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From Organica Magazine, Summer 2,000

 

PERMISSION TO DREAM

How do we handle new hope? Though the tear gas has cleared and the cameras have gone, the Seattle WTO protests just may represent one of those rare historical moments that people look back at years later as spark-points for change. But its legacy depends on what we do next.

For the past decade, perhaps the past twenty years, we’ve been told that we have had no choice but to defer to a new world order, where the market calls all the shots. Our role, we’re told, is simply to get used to it. All other approaches are futile.

Had ordinary citizens stayed silent, the Seattle round would have been hailed as the next progression of this inevitable global future. Instead, our protests challenged the benign self-congratulations about universal progress. By marching and sitting in the streets, surrounding the hotels, refusing to be silent, ordinary citizens radically shifted the agenda. In contrast with the invisible decisions of the WTO’s faceless judges and unaccountable delegates, we told our stories of who we are and what we believed in. I saw union activists, farmers, environmental activists, artists with giant weeping puppets, even the clerks from my grocery store. As we talked about what is lost when all human values become subordinated to profit, we began to lay the ground for a new vision.

Not all our message got out, to be sure, but enough so those watching worldwide saw a broad spectrum of people rejecting the assumptions of the corporate leaders, politicians, and pundits. Unexpectedly, Bill Clinton then amplified our themes—not from any moral courage, but because the kinds of people who filled the streets were part of the core Democratic political base. And by praising parts of our alternative agenda, he gave them further legitimacy. With the protests giving inside-dissidents greater courage, the meetings ended up in gridlock. Even Business Week ran an astoundingly sympathetic article, which concluded, "Global trade politics will never be the same after Seattle. For the first time, the issue is squarely joined: Shall human rights take their place alongside property rights in the global economic system?"

Our ability to act has been daunted, in recent years, by a fundamental uncertainty. With the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the state Communist model that claimed to offer an alternative to global capitalism saw its systems ignominiously collapse, revealed as brutally oppressive, ecologically disastrous, and profoundly stifling of the human spirit. The Western European countries, with their mixed economies and strong social welfare policies (what’s called the social democratic tradition) still do offer an alternative. But they’ve been whipsawed by the power of international capital to override local democracy, and many have also retreated during this period. And the craven retreats of Bill Clinton are profoundly demoralizing. Meanwhile, economic globalization has exported the most all-consuming and rapacious aspects of market approaches to every corner of our planet.

As a result many long-time activists have been left with a sense, in the words of a veteran Central America activist I know, that the political ground's "shifted and grown slippery." As a teacher in her circle put it, "It's like trying to steer by a compass when there's no longer a magnetic North." We almost felt embarrassed to speak out for justice.

The Seattle protests responded to this uncertainty by accepting it, as simply the given state of affairs in our current time. And focusing instead on the kinds of concrete specific stories that inspire our moral concern to begin with. We don’t have the perfect blueprint for the ideal just society. Participants acknowledged that. But we do know the values we want our social institutions to serve. Instead of getting caught in an impossibly perfect standard, where no one can speak out until they know every fact and statistic about global trade, or can analyze every conceivable sub-clause in hundred-page treaties, people offered powerful specific examples of how the WTO was assaulting democracy, sustainability, and local sovereignty. We talked about the ruling overturning laws prohibiting shrimp caught by boats without sea-turtle exclusion devices in their nets; the challenge to a Massachusetts law boycotting companies invested in Burma; the lawsuit where Ethyl Corporation challenged a Canadian ban on potentially carcinogenic additives. Not all of these examples got through the media focus on a small group of window-trashers. But enough did to allow people worldwide to feel affirmed in their sense that the new world order needs challenging and changing.

The protests renewed hope by bringing together often-separated movements. The battle cry "Turtles and Teamsters, united forever," has become almost a cliché, but the joining of labor, environmental, and human rights activists was critical. So were the links between grassroots activists from around the globe, and between Vietnam-era and other older activists and the much-maligned generation of young women and men who spearheaded the human chains that shut down the conference’s first day. Labor-environmental alliances had been building since the anti-NAFTA fights. They took a huge leap forward last summer when the United Steelworkers and major environmental groups came together in Houston to jointly protest Maxxam Corporation’s lockout of striking Kaiser Aluminum workers in Spokane, and its cutting of old growth redwoods in Northern California. They even created a new organization, the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment. But Seattle provided this convergence with a national stage, mixing generations, movements and perspectives. The more people addressed each other’s issues, the more a common struggle for human dignity seemed possible, and the more a common vision began to emerge.

