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The Battle in Seattle

By Ann Northrop

seattleriots.jpg - 16.87 K "The World Trade Organization? What's that all about? I don't really get it. What's going on out there? And what's that about the cops attacking people in the gay neighborhood?"

I am both horrified and entranced by the chaos and violence in Seattle at the attempted meeting of the World Trade Organization.

As a 51-year-old American child of the suburbs, I have visions of Selma (fire hoses and police dogs), Washington D.C. (tanks at Dupont Circle), 1968 Chicago, Watts, Newark, Detroit in my brain.

And then I see cops on horses trampling my friends at the 1992 Republican convention in Houston and cops clubbing AIDS activists in New York. And always, always, always the daily violence visited on the poor.

Here's why people are upset at the World Trade Organization. The WTO is a creation of nations around the globe. Its professed purpose is to foster global development and prosperity for all through worldwide negotiation of trade issues--acknowledgment that no one operates in a vacuum any more.

Seems like a progressive idea. Until you realize that, in practice, what this really is is a way for global corporations to evade local laws that "interfere" with global trade. In other words, the WTO seems to be a device to get past government accountability to local citizens, because any local concern can be overruled by the global body.

Here's an all-too-possible hypothetical. We have all watched the struggle in San Francisco to enact and enforce a local law requiring businesses that have contracts with the city to offer the same health insurance and other benefits to the partners of their employees in same-sex relationships as they do to the spouses of their married employees. This is called the Equal Benefits Ordinance.

Its enactment has forced literally thousands of businesses to change their benefits packages to comply with the law. And we seemed to clear some final hurdle when the city won a major protracted battle with the airlines over this law. Now, with the San Francisco law firmly victorious, other cities are beginning to follow suit.

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The city councils of both Los Angeles and Seattle have just passed their own contractors laws.

But what if corporations, instead of following the law, went to the World Trade Organization and said, "Hey, we can't afford to pay these benefits. And paying them would offend a lot of people around the world who disapprove of homosexuality."

And what if the WTO members said, "Okay, you're right. This is restraint of trade and not good for corporate health. This law is disallowed."

For those of you who think this scenario is unlikely, let me point out that the WTO has already voided some U.S. environmental laws and is refusing to let labor union representatives even talk to them about fair pay for work around the globe.

And let us not forget that even the very liberal World Council of Churches will not admit the Metropolitan Community Church to membership because of objections from some of its current members.

The tens of thousands of demonstrators in Seattle, representing a tremendously wide range of interests, are trying to stop corporate greed from becoming the official world priority (instead of its current status as the unofficial priority) and wiping out all human values and civil rights from the agenda.

So the fight is joined. And why does it have to be a fight? Why does it always have to be a fight? Because people in power want to retain power.

I talked to someone in Seattle in the midst of the frenzy about the cops and national guard pushing downtown demonstrators into the gay neighborhood of capitol hill and waging a six-hour standoff, featuring rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray.

"Those were just innocent people," he wailed. "And all they asked was that the cops take one step back and then they could take one step back and everything would stop! Why couldn't they take one step back?!?"

Because they never do and they never will. Didn't your mother teach you "give them an inch and they'll take a mile"? That's what people in power think. They're very scared, really. They think that if they talk to us or allow us any physical room, we will take over. They may be right. I call them the self-perpetuating hierarchy.

All those people in power who seem to retain power no matter how many times they fail, no matter how many people they kill. They retain power because they are a small group who all know each other and give each other jobs.

You make sure I retain power even when I screw up and I'll do the same for you. Then neither of us has to worry. But since we do screw up all the time, we have to enforce our power with force, because otherwise the masses will throw us out.

That's why we have police forces and national guards. They're just the mercenaries guarding people in power. And isn't it interesting that the most force we've seen used against demonstrators in this country in a long time is used in the service of corporate interests?

Oh and then there's the AIDS part of the WTO protests. AIDS activists were in the street in Seattle, too. It was the latest chapter in the novel "Do People Have a Right to Health Care, Or Don't They?"
anorthrop.jpg - 6.59 K Acclaimed journalist Ann Northrop

And (consider this the latest temperature reading of the Gore campaign's desperation) our president announced, on World AIDS Day, that the United States, when figuring out how to help poor countries around the world cope with the plague of AIDS and other catastrophes, will now consider health issues, instead of its current policy of considering only the needs of pharmaceutical companies.

Oh boy, what a breakthrough. I guess the rubber bullets and tear gas were a tradeoff, a way to make sure the pharmaceutical companies still have customers in the "first world."

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