News and Features
Out in the countryside is where you'll find America's true leaders--the
gutsy, scrappy, sometimes scruffy and always ingenious grassroots
agitators and organizers who go right into the face of
"You look beautiful," shouted more than one speaker to the crowd that
gathered in New York's Central Park on Sunday, October 6, to protest
With its future at stake, the ILWU will not go down without a fight.
On October 4 Ralph Nader's "Take it to The Street" campaign staged a rally on Wall Street against corporate corruption.
Although he does not record CDs, Robin Kelley may well be the hippest
intellectual in the land. There is plenty of substance to ground the
October surprises are built into our system, since elections come in
November. Cliffhanger movies in Hollywood's old days could not have
staged it better.
On August 1, 2000, Philadelphia police rounded up seventy-five activists inside a West Philadelphia warehouse. It was the second day of the Republican National Convention, and the activists had been making papier-mâché puppets, which they planned to use during street demonstrations. The Philadelphia district attorney ultimately charged the activists with a slew of misdemeanors, including conspiracy to obstruct the law and resisting arrest. These self-anointed puppetistas were kept in jail until after the Republicans had dropped the last of their balloons from the First Union Center rafters.
Ultimately, charges against all the puppet makers were dismissed. Last summer more than a third of them sued the city over alleged violations of their civil rights. They assumed their cases would be strong enough to net not only substantial cash payments but significant reform in the police department. Now it looks like they'll be getting neither.
The reason, they say, is the unusually aggressive tactics of the law firm representing the city in these cases. Hangley Aronchick Segal & Pudlin attempted to depose plaintiffs' lawyers, arguing that they encouraged protesters to engage in civil disobedience, get themselves arrested and clog the city's jails. The firm has subpoenaed activists' address books, personal tax records and entire computer hard drives. Its lawyers hired investigators to question former spouses and flew across the country to interrogate witnesses.
About twenty-seven civil suits stemming from puppet warehouse arrests are now being settled out of court. A transcript from a June 18 hearing spells out the details of the agreement for twenty-four of the cases, which have been consolidated under Traci Franks v. the City of Philadelphia. It says that plaintiffs agree to accept $72,000, which will be divvied up between two nonprofit groups: the Spiral Q Puppet Theater and Books Through Bars. The figure was derived by awarding $3,000 to each of the twenty-four plaintiffs. (Separate settlements are being negotiated for the suits filed by warehouse owner Michael Graves and two other activists.)
In July the Traci Franks file was sealed, and a gag order forbids any of the parties involved from discussing details. But whatever the final dollar amount ends up being, the settlement agreement won't drain city coffers of a dime because it's all covered by insurance.
The host committee for the RNC, a group of high-profile Philadelphians, paid $100,000 for an insurance policy seven months prior to the convention. The policy specifically covers up to $3 million for personal injury arising from claims of false arrest and wrongful imprisonment, malicious prosecution and violation of civil rights. The insurer, Lexington Insurance Company in Boston, hired Hangley Aronchick to handle the civil suits. During the June 18 hearing Hangley Aronchick attorney David Wolfsohn implied that the insurance carrier may even be able to claim a tax deduction for contributing the $72,000 settlement to charity.
Many activists agreed to settle because they fear that turning over more e-mails and meeting minutes to city attorneys could compromise future legal protests, should documents wind up in government hands. They also decided to throw in the towel when it became clear the city would not agree to a reform of police procedures. In this post-September 11 world, law enforcement agencies are expanding their scope, not narrowing it.
People embarked on these suits to get injunctive relief, says Kris Hermes, a member of for the R2K Legal Collective. Because that wasn't happening, there was less incentive to carry on.
Plus, plaintiffs are doubtful a jury would be sympathetic to political dissenters, given the current political climate. "There is a deep desire on the part of many Americans to see police officers as the bulwark protecting them, and they don't want to confront anything indicating officers have the power to abuse us," says Pennsylvania ACLU legal director Stefan Presser.
But the biggest obstacle is that the activists' attorneys want out as quickly as possible. They accepted the puppetista cases on contingency fees, and they simply can't keep pace with a major law firm eager to rack up billable hours.
Angus Love, director of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, was subpoenaed and deposed by Hangley Aronchick because he worked as a legal observer during the RNC. He says the city usually does a half-assed job of litigating these cases. "But now we have a private law firm that is used to a higher level of attack," Love says. Wolfsohn is going after political protesters as if they were right-wing terrorists.
Attorneys on both sides of the lawsuits, as well as Philadelphia officials, declined to comment for this story. At the time of the warehouse raid, however, Mayor John Street was vocal on the subject. As hundreds of criminal charges were being processed on August 2, 2000, Street told reporters that he fully expected the city to be sued. "But we expect that we will defend the city.... We will defend our police department to the Supreme Court if necessary," he said.
Presser was among the attorneys Hangley Aronchick had hoped to depose. He characterizes the request as extremely unusual, noting only one similar situation during his twenty years of practicing law. Hangley Aronchick has also subpoenaed people ranging from well-known activists to plaintiffs' relatives.
