The right to breathe
No well-dressed demonstrator was without a gas mask at last Tuesday's WTO protest marches, but within a few hours the masks were illegal. Gas masks specifically became contraband at 10am on Wednesday morning, December 1, when Mayor Paul Schell added language to his declaration of emergency that banned the purchase, sale, or possession of them within city limits. According to press accounts, some Capitol Hill demonstrators were arrested Wednesday night simply for possessing gas masks; many other protesters had masks confiscated by police at various events. Under Schell's emergency order, mask-wearers could face misdemeanor charges, bearing penalties of up to 180 days in jail and a $500 fine.
There's no accounting yet as to how many protesters may be charged with possessing masks, says Seattle Police spokesperson Clem Benton. "Because of the mass arrests that occurred, we don't have those figures now as to who was arrested for what," he says. Attorney Dave Osgood, who has battled the city in the past over enforcement actions against music clubs, says he's investigating the situation for a company that sells gas masks. He is now weighing court action to have Schell's law declared unconstitutional. "I believe," says Osgood, "that as a citizen of Seattle, I have the constitutional right of being able to breathe."
Pissed off farmers from France, Spain, India, Mexico, and the Midwest gathered at Victor Steinbrueck Park last Thursday to rally the masses against big agribusiness. Several thousand farmers, sea-turtle impersonators, and consumer-rights enthusiasts attended. The speakers were Public Citizen's Ralph Nader, Texas talk-show host Jim Hightower, and farmers Helen Walls and Ralph Allison. They demanded justice for the little guy who tills the soil, and the crowd was roaring.
After the rally, a march led by Allison with police escort headed down to the Cargill grain elevator at the north end of Myrtle Edwards Park. It's anyone's guess what organizers thought they'd find there. No doubt aware that the marchers were coming, Cargill employees had apparently stayed home that day. No one but riot police was waiting behind the barbwire-topped fences that surround Cargill's facilities. Demonstrators asked to be let in the gates. Of course that didn't happen, but one policeman admitted that he and his colleagues did sympathize with the protesters.
That didn't help much. Protesters looked around wondering how to take this show to the next level. Allison preached to the crowd about Cargill's many wrongdoings, including a recently passed farm bill that the corporation's lobbyists supposedly helped write which has lowered grain prices to half of farmers' production costs so that Cargill can ship grain more cheaply. This information only made the crowd more antsy to put an immediate dent in Cargill's bottom line. There was talk about scaling the fence and destroying property, but the barbwire was a deterrent to that. Moreover, many of these activists were farmers past a certain age, and they knew that vandalism was probably not the most effective way to get what they wanted.
It was too bad. At the rally, the speakers had warned that Cargill, Monsanto, and other agribusiness groups would soon drive small food producers out of business, and the crowd was ready for blood. But the reality is that it's going to take a lot more than hollering to keep these companies from writing laws and taking out patents to expand their power. The successful protests from earlier in the week gave many WTO opponents the feeling they were winning, or could win the globalization battle eventually. But the grain elevator's stony silence sent these farmers one loud, clear message: Their struggle is still in front of them.
Chaos in the suites
The chaos wasn't only on the streets. Inside the Convention Center's warren of meeting rooms, disorder reigned, participants say. "In all my 22 years [of attending trade conferences], this is the most disorganized, with the most confusion prevailing inside," said Chakravarthi Raghavan, editor of a daily newsletter called The South-North Development Monitor, speaking at a panel on Third World trade concerns. "This is irrespective of the protests outside. It's too difficult to get the things you expect in a conference. This is a sentiment widely shared."
A French delegate agreed, noting that it was extremely difficult to get ahold of paperwork, receive drafts of documents, and such. A delegate from Germany was more charitable, noting that "confusion is inherent in any international negotiation." Indeed it was clear this negotiation was a mad scramble, with no agenda beforehand and with countries that were already heavily at odds placed under even greater stress because of the intensity of the protests outside.
But the confusion seemed to afflict the least powerful countries the most. Representatives of Caribbean, Latin American, and African nations complained bitterly during the final hours of the conference that they had been completely shut out. "A lot of our ministers do not even know what's going on, they don't even know where meetings are taking place," groused Hassan Adebayo Sunmonu, a trade-union activist based in Ghana, speaking on behalf of a Third World coalition. The UK Trade Network, a coalition of British aid groups such as Oxfam, summed up by saying, "[Developing countries were] left baffled in the corridors while the big countries [took] the important decisions behind closed doors."
MARK D. FEFER
Just as the Seattle City Council appeared poised to weigh in on the mayor's declaration of emergency, a meeting set for last Thursday afternoon was canceled. According to council president Sue Donaldson, the session was nixed for security reasons. "The challenge became trying to have a secure place to hold the meeting," she says. Council chambers seat about 110 spectators—a small spot to fit several hundred demonstrators who were rallying downtown at the time.
Some council members were disappointed by the cancellation. "A number of us did want to talk about some things," says council member Richard Conlin. He noted that while there was solid support for Schell's decision to declare an emergency, "I think a lot of us did have questions about the implementation items that were attached to it"—including the downtown curfew and the gas-mask ban. According to city law, the council must review the mayor's declaration of emergency "at the earliest practicable time" ("practicable" being roughly defined as "feasible"). According to Donaldson and other council members, the decision was made to cancel the meeting rather than be forced to take police officers off the street for security duty.
No questions, please
"A lot of citizens were injured when they sniffed tear gas or were struck by rubber bullets, and for that I apologize." The contrite speaker was Mayor Paul Schell at a press conference last Thursday, during which he also offered to take the political blame for the city's handling of the WTO protests. (A solid strategy—Hizzoner doesn't have to face the voters for another couple years.)
But Schell was quick to temper his message at the following day's press briefing. "People may have taken my apology as a statement that police overreacted—and that is not the case," the mayor stated. He departed without taking questions from the media.
No world-class shopping
It was a joyless and disheartened-looking pair of free-trade champions who showed up to face the press on Friday: Pat Davis of the Washington Council on International Trade and Ray Waldmann, a VP at Boeing, two of the primary hosts behind the Seattle Host Organization. The pair tried rather listlessly to put a positive spin on a conference that had given the city such a black eye (from a Chamber of Commerce booster point of view, that is). Pat Davis expressed satisfaction that trade had become such a high-profile topic, which, she said, is what her organization has wanted all along.
SHO had needed to raise $10 million to put on the affair, and the organization caught considerable heat because of a fundraising campaign that offered corporations "face time" with US government officials in exchange for financial support. No doubt that "face time" proved to be considerably less valuable than expected, since many officials couldn't even leave their hotels in the early hours of the conference. Waldmann said that his fundraising effort had fallen about $250,000 short of what it needed, but that he did not believe SHO was responsible for any of the additional costs that were incurred by the increased "impacts," as one might call them, of the Ministerial.
In response to a question, Waldmann also expressed disappointment that "because of the antics of the few," delegates were not able to take advantage of the "world-class shopping" opportunities that were described in a SHO guide to Seattle that was provided to WTO visitors. Waldmann's chagrin has been echoed all over this town, which leads one to wonder: If the biggest concern about last week is that WTO bigwigs weren't able to drop enough money at the chain-store retailers that surround the Convention Center, maybe the protesters weren't quite loud enough after all.