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After Seattle: Protests Coming Soon to a City Near You

A new generation of activists that came of age in Seattle is now taking their fight to upcoming protests in DC, Boston, LA and other cities all over the country. Their politics are not always clearly defined, but there's a common sense of urgency these young activists share, a belief that the economic and social imbalances of the world are volatile, intolerable and immoral. Veteran journalist Marc Cooper takes a long, hard look at the new activist landscape.
 
 
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It's an early Saturday morning in the gritty Mission District of San Francisco, but as 27-year-old Juliette Beck blows into her office, the fact that it's a weekend is irrelevant. She has no time for relaxation. Over the previous week, she organized a demonstration against Al Gore and Bill Bradley at the Democratic State Convention in San Jose, addressed an international convention of 500 trade unionists in San Francisco, conducted a speakers'-workshop training session, organized a symposium on the global economy, sat in on several marathon coast-to-coast conference calls, worked on a political video, helped write a guerrilla-theater script and organized five "citizen lobbying" meetings with Bay Area Congress members. She has come to work today to find more than 400 e-mail messages stacked up in her desktop computer. And, oh yes, she's scheduled herself to spend both weekend days in intensive workshops organized by a group colorfully called Art and Revolution.But there's no resentment. "Activism is not a job. It's a way of life," says the tall, thin, fair-skinned UC Berkeley grad. "It's a 24-hour-a-day commitment to promoting social change. That's simply what I do."And Beck isn't some sort of freak case. She's a full-timer on the staff of Global Exchange, a nonprofit that from this second-story hardwood-floored and fern-adorned ramble of cubicles acts as a sort of hothouse incubator, churning out a whole new bumper crop of young radical political activists.Their politics are not always clearly defined, lacking the stark ideological outlines of the '60s generation. But there's a common sense of urgency these young activists share, a belief that the economic and social imbalances of the world are volatile, intolerable and immoral. Some are motivated by little more than guilt about being white, privileged and American. But others, like Beck, demonstrate a profound and sophisticated commitment born of serious study and analysis.From a conservative doctor's family in San Diego, Beck arrived at Berkeley interested in organizing little more than school dances. But after classes in environmental science, and then a few more in international finance and development, Beck emerged with a zeal to change the world.Just how much Beck and her fellow activists are changing it is a notion up for grabs. But one thing is for sure: They got the attention of the entire world for five days last December when they came together with 50,000 like-minded souls -- from Teamsters to Turtles -- and rocked the city of Seattle. Protesting the once-obscure World Trade Organization (WTO) and what they see as its policies of corporate globalization, the protesters occupied that city's downtown streets, marched, hollered, sat-in, conducted "direct action," and withstood torrents of tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets in what has now become the near-legendary Battle in Seattle.Casual observers might write off Seattle as one of those unavoidable but inconsequential social hiccups that periodically interrupt the placid status quo. But they do so at their own peril. Because, among American activists, Seattle has become a watershed, much as Chicago '68 was for the previous generation of politicos. Seattle can be seen as a sort of big bang of activism, spinning off hundreds of individual activists who returned home energized, cranked-up and ready to rumble some more. "In Seattle we opened up a big can of kick-ass, and no one's gonna be able to put the lid back on so easy," says populist radio host and author Jim Hightower, the former Texas agriculture commissioner. "Seattle is only the beginning."Indeed. Now comes Act 2, planned protests during the week of April 9-16 in Washington, D.C., where two more global agencies, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, will be holding summit meetings. And then, if everything stays on track, the Spirit of Seattle will be coming this summer to Los Angeles. "Mark my words," says Beck. "We will have thousands of people in the streets in Los Angeles this summer, to protest the Democratic Party's position on trade."But first, the plans for Washington. Some are calling it "Seattle East," others just "A16." But whatever the protests are called, it appears that thousands more angry Americans will converge on the capital and, as Beck says, "bring the business of the IMF and World Bank to a halt." This so-called Mobilization for Global Justice, much like Seattle, will feature a full menu of nonviolent events and demonstrations, ranging from teach-ins, to marches, to parades, to street theater, concerts, rallies and coordinated direct action aimed at gumming up the works of the targeted international agencies. And in the midst of this coming mobilization hangs the destiny of what is now the single most important political initiative of the waning Clinton administration -- permanent normal trade status for China, and