Matthew Hart, the director of the Spiral Q Puppet Theater, was ordered to turn over all his e-mails, date books and phone records. He characterizes his oral deposition as bizarre and perfunctory.
"Attorneys for the city inferred this massive conspiracy that I don't even think the people involved had the capacity to pull off," Hart says. "I think their biggest intention was to move as slowly as possible and bill more hours."
Traci Schlesinger, the lead plaintiff in the consolidated suit, says her deposition brought to mind the McCarthy era.
"It seemed as though he hoped to prove I was an anarchist, and then it would be legitimate for police to arrest me," Schlesinger says.
The political establishment is not united behind the Bush
Administration's policy of forced "regime change" in Iraq. The rest of
the world, and a good part of the American public, are also unconvinced.
Make your voice heard. Write your elected officials in Washington urging
them to show restraint and respect for international opinion (contact
information at www.congress.com). Help make the war against Iraq a key
issue in this fall's Congressional elections--see how in ten steps at
the website of the National Network to End the War Against Iraq, an
umbrella group of more than seventy peace and justice, student and
faith-based organizations (www.endthewar.org).
Sign an online petition opposing US adventurism in Iraq. One such
petition is sponsored by moveon.org, the citizen action group that in
1998 collected the signatures of more than a million people opposed to
the impeachment of President Clinton. Add your name to the Campaign of
Conscience Peace Pledge to Stop the Spread of War to Iraq, organized by
the American Friends Service Committee and the Fellowship of
Reconciliation, among others (www.peacepledge.org). Participate in one
of the antiwar marches and protests scheduled coast to coast. You can
find information on upcoming events at www.unitedforpeace.org, a new
site launched by Global Exchange. If you're planning an event or
teach-in, check out the Iraq Speakers Bureau (www.iraqspeakers.org), a
project of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, which provides access
to policy experts, diplomats, former UN officials, human rights
activists and public health researchers.
See The Nation's special antiwar web page (www.thenation.comdirectory/view.mhtml?t=040307), where you can find a complete collection of relevant
Nation material. Also included are a list of nine critical
questions that can be clipped or copied for inclusion in letters to your
representatives, friends, newspaper editors and others, and a series of
activist and educational links.
In some parts of China, local officials keep track of women's menstrual periods. We haven't come to that, but anyone who thinks women's reproductive and sexual privacy is secure in America wasn't following the news this summer.
Mike Dolan, one of the principal organizers of the "Battle of Seattle" three years ago, returned in late August--with Jim Hightower's Rolling Thunder DownHome Democracy Tour--to a changed city. As he juggled cell phones from the stage in Seattle's Petrovisky Park, near the burial site of Jimi Hendrix, Dolan noticed there was no tear gas this time, only sunshine.
There were still dirty tricksters hanging up posters on Broadway, the heart of radical Seattle, warning people to stay home because there was no parking at the event, but 5,000 people turned out, to reflect on the movement they launched at the World Trade Organization conclave in 1999.
The world of BS--"before Seattle"--was a dizzying can-do era of overnight millionaires with fantasies of wiring the planet in a grid of greed. Then came the protests, the greatest civil disobedience of the era, with thousands of people teaching the masters of the universe that they could no longer conduct business as usual, and the fantasy world began to shudder.
With dot.coms bombing and Boeing going, Seattle has lost its artificial luster, returning to the status of a lovely, cultured city instead of the mecca of a global kingdom. Corporate sway over the economy lost its sex appeal when the Nasdaq fell 355 points on a single March day in 2000, Bill Gates lost $10 billion in a week and 25,000 workers were laid off in the software sector. There was the campaign that coerced the public into voting to subsidize the local baseball stadium, and the team's star, Ken Griffey Jr., left anyway. In the same period, Boeing chose the global economy over loyalty to its hometown and announced it was headquartering in Chicago, downsizing production and relocating plants to places like Mexico, China and Malaysia. Even the pump-priming boondoggle of the war on terrorism couldn't save them from the grim morning-after logic of globalization.
Seattle might have salvaged a new identity by taking pride in the rough birth of the movement against corporate globalization on its streets in 1999, rooted in the militant Northwest populist and labor traditions that Hightower's tour echoes today, but the local legacy of that "people's history" remains contested and unclear. Shortly after the confrontations, the police chief resigned. An anti-WTO member of the King County Board of Supervisors was defeated. Mayor Paul Schell never fully recovered from that week, and was defeated for re-election last year under the growing cloud of civic malaise. On the other hand, state representative Velma Veloria who hosted progressive legislators during the WTO protests, is running for re-election this fall, and Nick Licata, who helped house and protect the protestors, remains an energetic force on the City Council. Both Veloria and Licata attended the rally in Petrovisky Park in high spirits. Veloria, in response to Seattle 1999, has formed a legislative oversight committee on the adverse impact of trade agreements on Washington State. (Nation readers who wish to support Velma Veloria should contact her at email@example.com.)
