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Reflections on Seattle WTO Anniversary '09

I'm on my way back from Seattle, having just attended the actions and people's summit celebrating the ten year anniversary of the WTO shutdown in 1999. Ten years ago this week, the Millennium Round of WTO negotiations to further bind the worlds' democracies to profit-over-people corporate policies - nearly identical to the current Doha Round - was stopped in it tracks.WTO IR Action N30 09

So much has happened since teamsters and turtles alike took over the streets of Seattle, labor marched, and tree sitters blockaded the convention center. During the weekend at the People's Summit, put on by the Seattle +10 Organizing Committee, Community Alliance for Global Justice, and the Washington Fair Trade Campaign, folks traded fond recollections of creative protest and dancing in the streets, chemical weapons and near misses, thoughts on broken widows and built alliances. You couldn't help but wish you had been there.

But it's true that much has changed since Seattle '99. Here are some thoughts, rooted in the past, that occur to me as we all look forward to the 21st Century Movement or Global Justice:

1) Support for trade justice has grown tremendously since 1999. We're right to be proud that we've stopped further WTO expansion since 1999, nearly stopped the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and have kept at bay the most damaging Bush-negotiated FTA deals with Colombia, South Korea, and Panama. We got stuck with the Peru FTA - but many organizations fought back and made clear that passing even economically tiny trade deals now requires a massive political cost.

2) Despite these victories, the damages of the WTO/NAFTA model are ongoing throughout the world. We can't forget that in addition to economic meltdown and joblessness in the U.S., that the food and climate crisis are already devastating the Global South. Add to these most glaring manifestations of the WTO-ified global insanity the cultural upheaval of widespread immigration, violent displacements of whole peoples for mining, megaprojects and monoculture, and wars of occupation for resources, and we still only start to get an accurate picture of the tattered world of 2009.

3) Its past time to return to direct denunciation of corporate power. In yesterday's global justice movement, we unabashedly called out the corporate powers as illegitimate and retrograde. Our primary gripe with the WTO, IMF World Bank, and FTAA, whether you were a student sweatshop activist, a tree-sitter, a manufacturing worker or a school teacher, was that those institutions gave more power to corporations to fell the old-growth, outsource and offshore, build more sweatshops, loot the public coffers and privatize our public services. Rhetorically, we made no bones about these institutions being vehicles that serve the corporate elite at the expense of the rest of us. We said if corporations were the ones doing the globalizing, we'd collectively resist their agenda. And that we have, uniting under common banners against a common opponent, one named corporate power. If we don't return to this footing, we'll remain fragmented as a climate movement, development and international solidarity, immigration rights, and food sovereignty movements.

4) Copenhagen = Seattle? The more I hear this comparison, the less I am sure. And note that I say this as someone who's increasingly convinced that the need for climate justice is the top challenge facing the global economy. What separates Seattle '99 and Copenhagen '09 is a clear understanding by social movements that corporate influence is rotting the process to the core. In Seattle, activists were clear that the WTO's development agenda was a trojan horse for corporate profits. Expanding corporate power was the aim of the talks, and the reason we shut it down.

The Copenhagen talks undoubtedly have a different aim, but are arguably even more infiltrated by corporate interests who are no longer merely looking to greedily gain in globalization, but are now hanging on for dear life to keep the money flowing, even if all other life grinds to a halt. They're like castaways floating in the ocean who refuse to untethered the cement blocks that are drowning us all. They're at the very end of the rope (the last ones to be pulled under), and are gambling all our lives on chance the bricks will hit bottom before the last of the slack has run out. Pure insanity.

Climate campaigners should take a moment to reflect on Seattle's lesson and revise strategies to confront corporate climate criminals. Maybe they can wait till after Copenhagen, but not much longer. Learning our movement history back to Seattle and far beyond will suggest prescriptions for future strategic action that builds on the legacy of the global justice movement. The environmental movement is growing tired of excuses from world leaders, and is beginning to tackle the corporations behind failed policy.

5) Building for Global Justice when there's no Ministerial. There was no protest against the WTO this year in Seattle, but there were three other actions that took place during a day-long rally that marked the anniversary. The 1999 WTO Ministerial was a gift - one we won't get again. It was a perfect chance to unite and confront corporate power and stop concrete policies that would impact our constituencies. We even caught the the powers that be off guard, and won! Today, with no ministerial to mobilize around, no meeting to shutdown. We all tend to organize around flash-points, moments of urgency, and disasters in the making. Although its much more challenging, further organizing in the absence of emergency, for the long-term will pay dividends and provide the space to meaningfully build alongside communities that are often excluded and to forge deeper connections among our movements. Forward looking initiatives like the TRADE Act are keeping fanned the flames of trade justice activism, and more such programs are needed. Spaces like the U.S. Social Forum will offer a great chance to take stock and further these conversations.

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Comments

Santos Felipe Ramos

A few hundred came down to Portland, OR from Seattle on December 5th to protest the WTO. Unfortunately, there were only around 1,200 attendance, and the tactics of the march were weak. I also attended an anti-war demonstration in Portland the day after Obama announced the escalation in Afghanistan. That gathering was even smaller and more ineffective. Perhaps activists are exhausted, or even desensitized by, the ongoing war, tactics of the WTO, etc. Most alarmingly, I didn't hear any of the speakers at the Portland WTO rally mention the Trade Act, which seems to be the most important part of this movement.

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