its entry into the WTO.If A16 rattles Washington as its organizers intend, and if the high tide of dissent laps at the gates of the Democratic Convention this summer, the punditocracy -- in much the way it did after Seattle -- is going to be scratching its head, asking how all this unpleasantness could erupt smack-dab in the middle of the longest economic expansion on record, and just when everybody thought college kids were more interested in IPOs than in WTOs.But the focus on internationalism is not without precedent. The American left, bereft of a significant working-class movement, has frequently focused its efforts on international solidarity. If American workers can't be saved from themselves, then at least the unfortunate abroad can be supported -- be they South Africans, Salvadorans or Sudanese slaves. Now, with the collapse of the Cold War, after seeing the concrete domestic effects of globalization, and, most certainly, with the advent in 1994 of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), we seem to have entered a new era in protest politics. With the world being forcefully but unequally unified instead of polarized, it all of a sudden becomes a lot easier to link domestic, even neighborhood, problems with broad international issues.The experience of NAFTA taught that one simple free-trade treaty could simultaneously lead to the factory down the street closing and 15 new across-the-border sweatshops opening up. Add to this the slow but dramatic reawakening of the American labor movement under AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, and you have the ingredients for what is now emerging as the most important and exciting social movement since the 1960s. So here we are in postindustrial America, and the wonky conundrums of trade policy and responsibility in the new global economy have fired the imagination of the most politically committed young people, just as civil rights and the Vietnam War did for many of their parents. And as during Vietnam, activists are further inspired by the formidable resistance they meet from the two established political parties, both of which maintain identical free-trade policies. In this new movement, then, reside the seeds for a major political realignment, a transcending of the traditional liberal-conservative, Democratic-Republican paradigm, and a new understanding that perhaps the most significant division in American politics is between corporatists and populists.Coming politically of age at the same time as this tectonic shift, Juliette Beck wasn't surprised to find success in her efforts. For a half-year prior to the Seattle demonstrations, she had been a full-time California organizer for Seattle 99, and she knew her message was resonating. Underneath the rosy economic reports there was a gnawing uncertainty among both the young and the not-so-young about downsizing, layoffs and jobs with little future. It wasn't so much the WTO itself. After all, just who had even heard of it? But the WTO emerged as an iconic lightning rod, galvanizing a decade's worth of pent-up discontent and anxiety about "globalization": unionists worried about the export of jobs, environmentalists worked up over global warming and endangered species, human-rights activists angry over prison labor in China, students politicized over their universities' jobbing out T-shirt and gym-tog orders to Third World sweatshops, or angry because Starbucks rips off impoverished coffee growers in Honduras.On college campuses across the country, in union meeting halls, in street-front organizing offices, the catchwords are still ricocheting: "Fair Trade Not Free Trade," "Stop the Race to the Bottom," "Rewrite the Rules of the Global Economy." These notions are fueling outfits like Global Exchange, human-rights groups, enviros, labor activists, student networks and various Seattle veterans such as the anarchist Direct Action Network as they click out e-mails, and post Web pages, and print leaflets, and phone-bank, and prepare caravans, and recruit on college campuses to make sure A16 explodes into the headlines. "The WTO, the IMF, the World Bank are all architects of an unaccountable and undemocratic global economy," Beck says as she leaves her office en route to the Art and Revolution workshops. "We want them dismantled and replaced by democratic institutions that can make life better for people. We reject corporate globalization in favor of more people-friendly economies."Beck backs up her arguments with a stream of facts and figures demonstrating how the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank create more poverty rather than less. But she is also quick to distance herself from the isolationist strand of anti-globalism that binds together, say, the Buchanan brigades. "We are internationalists to the core," she says. "We don't reject a global community. We just want it to be fair."The hangar-size warehouse known as Cellspace, in a grimy back street of San Francisco, is the stuff of nightmares for suburban parents. This is a collective living space-cum-gallery-cum-artisans' workshop peopled with the cultural fringe of America's most fringe city. On its floor, a collection of about 40 young people has gathered for the weekend workshop organized by Art and Revolution. Don't even think about showing up here unless you have at least a tongue stud and a pierced lower lip. Indeed, Juliette Beck -- in her woven Indian-style jacket adorned with two protest buttons, her pajamalike black slacks and her baseball cap that