoma and hundreds more at San Francisco, Los Angeles and Long Beach.
‘We’re going to the convention,’ shouted one crane operator. ‘I’m going to help those turtle kids,’ said another docker, referring to the environmental protesters on the receiving end of police brutality a few streets away. For a minute the line of marshals held and then, slowly, it began to part. Chanting, cheering, the trade unionists swept straight on.
The two groups, the workers and the young protesters, met. ‘Union!’ screamed the trade unionists. ‘Power!’ replied the students and youth. ‘Solidarity! Solidarity!’ they chanted together.
IN THE centre of Seattle, by the citadels of corporate power, stood Boeing workers and students, postal workers and people with floral headdresses-all together! ‘Disperse or you will be subject to riot control measures,’ announced the police. Were they going to teargas the teamsters [truck drivers], steel workers and machinists [engineers]? They were not. They chose defeat on the day instead of risking wider rebellion.
For the two hours while the union-led march went past the WTO meeting the police fired no gas or rubber bullets. They were beaten. The WTO opening ceremony was cancelled. Only later, as the trade unionists left, did the police unleash their fury. Dozens of protesters fell choking, their eyes and noses burnt by the gas and pepper sprays. Others suffered wounds from the rubber bullets.
In 1968 when police smashed demonstrators against the Vietnam War at the Democratic Party convention, the protesters had chanted, ‘The whole world is watching.’ Now the same chant was taken up. There was some damage to shops, but only those most associated with exploitation and environmental damage-McDonald’s, Starbucks coffee, Gap, US Bank and others. Long into the night the gas swirled round the city. The next day it was virtually martial law. The WTO was able to meet. But it would discuss its plans to help the multinationals in an atmosphere tinged with teargas and behind lines of men armed with clubs and guns.
By LEE SUSTAR of the International Socialist Organisation, Socialist Worker’s US sister group
I WAS part of a group of protesters that marched from the steel workers’ rally at Seattle docks. A delegation of French trade unionists from the CGT federation led us in chants. The feeling of unity and internationalism was fantastic. Minutes later cops in riot gear ambushed us in the middle of rush hour traffic. We sat down in protest until the cops arrested anyone they could fit into city buses.
Once in jail, we kept organising as we met new people in different holding cells-a postal worker, a Teamsters’ organiser, a journalist, students and young people. We held political meetings continuously, ranging from debates over violence in protests to how to get rid of the system. In our discussion on the alternatives to global capitalism, I argued that organised labour was key to the political impact of the protests and that workers had the power to lead the struggle for a socialist alternative.
I was among hundreds who were kicked out of jail once the WTO delegates were out of town. We were greeted by more than 100 young people who had camped out on the jailhouse steps in solidarity. Several protesters face trumped up felony charges. Solidarity campaigns for them are already under way.
‘We are fighting for real justice in a world that denies justice to billions. Something is changing in America when you can have a day like this.’
‘I CAME here to protest about the killing of turtles. I’m going home determined to turn the whole world upside down.’
Amber Pattison, who travelled 1,000 miles to Seattle
‘We came here to demand that people get heard, rather than corporations. I work at the Boeing factory in Seattle. It’s a huge plant with 80,000 workers. I do not trust the people who treat us badly in the plant to run the world. If we want a decent environment, a future for all human beings on the planet, then we had better start taking back our lives. Today has been a great start.’
‘I’m from the Seattle Raging Grannies. We want a better future for our children and our grandchildren-and better times now for us. We have to learn the lessons of the past, that protest is always derided, always smeared, but in the end it is the only way to get progress. At last today we have labour activists and young people on the same march.’
‘We closed the port of Seattle today in protest at the WTO. ‘Our lives are utterly dependent on trade, but we ask, ‘What sort of trade?’ ‘The ordinary people of the world should benefit from trade, not the wealthy elite.’
Longshoreman ALAN COTEE
Every working class person will feel the pressure
Two inspiring strikes show the way forward