A View from Nearby Vancouver
| By Gareth Kirkby
Managing Editor, Xtra West
So how about those WTO protesters in Seattle?
A couple of thousand Vancouverites headed down by bus and car to join with some 40,000 other people of all ages and incomes in demonstrating against the increasingly powerful world trade body.
Included in the convoy was a Women's Bus which boasted more than a handful of lesbians. By all accounts, they joined many queers at the demonstrations. In fact, Washington State lesbians, gays and AIDS activists were among the most dedicated protesters.
That's because the World Trade Organization, and its brethren like APEC and NAFTA, have been growing in strength and clout over the last decade. The WTO has already overturned US environmental legislation that attempted to reduce air pollution.
Other queer activists were there in solidarity with environmentalists, those interested in protecting the uniqueness of each nation's culture, and labour activists. But many queers were also demonstrating against the increasing insurgence of the WTO and like bodies into social policy.
At the moment, WTO regulations dictate how governments may procure goods and services; governments may not require recycled content or otherwise hinder trade.
Some gay activists believe the WTO will soon attempt to widen the list of prohibited government regulations in a way that would threaten the way some U.S. cities require companies doing business with them to offer domestic partner benefits to same-sex spouses.
As riveting as the peaceful Seattle demonstrations was the reaction of government and the police. First thing in the morning, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at a boisterous but peaceful crowd.
The next night, police rioted on Capital Hill, a full mile outside the "no-demonstration" zone. They beat very peaceful demonstrators and innocent bystanders, including many queers.
True, some people got out of hand in the downtown and smashed windows. In any protest, there is the risk of deplorable action from a few hotheads; and true looters have always piggy-backed their crimes on demonstrations.
That doesn't excuse the speed with which the mayor declared an emergency and the governor called in the National Guard. Nor does it excuse the heavy-handed use of police force against peaceful demonstrators or the police riot the next night.
One thing is clear from the force used against APEC demonstrators just over a year ago in Vancouver, and the brutality and over-reaction in Seattle last week: freedom of speech and assembly is subject to unacceptable limitation by the government.
If your freedom of speech runs up against a politician's alleged desire not to embarrass a dictator, or against the agenda of free trade fetishists, it's your freedom that is cancelled, not their agenda.
This is an issue that affects queers. We have a history of protest; we sometimes take to the street to challenge unfair laws, government plans and police action. We, along with everyone else, have the right to protest without fearing we will be bludgeoned by civil servants dressed as Robocops.
Still, the lesson of Seattle is a positive one. A whole new generation of youth are challenging the direction of society. Their parents, the Babyboomer Generation, challenged the Vietnam War and the place of women, visible minorities and gays in society.
Now, youth are challenging disregard for the environment and the emphasis on economics above all else. And, given the lack of jobs that young people know is their future if nothing changes, it's not too much to hope that they will be tenacious in their demands for a new, truly democratic society