One of those returning to interpret the continuing "Battle of Seattle" was Lori Wallach, the indefatigable, street-talking Harvard trade lawyer who coordinates fair-trade lobbying and activism at cyclone speed from her offices at Global Trade Watch in Washington, DC. Wallach has molded herself into one of the more dangerous enemies of the WTO on the planet, able to wipe out corporate lobbyists in television debates, maintain a laser-accurate understanding of thousands of pages of trade regulations, knit together international alliances, forge and hold together aliances on the left and right, and inspire hope for political reform, while scheming, if necessary, to "ratfuck" her enemies, a term she learned somewhere in the underworld of the planet's largest corporations.
Wallach is not entirely heartened by developments since Seattle 1999, citing the rise of internal disputes over "sectarianism" and "egoism" since the movement reached prime time. The emphasis on localism, and its philosophical corollary of anarchism, limits her role as a prime mover and shaker, while critiques of the whiteness of the movement makes alliance-building both essential and difficult. The alienation of many activists from electoral politics robs political victories, like the recent campaign finance reforms, of their potential energizing potency. The fallout from Ralph Nader's presidential campaign, combined with the failure of most Democrats to break cleanly from the corporate agenda, suggests a treacherous electoral future.
Nevertheless, Wallach is in fine form on this fine day, telling the audience that "Seattle" has become an international code word for the progressive spirit of the American people. When American diplomats and apologists argue with overseas audiences that globalization is good, she says, they are often rebuffed by foreign nationals who simply reply, "Seattle," as evidence that Americans themselves do not agree with the policies their government is trying to impose on other countries.
But, she notes, "the empire has struck back," through strenuous US attempts to cast the Seattle protests as "a fluke." The corporatists will try to make globalization seem as "inevitable as the moon's pull on the tides," but Wallach claims that it is "totally doable to take back what's ours" and that the corporate lobbyists "know what we need to know, that it's all a house of cards."
As evidence, she tells the story, hardly described in the mainstream media, of the Bush Administration's extraordinary efforts to squeeze out a three-vote-margin victory for its "fast track" trade authority in the House of Representatives on July 17. Trumpeted by Bush and the corporate media as an empowering victory for the free trade agenda, Wallach says that "what it took to get 'fast track' through was such an amazing flouting of Congressional rules that it showed our power." The fair trade movement had succeeded, by normal Washington standards, in stifling the Administration's "fast track" campaign until the President himself came to Capitol Hill trolling for votes, knocking on doors and making political horse-trades.
That wasn't enough, however. The House leadership held a closed nocturnal hearing to approve a "conceptual" 300-page bill, employing a rule reserved for occasions of martial law. There were no public hearings and no printing of the bill. Instead, it was e-mailed to House members with a link and set for a vote within twenty-four hours, effectively demobilizing the opposition and flaunting any pretense of an open, democratic process. When the House vote took place, and the Administration's forces still fell short, the leadership declared the clock irrelevent and continued making secret deals with holdout representatives until the three-vote margin was achieved. "It just shows how fragile they are," said Wallach, reminding the crowd to "spank" Washington State Democrats like Adam Smith and Rick Larsen, and "thank" representatives who kept their word to oppose fast track.
Undaunted, Wallach told the crowd to gear up for "Nafta on steroids," the Administration's plan to create a thirty-one-country "free trade" zone in the Americas and expand the WTO, culminating in the September 2003 WTO trade round in Cancun, Mexico. The corporate agenda there will aim to eliminate labor, environmental and public interest regulations across Central and Latin America as well as to privatize services like education, healthcare and water access. These so-called nontariff trade barriers represent protections of the public interest that have been created through years of struggle, thus widening the potential anti-WTO coalition to include, for example, schoolteachers, city officials, municipal water systems and other utilities, and construction workers worried about prevailing wage laws.
Recent events in Latin America along with corporate scandals in this country, Wallach thinks, "show that our analysis has been right." For example, Argentina was "the poster child, the model" of the corporate globalizers, but it now lies in ruins, the victim of International Monetary Fund policies which included demands that Argentina repeal its curbs on bankers who funnel money out of the country on the grounds "that the law chilled the investment climate there." The crisis is spawning new resistance movements as well, like the successful Bolivian "water war," which has blocked a government plan to sell its water rights to the Bechtel corporation. The spread of sweatshops and maquiladoras has peasant organizers conspiring and resistance mounting from southern Mexico to Central America.
"This trade stuff didn't get handed down by God like they think. If it doesn't work, it's time to throw it out and take back what is ours. The only way they can win is by our remaining calm," Wallach finishes. The crowd in Petrovisky Park gets the message, deeply and clearly. The spirit of Seattle is alive, carried in Wallach's words and, more important, in the confidence and memory of the crowd, in their commitment to vote, march, organize, campaign. As she spoke and they responded, it seemed to me that Seattle deserves a monument to the 1999 protests to reflect its progressive heart alongside the empty glory of the Space Needle, the Boeing hangars and the stadium that Junior left behind.
After all, I recalled, King County was persuaded to change its name to Martin Luther King Jr. County. Why not a monument to the Battle of Seattle in this city of the failed dotcom and defense contractor dreams? Someday perhaps, but for now the living monument of its creative, committed activist community will have to do.