The WTO protests also demonstrated the power of nonviolent resistance. Those trashing windows were easily caricatured as mindless crazies. But close to 10,000 amazingly disciplined nonviolent protestors refused to let the WTO simply proceed as intended. Their message was harder to dismiss. At least 40,000 others marched, milled around, and filled the streets in support. This is more than the largest anti-Vietnam war march through 1966—30,000 people in New York City. During the first major day of protests, longshoremen closed every major West Coast port, demanding that the trade that provided their jobs serve human values. And participants stood their ground despite being tear gassed, pepper sprayed, and sometimes clubbed. Many had honed their techniques of nonviolent resistance in battles over sweatshops, old growth timber, the School of the Americas--causes where more modest numbers of participants have also managed to shift the politics of key issues. Others learned through extensive pre-protest trainings or from those around them. Gathering and regrouping, coordinating with affinity groups and cell phones, they ensured that the conference could only proceed under the atmosphere of military siege.

What next? The Seattle protests represented a peak moment, when history seemed to turn. The solidarity, sense of delight, comradeship, play, and even romance, on the streets was powerful, despite the riot clubs and gas. The sense of accomplishment was tangible, against all the odds. But now we’re back to normal life. The cameras have gone. The pace of change is slower. And although we helped place fundamental issues on the global agenda, no single week can by itself change history.

We can begin by embracing our new permission to speak out. We talked about fundamental issues of justice and democratic accountability, and people responded. As Business Week said, we changed the dynamics of a global discussion. But we have to take this discussion further.

Given the international attention focused on the protests, the issues we raised are now ripe to be debated in the ordinary institutions of civic life--what political theorists call civic society. This means community groups and schools, churches and temples, rock clubs and bars, unions and environmental groups, city councils and legislatures, every kind of institution where people gather together. Those of us involved with alternative health or New Age communities could focus our outreach there. Like to help New Age churches become prophetic communities where people ask what kind of society we should be creating and work together to shape it. Or using the alternative health community as a network to reach out, by getting activist materials posted in the waiting rooms of alternative health care providers, or using the networks of these practitioners to funnel people into a broader discussions of key public issues. Sometimes this happens anyway, but we might approach it a bit more consciously, using the kinds of networks we’re already part of.

When we do this, we can work to get new people involved in campaigns related to the basic issues that were raised in Seattle, from debates over democratizing the World Bank, forgiving Third World debt, and challenging China’s prospective WTO membership, to attempts to save local community institutions in the face the Walmartization of our culture, and the anti-sweatshop campaigns that have already won significant ground against companies like Nike and The Gap. I’ve been hearing from all over the country how activist meetings that would normally draw ten people are drawing forty, fifty, or even a hundred. But it’s up to us to continue the dialogue, reaching out to those still hesitant to speak their mind.

We can also build on our new alliances. I’ve mentioned the recent environmental and labor coalitions. Seattle has a new network of progressive groups, working to figure out common strategies. Wherever we are, we need to bring together organizations with a common vision of human dignity—pushing our comfort zone to find unexpected shared ground across divergent backgrounds and experiences.

The protests gave both participants and those watching a brief permission to dream. We need to take this permission to heart, along with the lessons about the power of human courage to radically shift the directions of history. What kind of world do we want, beyond the one we’re told is the sole alternative? We shouldn’t feel ashamed to ask why the U.S. is the sole advanced industrial country without universal health care, why we lead the world in percentage of our citizens in prison, why our campaigns are too often bought and sold by the powerful. As Sojourners editor Jim Wallis says, "Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change."

Some of us will do this by blocking doorways, getting arrested, and sitting in the streets. But whether or not we ever confront a police line, we can all embrace the spirit that says, "We may or may not take a given particular action. But we’re going to do something that pushes us." That may mean getting tear-gassed and going to jail. Or talking about critical public issues at local Rotary Club, a local community or professional group. So long as we bring the key issues of our time to arenas where they’re rarely discussed, and risk taking heat in some fashion, we have a chance to act in a manner just as consequential as facing down a riot squad.

Finally, we have to persevere. The WTO protests didn’t come out of nowhere. They built on years of work addressing issues of democracy, corporate power and accountability. Historical shifts always emerge from similarly unheralded roots. Rosa Parks worked for a dozen years with her local NAACP before taking her fabled stand on the Montgomery Alabama bus, then spent years more being part of the efforts that ended legal segregation. Susan B. Anthony spent her entire adult life working for suffrage, then died fourteen years before it was achieved. We need that spirit of persistence to make the global economy into something more than just the playground of the powerful.

This means taking critical debates on sovereignty, accountability, and democracy to every imaginable community, and giving flesh to all the fine abstractions of justice that languish unless we live them out. It means continuing to build our coalitions despite the inevitable frustrations and differences. It means speaking not only to those who already embrace our perceptions, but also to all manner of ordinary citizens who have a stake in our common future. Most of all, it means remembering that the Seattle protests may well be part of a key renewal of hope--but only if we all redeem their promise.

Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time (St Martin’s Press, www.soulofacitizen.org), Generation at the Crossroads and two other books on social involvement.