reads "Unite!" -- is about the most conservative-looking person here.The kids, meanwhile, sit attentively on the floor as two "facilitators," Alli and Malakai, run down a postmodern political rant that "connects the dots" between a variety of issues ranging from California ballot propositions, to the Chevron corporation, to Starbucks, to the WTO and the World Bank. During a so-called "free-write" exercise, these young people are asked to jot down whatever comes to mind as they ponder the effects of ballot Proposition 21, the Juvenile Justice Initiative that will pass a few weeks later in the California primary.What emerges from the heads of these kids and shows up on their note pads reveals a deep alienation."I feel punished.""Feel afraid.""Isolation.""I see the effects of oppression everywhere.""Lots of brainwashing.""Criminalization of a generation."Malakai, a tough-talking and sexually ambiguous 20-something, takes it from there, and weaves these random dark thoughts into a denunciation of globalization by shoehorning each of the above "issues" into one of four categories: education, prisons, corporations, police. So any of the random feelings jotted down during the "free-write" are now automatically linked to one of these four institutions. There are few facts in this exercise. It's all about opinion and feeling. Whatever is shouted from the floor becomes part of the "connect-the-dots" exercise. And the final dot is always the same: globalization."Globalization creates poverty," says Malakai, then, a moment later, "Globalization creates repression."Frankly, Malakai's strength is not in her political analysis. But even in this clumsy drill, an important truth emerges. The audience seems perfectly content to hear its frustration, fragmention and, yes, its paranoia validated as political discourse. The radicals of the 1960s were in good part driven by a sense of personal betrayal. A decade previous, they had bought into the system as youngsters and obediently saluted its myths every morning in second period. When they found out they were being lied to, they rebelled.But these young people before me today were born into a different world. There was never any faith in, nor much interest in or much knowledge about, the System. You just assumed it was an evil and mendacious force. No big whoop. The conclusions they reach about its methods and goals are pretty much on target. But there's little sense of history, little sense of context.But at least when Juliette Beck takes the floor for her scheduled talk, she makes an attempt to shape the message more coherently. Her discourse soon has the audience rapt."We're a laboratory that they experiment on here in the U.S., and then they spread it to the rest of the world. The institutions that affect the lives of almost everyone on Earth are headquartered here in the U.S.," Beck says. "What we saw in Seattle with the tear gas and cops was just a taste of the repression that people all over the world face every day. In the last 50 years, with the advent of the World Bank, is there less poverty or more? The IMF is like a big loan shark. The strings attached to the loans it gives out are called 'structural-adjustment programs.' They make the rich richer and the poor poorer. They pave the way in places like Haiti for sweatshops."With that, Beck whips out a huge chart depicting how much the Gap pays its hourly workers in the U.S. ($6 an hour), on the island of Saipan ($3), in Honduras (50 cents) and in Russia (11 cents)."Is that something we're going to just sit back and watch?" she continues, a fine blush coming into her cheeks. "Those sweatshops are the effect of globalization! Do you know anybody who has lost their job because it went overseas? That's globalization! Have you seen the local sewing factories here, a few blocks away, full of Latina workers? That's the effect of globalization! Are you worried because your job doesn't pay you enough to pay for college? That's globalization!"This is a global struggle!" Beck says as she turns her cap around forward and points to the embroidered logo on it: "Unite." The room breaks out in applause. "Well," she continues, "we're gonna take these institutions head-on in April in D.C. We're gonna take them on Seattle-style! Gonna take on these institutions of corporate rule and corporate greed! How many of you are gonna be coming with me?" Everyone in the room stands up and starts applauding and chanting. They shout they are all heading to D.C.Two weeks later, in downtown Washington, D.C., in a conference room deep in the bowels of the Service Employees International Union, another, different sort of planning meeting for A16 is under way. Here, the 100 or so assembled activists are a much cleaner-cut, more sober group than the Bay Area Art and Revolution crowd. This, after all, is Washington, and here even the most radical activists expect to see real political payoffs for their efforts.In the room there are reps from several labor unions, some lefty think tanks and the National Lawyers Guild, some anti-war activists, a few anarchists, some feminists. Two ferociously impressive women in their 30s are "facilitating" the meeting: Hillary McQuie, of the Direct Action Network and one of the key field marshals of the Battle in Seattle, and Kenya-born Njoki Njoroge Njehn, who heads up the "50 Years Is Enough Network," which organizes against the World Bank and the IMF.To the eyes of an old '60s veteran, this meeting is almost painfully democratic and politely orderly. There are even agreed-upon silent hand signals by which one can express support or disagreement with whoever is speaking. It's all part of the new movement's treasured principles of "consensus decision making," a cumbersome process that requires that everyone in the room eventually agree to whatever action is decided.And the work goes ahead. Fifteen working groups have emerged to fashion the week of A16 protest. Each group sends a rotating spokesperson to a central "spokescouncil" that is responsible for all final planning. "No leaders" is how McQuie describes it.Plans are cobbled together to send out endorsement letters, to raise funds through house parties, solicitation letters, street festivals and T-shirt sales. Greenpeace has just donated office space. A "messaging group" is working on educational material. Another group is putting together a pirate micro-radio station. Nonviolence workshops are being organized to train hundreds in civil disobedience and direct-action tactics before the protests begin. Another group is rounding up a thousand 4-ounce plastic spray bottles. "You mix water with baking soda as an antidote to tear gas," explains one young organizer.The reports from distant corners come pouring into the general meeting. Loren Finkelstein, a 25-year-old graduate of West Virginia University and now program director with the D.C.-based Free the Planet group, ticks off all the campuses where she has recently made contact with groups planning to come to A16: Grinnell, Vassar, University of Michigan, Claremont-McKenna Colleges, George Washington University, Georgetown, University of South Carolina, University of Wyoming."It's absolutely amazing," she says. "There are just tons of momentum coming out of Seattle. We're now able to talk to all sorts of people we couldn't reach before. Now everybody's listening."Everybody's also asking themselves, at least in the back of their minds, if A16 will be tinged with the same sort of violence that flashed in Seattle during the WTO protests, when about 50 black-clad anarchists drew the media spotlight as they systematically smashed the windows of targeted businesses: the Gap, Starbucks and Planet Hollywood, among others. The action guidelines for A16 prohibit violence of any kind, but who can offer guarantees?"The only violence in Seattle was police violence," says 38-year-old Nadine Bloch, one of the Direct Action Network's leading organizers and strategists. "What there was among the protesters was alternative tactics. Property destruction is something done to things, not to people. I don't think that property destruction in the context of A16 would be something very constructive. But when we look at what happened in Seattle, we have to say that all of that contributed to the media coverage we got, including those who you might say pushed the envelope."The coming show of force in Washington, and later this summer around the political conventions, has some very definable policy goals. Certainly not all of the protesters are thinking in long-term strategic-policy terms. But that is the only way 44-year-old Mike Dolan thinks. A former field director of the California Democratic Party, the diminutive, wiry Dolan is now a close lieutenant to consumer advocate and Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, and holds the title of deputy director of Global Trade Watch, the Naderite group doing battle with the administration on its free-trade policies.Anyone who knows anything about the Battle in Seattle knows that Dolan was the single most effective organizer there and can rightly take credit for making it what it was. His staff awarded him a big silver star for his work, and on the door of his warrenlike office behind Capitol Hill his staff has placed a suggestive handmade poster asking who it is you get when you mix Woody Allen with Vladimir Lenin. The question is answered when you pass through the doorway.The task Dolan has set himself is to translate the street heat of events like Seattle and the coming A16 into an effective and credible fair-trade political movement that can win tangible policy victories.That's why Dolan and his political allies, primarily among organized labor, have now focused their attentions on China. The Clinton administration is making a full-court press to have Congress grant China permanent normal trading status, which would pave the way for China's entry into the WTO. And that's where Dolan has drawn the line. If China, with its abominable human-rights and labor-rights record is granted membership in the world trading body, Dolan argues, there is no hope for civilizing the global economy."Granting permanent trading status, giving away our best goodies to the repressive regime in China, is unjust and unwarranted," Dolan says. "Why should we give up our leverage over China just because Big Business wants to make the deal to exploit cheap Chinese labor and send more American jobs over there?"Dolan has a two-tiered strategic plan.Step one is to block congressional approval of China's permanent trading status. "We are going to confront the corporate lobby and beat them again like we did in Seattle. This time, the battleground is the House of Representatives," he says.What made Seattle so special, and so memorable, was the heavy presence of organized labor. The image of Teamsters and Turtles together was light-years away from those days when the hardhats would come out to clobber the anti-war demonstrators. So for his piece of A16, Dolan wants to once again bring Big Labor out in force. And his timing couldn't be better.Meeting in its executive council in mid-February, the AFL-CIO unveiled an ambitious and dramatic strategic campaign for "global fairness." And the unions are serious as heart attacks about all this. The AFL-CIO stunned its traditional partners in the Democratic Party when, during this past primary season, it ran TV ad campaigns against the China deal in the districts of five Democratic free traders.No wonder, then, that the AFL-CIO has signed on to participate and take the lead in one of the key actions during A16. On April 12, Dolan hopes to bring as many as 15,000 or more union bodies to the steps of Congress. "It's going to be a day of citizen lobbying," he says. "Thousands of workers and their families swarming all over the Hill, all with the same message: No to the China deal." Teamsters president James P. Hoffa tells me that he "guarantees" that his union alone will put "at least 5,000" Teamsters onto Washington's streets that day. And the Steelworkers Union, battered by a hemorrhage of jobs overseas, is making a similar commitment for an action the following day.The anti-China push coming out of Seattle, carried now in great part by labor, has already surpassed mere protest symbolism and is reverberating inside the congressional corridors. In the days before Seattle, approval of China's permanent trade status was considered a slam-dunk. Since Seattle, it seems like a long shot."Seattle was a catalyst for empowering not only citizen activists on the issue of fair trade, but also those of us on the House floor working on the same issues," says Ohio Democratic Congressman Dennis Kucinich, a firm Dolan ally. "Seattle energized us and transformed this whole issue. I think we now have the votes to block the deal. That means that citizen power has defeated tens of millions of dollars in corporate lobbying."Indeed, just a few weeks ago, the Clinton administration had to retool its entire strategy on this issue. Greatly accelerating its plans, Clinton put the China deal before the Senate, hoping that that more conservative body would approve it by June, thereby putting pressure on the reluctant House to do the same. But just two days later, the White House had to admit for the first time that, as of now, the votes in the House just aren't there.If Dolan's first step is to bottle up the China vote this spring, step two in his strategic plan is to kill it off in the summer. He frankly plans to make trade policy the rallying point for massive demonstrations around the August Democratic Convention in Los Angeles. And, coast to coast, activists are already licking their lips and booking their flights on the chance that L.A. will become this year's Gettysburg in the war over trade and the global economy. "There'll be some protest against the Republicans, for sure," Dolan says. "But we're going to devote our real attention to the Democratic Convention. If there's going to be a change in trade policy, it's going to be in the 107th Congress under the new Democratic Speaker, Dick Gephardt. So we have to out the Democrats on this issue. Since Seattle, Clinton and Gore have both been talking the talk of fair trade. Now it's time to make them walk the walk. This will be our chance to put the final nail in the China deal."The organizing in Los Angeles is still embryonic, and somewhat territorial. Lisa Fithian, a skilled former organizer from the L.A. County Federation of Labor, is pulling together a group that, in its initial stages at least, looks very much like a local incarnation of the Direct Action Network. Other groups, ranging from the Southern California Fair Trade Campaign, to the Hollywood Fair Trade Committee (activated to stop runaway production), to The Nation magazine, are all starting to sketch plans for alternative events and protests to unfold during convention week. (The L.A. Weekly will put out a daily paper during that period.)Dolan is scheduled to start spending a lot more of his time in Los Angeles beginning the first week of April. And he vows that D2K, as the convention protest plans are being called, is going to reach out to even more diverse communities than in Seattle. He has already made contact with a network of South-Central clergy, and he's confident that the week's agenda will include a massive multiracial convocation.The 800-pound gorilla loafing in the middle of all these plans is local organized labor. So far, the County Fed is keeping mum regarding what it will or will not do during convention week. Labor is fervently committed to candidate Gore, but it's just as committed to opposing his trade policies. "L.A. and national labor are going to watch these convention plans very carefully," says a lead organizer for one of the city's most vibrant unions. "They are going to be measuring two factors. If by convention time they sense there's a real movement in the street, and if they sense that Al Gore is safely enough in the lead, you might really see union guys protesting the Democrats. But even if those factors fail to materialize, I think we'll be doing something to make our voice heard on trade policy. It's life and death for us."Mike Dolan is confident that there's already enough momentum to pull off some significant rallies and forums that week. "And then, of course, there will be the street stuff," he says. "Massive, nonviolent direct action aimed at shutting down the Democratic National Convention. Then we'll see how the L.A. cops compare to Seattle's finest. L.A.'s gonna be the place to be this summer."