ps/o4 public trading | value system | anti-imperialism and boombox politics
Today, members of the audio-activist organization, Ultra-red returned to their home in Los Angeles from the massive November 29 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, Washington. With the bite of tear gas still in our eyes and our ears still ringing from the sonic disrupters used by SWAT police, we write this dispatch about our experience in Seattle.
silence produced through accumulation
To claim the war against the WTO has now begun is to ignore the decades of struggle waged in the underdeveloped world against centuries of colonialist and neocolonialist domination.
Nonetheless, what has emerged as a result of the November 29 Seattle demonstrations is a crushing blow to the World Trade Organization's most powerful defense: silence. A silence produced through undemocratic institutions, covert policy debates and corporate-driven designs for circumventing citizen participation in the hyper-capitalist drive for uninterrupted global accumulation Ð a system of accumulation whose cries of misery crowd within the silences of world trade to the point of explosion.
On November 28, 1999 the majority of Americans could claim ignorance of the WTO and its mission. By the morning of December 1, all that changed. What pierced the barbarous silence were over 50,000 protesters from around the world who succeeded in flooding the streets of Seattle, Washington, site of the third rounds of the World Trade Organization talks.
The demonstrators came from such diverse groups as organized labor, with the AFL-CIO turning out at least 30,000 of its members from across the country. Alongside labor marched independent labor organizers from the IWW, a delegation of Zapatistas from Chiapas, farmers, feminists, Sierra Club members, Greenpeace, Rain Forest Action Network, Freedom Socialist Party, Labor Party, queer groups, seniors groups, human rights activists from India, Africa, Korea, China, Indonesia, South America and, of course, numerous anarchist cells both pacifist and riotous.
While much of the immediate newscoverage has focused on the later, Ultra-red can testify to the fact that, as usual, the police were the primary instigators of the majority of violence which occurred during the November 30 protests.
As the tens of thousands of activists and demonstrators poured into Seattle's streets in the vicinity of the convention center and hotels that were hosting the WTO, many affinity groups formed to commit peaceful civil disobedience. At least five major intersections were occupied by hundreds of demonstrators who sat down and began chanting and singing. When the police issued dispersal orders, the crowds moved to the sidewalks determined to provide support for those willing to be arrested. However, the police had set a policy that no one would be arrested for civil disobedience.
When the affinity groups failed to vacate the area, the riot police sent canisters of tear gas and pepper spray into the crowds as well as firing rubber bullets. Remarkably, the assemblies remained calm. Still, the police refused to arrest those participating in the sit-ins. More tear gas and pepper spray were used. As the boulevards slowly filled with clouds of noxious fumes, a small group of anarchists began breaking windows. The nearby crowds of environmentalists, trade unionists and others conducted a sort of spontaneous self-policing, demanding the vandals to cease their activities. But as the tear gas worsened and the crowds were forced back, those few determined to break windows and spray paint were left unhampered to carry on their business.
The police continued to scour through the lockdown zone, discharging cans of tear gas with abandon. The strategy to some extent backfired when the clouds of gas began pouring down the streets well beyond the zone. As the night fell, the winds carried the tear gas into nearby residential neighborhoods. Pedestrians standing at downtown bus stops were overcome with the fumes. Commuter cars, buses, office buildings and the Seattle tourist area of Pike Street Market all felt the effects of the tear gas. You could say that everyone whose eyes flamed and faces burned from the gas became a protester.
In the end, windows were destroyed and graffiti appeared on the walls of several department stores, two Starbucks, Nike Town, Planet Hollywood, a jewelry store, the Seattle Symphony Hall, a multi-plex cinema and numerous other businesses. One of the Starbucks and a Radio Shack were looted in scenes reminiscent of LA's 1992 Rodney King uprising. However, of the over 50,000 people who took part in the demonstrations, only 60 arrests were made that night. The majority of those arrests were either vandals or persons disobeying the 7:00 PM emergency curfew issued by the Seattle Mayor.
It is important to note that even before the acts of vandalism, the WTO Chairman Michael Moore canceled the conferences opening ceremonies. While the Seattle Mayor and others publicly lamented the cancellation, Ultra-red joins with many others in applauding the efforts of demonstrators in successfully shutting the conference down for the first of its four days.
The coalition that came together in the Seattle streets represents such a breathtaking range of issues, concerns and ideological positions that this one cooperative act is truly awe-inspiring. Ultra-red collected audio recordings of spontaneous singing, boulevards ringing with chants and rhythm ensembles, an impromptu rave started by a van outfitted with turn-tables, an anti-fascist marching band playing "The International" and the footsteps of thousands. The soundscapes created by the protesters will no doubt furnish Ultra-red with some of their richest sound sources.
A significant feature of those soundscapes were traces of a contradiction embedded in the enormous gathering. Even the night before on November 28, the contradiction within the "No WTO" coalition became evident. During a massive rally held in the city's Key Arena, speakers outlined two very different interpretations of what the grass-roots opposition movements wanted from these acts of resistance [Note: the same day as the "Battle in Seattle," protests took place in Paris and London]. Some speakers demanded that the WTO be reformed, reconstituted to include labor, human rights and environmentalists in its judicial proceedings. In fact, President Clinton has echoed these sentiments in calling for a working group within the WTO similar to that formed for NAFTA. And yet, if we have learned any lessons from NAFTA it is that the way of free trade globalization will only tolerate such conditions as long as they are unenforceable. Therefore, several persons who addressed the Key Arena rally called for the total elimination of the World Trade Organization.
The profound difference between reformers and abolitionists produced a climate of confusion the next day when it became evident that the 50,000 demonstrators in the streets had forcefully caused the opening day cancellation. News of the cancellation elicited condemnation from not just the Seattle Mayor, but numerous labor leaders, congressional Democrats and environmental leaders. However, when labor calls out its membership for the "Battle in Seattle" the question becomes, to what extent is the language of radicalism used for appearances and to what extent does it actually inform the motivating force for action? Perhaps many in the progressive community regret the degree to which their constituents are willing to participate in direct political action. Here, those in the more institutional progressive movements can learn a great deal from our younger anarchist sisters and brothers.
Throughout the remainder of the week and into the months and years to come, the rift between reformers and abolitionists will become increasingly evident. It is important to note that the dividing line between the two positions does not necessarily fall along the lines of interest groups with organized labor advocating reformation. In fact, many of those who marched and addressed the crowds from within the various camps of human rights activists, labor and environmentalists, asked questions along the line is globalization anything other than the slow steady march of capitalism to constantly produce new divisions in labor, produce new populations of exploited labor and produce new escape holes for over-accumulation and over-production? Can any instrument of free trade coexist with a labor movement which seeks to remove all competition from labor, domestically and internationally?
As the radical implications of these questions become increasingly evident to both rank and file activists and our beneficent leaders, the actual contour of what is at stake in the November 30 protests will gain sharper clarity and demand new and even bolder expressions of solidarity and resistance.
For more information on the WTO and the movements organized in opposition to it, check out the following websites: