In the Streets

The World Trade Organization’s 1999 ministerial in
Seattle was the global justice movement’s
coming-out party. An estimated 50,000 protesters flooded the
streets, blocking delegates from entering the convention center for
several days. A small group of protesters broke windows and taunted
police (some activists charge that they were undercover police
provocateurs). While it’s unclear who swung first, the understaffed
police panicked, beating and tear-gassing the crowd and arresting
some 600 people in what Filipino activist and academic Walden Bello
described as ‘a police riot.’ The trade ministers were finally able
to convene on the last day of the conference. But dozens of
delegates from poor countries, emboldened by the protests, refused
to go along with a proposed new round of trade talks that they
viewed as grossly unfair. Lacking a consensus, the talks
collapsed.

Stung by their failure in Seattle, WTO leaders convened the
November 2001 ministerial in Doha, Qatar, a remote
Persian Gulf emirate that lacks basic freedoms of speech and
assembly. Due to the lack of public protest, a shady system of
private negotiating sessions called ‘green rooms’ that shut poor
countries out of talks, and outright arm-twisting (aid to several
developing countries was withheld just before the meeting), the
United States and the European Union achieved their goal of a
ministerial consensus declaration launching the ‘Doha Development
Agenda’ for a new round of talks.

Again with an eye toward keeping protesters far away from
delegates and the media, Cancun was chosen to host
the 2003 ministerial. The hotels and convention center are
separated from the rest of the city by a large lagoon; only one
heavily barricaded road on a thin strip of land connects them. As a
result, the protests were much smaller than in Seattle — but the
10,000 protesters who came had a major impact, especially South
Korean farmer and activist Lee Kyung Hae, who committed suicide
atop a police barricade on the first day of the conference. A
coalition of activist groups employed an innovative inside/outside
strategy: Representatives inside the convention center lobbied
delegates and staged small protests for the media in coordination
with marchers in the streets. These demonstrations played a pivotal
role in the collapse of the ministerial.

It’s not clear what will happen in the streets of Hong
Kong
. The Hong Kong People’s Alliance on WTO is expecting
10,000 protesters at a march on December 11 — mostly local migrant
workers, as well as delegations from Indonesia, the Philippines,
and South Korea — and coordinated demonstrations around the globe.
Early this fall, though, the group reported that the Hong Kong
government was being uncooperative, and some hotels were refusing
to accept bookings for groups opposed to the WTO.

UTNE
UTNE
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