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Raising a Ruckus | The Nation

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Raising a Ruckus

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Somewhere amid the dancing sea turtles and bustling WTO bureaucrats, the angry anarchists and the Al Gore entourage, the striking steelworkers and the billionaires in town to sip cocktails with Bill Gates, Michael Moore might just bump into Michael Moore on the streets of Seattle. One Michael Moore is the new director general of the WTO, a free-trader who earned the name "Mad Mike'' as a militant privatizer of public services when he served briefly as prime minister of New Zealand. He'll have as many as 6,000 bureaucrats at his side, as well as the Clinton White House and legions of corporate PR flacks flown in for the purpose. The other Michael Moore is the journalist and agitator famous for his corporation-skewering film Roger and Me. He intends to use his celebrity--and a little namesake irony--to raise tough questions about the WTO's policies.

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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How big a battle will Seattle see? Even the most ambitious organizers are cautious about numbers. But President Clinton, who is scheduled to address the WTO session, says, "Every group in the world with an ax to grind is going to Seattle to demonstrate. I'll have more demonstrators against me than I've had in the whole seven years I've been President." Unions are expected to mount the loudest protest. The AFL-CIO has rented 12,000-seat Memorial Stadium for a November 30 rally and dispatched more than twenty organizers to pull in the crowds for a march that some strategists predict will draw more than 50,000. State labor federations in Wisconsin and Minnesota are flying in jetloads of their members, Teamsters will be busing in from Tennessee and a multicar train will carry trade unionists from Portland up the coast. The Steelworkers have rented more than 1,000 hotel rooms in nearby Tacoma and are planning a national caravan to Seattle. The Machinists' union has pledged to provide 1,000 shop stewards to serve as marshals for the march, and there is talk that the Seattle area's huge aircraft factories--where the Machinists have some of their largest locals in the country--will stand idle on the afternoon of the rally. "I don't think the WTO realized when they planned this for Seattle that they were setting down in one of the most heavily unionized cities in the United States,'' says Bob Gorman, who is coordinating organizing efforts for the union march. "There are 120,000 union members in Seattle and more than 400,000 AFL-CIO members in Washington State. Add to that members of non-affiliated unions like the teachers, who are backing us, and close to 80,000 retirees, and you're talking about a real base to work from. And believe me, we are working it.'' Throw in Canadians coming in from nearby Vancouver and across that country, as well as labor activists from as far away as India, the Caribbean and Britain, and you've got the makings of a crowd that will be difficult to dismiss as the "grumpy, geriatric communists'' the WTO's Moore says are his organization's chief foes.

Each day that the WTO is in official session will see a parallel series of alternative events: a focus on the environment and health on November 29, labor and human rights on November 30, women, democracy and development on December 1, and food and agriculture policy on December 2. In addition there will be a Fair Trade Fair designed to showcase alternatives to corporate mass-products, a tractor cavalcade, a farm rally featuring Texas populist Jim Hightower, a march by animal welfare activists clad as sea turtles and other creatures endangered by WTO rulings, mass prayer meetings at local churches and an evening rally with a candle-waving chain of activists that will surround the convention center where the WTO meets. Teach-ins will feature Vandana Shiva of India's Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, futurist Jeremy Rifkin and Body Shop executive Anita Roddick. Ralph Nader will debate free-trade supporters. A "Seattle Steel Party'' will see union members dump steel into the Seattle harbor to protest "globalization without representation.'' (Don't worry, say organizers, the steel will be recovered from the harbor after the protest to maintain good ties with coalition partners like Clean Water Action.) The Berkeley-based Ruckus Society and the Art and Revolution Street Theater Troupe of San Francisco will employ everything from giant puppets to techno music and street-blocking dancers to "shut down the WTO.''

Republican King County Council member Brian Derdowski, a WTO critic, told a local reporter in August that the whole event will be "the greatest security risk this region has ever known,'' and law enforcement agencies express concern that Seattle could see a replay of the June 18 anti-globalization riots that caused major property damage in London and other European cities. Organizers such as People for Fair Trade's Jeremy Madsen worry more about the effects of spin. "The only real fear I have is that there are people who will try to use any excuse to turn the subject away from the WTO itself,'' says Madsen. "But I don't think it will happen. We're on message and we're not going to let anyone pull us off.''

Not all the groups that will be in Seattle are on board for the shutdown strategy--and even within labor there is a rift between those who want to pull the United States out of the WTO altogether and those who simply want Washington to work within the organization to protect American industries. Yet so far, the disparate elements continue to march toward Seattle in relative unison. That goes for international groups as well, many of which have been ahead of the United States in trade activism. "When the WTO decided to hold this meeting in the United States, I think they made a mistake," says Pedro Juan Hernandez, an economist from El Salvador whose Ciudadania y Desarrollo (Citizenship and Development) group has long been active on WTO-related issues. "They created an opportunity to educate people in the United States about the whole issue of globalization, and I think this is what is happening." Adds John Kinsman, a Wisconsin dairy farmer who will leave his herd for several days to make the trip to Seattle, "I think they thought they could put this meeting in the United States and nobody would care. But they're going to find out that an awful lot of us do care.''

Mark Ritchie, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, says once the Seattle meetings are over, the work will only be beginning (his group will provide an Internet feed from Seattle, at wtowatch.org, that will allow people around the world to follow developments inside the WTO meeting and on the street twenty-four hours a day). "Seattle is going to be a wake-up call, but we need to be ready to answer it in cities and towns across the United States," he says. "There is going to be a gigantic reaction to what happens in Seattle, and we have to be ready to harvest it.''

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