Seattle: “What Democracy Looks Like”

Against the Current, No. 84, January/February 2000

Susan Weissman interviews Dana Frank, Leone Hankey and Lisa Fithian

THE EXPLOSIVE SIGNIFICANCE of the mobilization against the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle has altered the terms of the “free trade” debate.  We present here brief edited excerpts from a discussion broadcast on KPFK-FM in Los Angeles, on the program “Beneath the Surface” hosted by Suzi Weissman, December 13, 1999.

Dana Frank teaches American Studies at the University of California-Santa Cruz, and is the author of Buy American, The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism, just published by Beacon Press, a critical analysis of protectionist movements.  Leone Hankey is coordinator of the Southern California Fair Trade Network.  Lisa Fithian, a veteran of civil disobedience and a Direct Action trainer for the Seattle protests, was arrested there and jailed for five days. She has also worked for Justice for Janitors in LA.

DANA FRANK: Historically we haven’t seen the kind of eruption from below over trade that we saw in Seattle.  But we’ve always had public debate about the nature of trade, about who benefits and who doesn’t and the different class interests involved.  Seattle shows how bad things have gotten under the corporate definition of trade policy in recent years.

In my book I start with the Boston Tea Party as essentially a demonstration against British imports, in which the colonists were demanding an independent economy, but also expressing the kind of nation they wanted at home.

In the revolutionary period there were a lot of folks including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who went around wearing American-made products, what they called “homespun.” Washington wore homespun to his inaugural.  But those clothes were actually slave-made-he put his slaves to extra work-so that he himself was playing the nationalist card but was also responsible for a lot of the economic problems people were trying to solve.

So the question is, whom does the economy benefit?  And that’s the issue in the Seattle protests today.

It’s always been a struggle for people even to learn what trade policy is about.  In the 19th century, there was the question of tariffs-now we might say, oh yawn, but now maybe we can understand why this was a big contested area.

Some sectors of capital wanted free trade so that they could have access to export markets without barriers at the other end; others wanted protection from import competition in their industry.

In my book I try to study what this all had to do with working people, who often were being manipulated by both sides.  And there were some who figured out, like the Knights of Labor, that the real question was the domestic distribution of wealth and the social conditions of production, not the content of trade policy.

Capitalism has always been international, but the real issue here isn’t entirely about global trade policy or just the secrecy of the WTO; it’s about corporate capitalism in a new stage of transcending democratic processes and nation-states.

It’s not that if we got rid of the WTO everything would be fine, because the WTO is really a symptom of the larger problem of corporate rule and the ultimate logic of capitalism.

LEONE HANKEY: I’ve never experienced anything like the sense of exhilaration and power in the way that tens of thousands of people were uniting in the streets-a power that took on a life of its own as it danced and snaked through the city. Nothing can take that victory away from us, that sense of solidarity and celebration.

That solidarity grew from a complex combination of factors: It has to do with the fact that things are getting worse for working people around the world, and the theme of corporate rule that Dana was pointing out. It’s become so clear to labor people, to environmentalists and young people that we’re all being attacked by this incredible, almost absolute power of multinational corporations.

That’s what created this unity.  The second factor is that there’s been this feeling in the air-which I disagree with-that the common person doesn’t have the power to make change, that idealism is out of fashion.  This victory has turned that around for the tens of thousands who participated in Seattle and the millions who witnessed it.

Among all the chants, the one that took over the streets for days after the state of emergency and the attacks on constitutional rights, was “This is what democracy looks like.”

LISA FITHIAN: I was in jail from Wednesday afternoon through Sunday—but I’ve been doing Direct Action for almost twenty-five years, and I’ve never seen the kind of civilian uprising we saw in Seattle.  It was a festival of resistance, consciously organized by people from all around the country.

Very little of that was actually shown in the press—but there were processions of puppets, illustrating that turtles and dolphins are not “trade barriers.” And people came out with incredible creativity to block the delegates from getting into the Paramount Theater and the convention center.

At one point I could look north, south, east and west and saw people occupying the area outside the convention center in every direction.

I was doing the training, and there was Direct Action convergence for about ten days before November 30.  We trained thousands of people in Non-Violent Direct Action, jail solidarity, and so on. It’s a testimony to the human spirit that the affinity group model, which says that people have the ability to make decisions for themselves, really worked, so that no one person could see the totality of the actions that were taking place.

We had anticipated a fairly serious police response—especially in the environmental movement we have seen escalating police tactics, including these chemical agents.

So I think we had expected they would be highly militarized.  But the lack of control they demonstrated, the rubber bullets and concussion grenades and the armored vehicles, turned it into a war zone that people hadn’t imagined until they were in it.

ATC 84, January-February 2000