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TORONTO, Ont. /Troy Media/ – Almost 20 years on from the Battle in Seattle is about the right time to revisit the famous protest. The World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial conference was held on Nov. 30, 1999. A week of protests drew 75,000 people.
A lot of public protest is about place and space, even if it starts out to be about politics, economics and race. Taking over or blocking a street has always been a way to let the world know you have a cause. So is making noise – joyful, as in music, chanting a slogan, or just banging pots and pans.
Seattle protesters were inspired by the British Reclaim the Streets activities, so they blocked intersections with their parties and formed marching bands. There are often strange bedfellows in coalitions – people who otherwise might not speak to each other or be at the same party. People said to be students, anarchists and environmentalists ringed the Washington State Convention and Trade Center and prevented ministers from holding their opening session. This was augmented by, or parallel to, a march by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), who had a permit for their activities.
The police responded to the blockade with rubber bullets and tear gas. Protesters responded by trashing store windows. A curfew was imposed. There was $3 million in damages, 600 arrests and lots of injuries.
This was said to have broken new ground on both sides. The new ground included the protesters’ use of vandalism, and the police pepper spraying everybody – protesters and residents alike. And yet, as the Palgrave Dictionary of Public Order Policing, Protest and Political Violence shows, this has been going on for 100 years. Authors Peter Joyce and Neil Wain trace escalation and overreaction back at least that length of time to violence in Ireland and England, with lots of reference to the U.S., too.
Seattle protesters focused on anti-globalization. This is said to have stiffened the spine of many to resist the American and European neo-liberal free-trade agenda.
More protests were directed at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington, D.C., in April 2000. Police arrested 700 at that event, many of whom were non-violent and bystanders.
In 2002, there were more protests against the IMF and World Bank and 650 people were arrested, including reporters.
Now, the U.S. has a president who seems equally skeptical of globalization and free trade. Where the danger may lie is in thinking there’s a quick, easy or cheap fix for the mess we’re in. First, the unions and protesters have to decide if they’re really on the same side, let alone on Donald Trump’s side. Then they need to revisit the old lefty notion of world federalism, and why that seemed popular decades ago. Finally, they need to ponder what solidarity they have with their un-unionized brothers and sisters in low-wage countries. Shall they be helped or shall their work be the subject of protest?
The right needs to revisit IMF, World Bank and other policies, which are shown to produce equivocal results in emerging regions – at best. How’s that aid and disaster relief working in Haiti and Africa, for example?
Let’s say we get rid of the major trade deals, like NAFTA and FTA. Cancelling the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) brings the U.S.-Canadian Free Trade Agreement (FTA) back into force and it lacks a dispute resolution mechanism and has problems concerning country-of-origin rules. If we get rid of FTA, would the Auto Pact prevail?
Most concerning is the 2,800 or so bilateral trade treaties among the 35 most developed countries in the world.
Good luck. No wonder protest seems an attractive option, even for the U.S. president.
Troy Media columnist Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He is the author of Safer Cities. Allan is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.
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