WTO quickly forgotten

"Hell no to the WTO! Hell no to the WTO!"

Ah, it seems like only yesterday that the streets were littered with happy folk chanting those words in unison. Where has the time gone? Where are the days of mass arrests, accusations of police brutality, and anti-corporate protests in Seattle? Just the memory of tear gas being fired into crowds to disperse them brings … well, a tear to my eye. How quickly we forget.

The World Trade Organization protests, which began peacefully one year ago tomorrow, made Seattle stand up and notice what was going on in the world. Even some GAP-clad SPU students wanted to know what all the fuss was about. And it was a pretty bug fuss for the 60,000 or so people who marched through downtown Seattle on Nov. 30,1999.

The WTO, for those who weren’t around to hear protestors preach its evils, is an organization that regulates international trade and whose authority supercedes that of individual nations when it comes to said trade.

Anti-WTO activists often cite examples of Europeans being forced to import genetically engineered beef and the United States being forced to import fish that are not caught under conditions required by endangered species laws, to name a few. The WTO is a small ruling body with too much authority and too much corporate influence, its detractors claim.

It wasn’t just those few gripes being protested last year, though. Every activist group imaginable littered the streets that day. There were Free Tibet banners, numerous trade unions, a persecuted religious group from China, environmentalists, anti-sweatshop activists, topless lesbians …

Okay, maybe not all of those groups had a legitimate reason for trumpeting their causes. The important thing is that something so huge, so potentially globe-impacting and powerful as the World Trade Organization, was a catalyst that brought together thousands of concerned people from all over the world — in our own city — and they all had a similar message: "Hey, you, listen to this! Injustice! Unfairness! Abuse of power! It’s important and it affects all of us. Even you!"

For a few days, Seattle (and students in particular) listened, but SPU students hip to the anti-WTO scene these days are about as common as New Kids on the Block fans. This wasn’t meant to be just another fad, though. Protesting injustice is nothing new; does the phrase "Let my people go" ring a bell for anyone? These protestors feel that their cause — in a nutshell, speaking out against corporate globalization and the destruction to environment and human rights that seems to accompany it — is urgent and vital. They are on par with abolitionists during the Civil War, feminist leaders when women couldn’t even vote, or anti-racist, nonviolent protestors during the civil rights movement. That’s exciting and important, right?

Apparently not. The home of Microsoft and Starbucks seems to have forgotten the corporate injustices brought to light by the WTO protests, and Seattleites are still rallying around the almighty latte. Even a planned Starbucks protest fell through when the coffee giant appeased activists by promising to carry a small amount of certified "fair trade" coffee. The WTO protests were just a small disturbance to our upper class, urban, educated lives.

Guess what? The streets may now be hippie and activist-free, but Nike still operates factories throughout the world that treat young women like dirt. McDonald’s still won’t use food grown by local farmers in their French establishments. A living wage (not simply a minimum wage) is virtually unheard of, even in the United States. The seven richest countries still haven’t canceled the debts owed them by the poor ones.

There are still people taking notice somewhere; on April 14 of this year, a similar amalgamate of protestors gathered in Washington, D.C., at a meeting of the World Bank and International Money Fund. A similar scene was played out just two months ago in Prague on Sept. 26. It all looked a lot like Seattle did last year: police in riot gear, people being pepper-sprayed, hundreds of arrests. It’s just a lot easier to pay attention to something like that when it’s preventing you from walking through the streets of your own city.

Sadly, though, we are again complacent, and ignoring the injustices around the world and in our own country is dangerous. Think about it: the civil rights movement already happened, so racism must not be a problem. Women have equal rights now, so sexism isn’t an issue. (Never mind that women and minorities still don’t average equal pay for equal work done by white males.) By continuing to ignore the unfairness and strangling influence of the powers that be, we are willing participants in the destruction of our world. But the WTO protests are over, so all’s right with the world as long as there’s no curfew and we can still shop at Niketown.

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Title: WTO quickly forgotten | Author: Joel Hartse | Section: Opinions | Published Date: 2000-11-29 | Internal ID: 1696