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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

World Trade Summit: Battle of Seattle

Air Date: Week of

Labor and environmental protestors plan to flood Seattle with 50,000 demonstrators during the upcoming World Trade Organization summit. They’ve been preparing for a confrontation with a special boot-camp training program in the mountains outside Seattle. KUOW correspondent Sam Eaton reports.


CURWOOD: Seattle law-enforcement officials are gearing up for what could be one of the largest American protests in decades. With several heads of state and scores of trade delegates converging on the city, there's even talk of circling one key facility with a barricade of buses to keep protesters away. As Sam Eaton of member station KUOW reports, preparations for the showdown have been going on for months.

GROUP: (chanting, clapping hands) We are the cheerleaders of the revolution!

EATON: It's early morning on a rolling stretch of pasture in the Cascade foothills outside Seattle. Several young activists stand in a circle, practicing political cheers.

GROUP: Home and career...

EATON: This is boot camp for 150 elite political demonstrators. They're here to develop techniques to turn the anti-WTO demonstrations into what they hope will become the protest of the century.

KRETZMANN: Because of the size of the WTO meeting, the fact that this is being billed, I think quite accurately, as the largest corporate agenda-gathering in this millennium, it's attracting a lot of experienced people to come in and try to help out, to make sure that we get our message out. To make sure that we're able to stop this next round of WTO talks from going forward.

EATON: Steve Kretzmann is a trainer for the camp sponsor, the Berkeley-based Ruckus Society. He's teaching students here the nuances of nonviolent confrontation, along with the guerrilla tactics of hanging banners from skyscrapers and spray-painting local billboards.


MAN: ... The dark around the edge and then the light in the middle, so that when people look from a distance it looks like a three-dimensional dolphin ...

EATON: In one area of the camp, artists are building giant papier-mache figurines to be used in what Mr. Kretzmann calls "arrestable theater."

KRETZMANN: Arrestable theater is a concept where basically we're combining traditional political theater methods with traditional direct-action methods, so that you'll have people who are actually acting out some sort of dramatic conflict, say, between sea turtles and the WTO.

EATON: Activists plan to use this technique to turn downtown Seattle into a giant stage, a festival of resistance, transforming the streets into rivers and forests complete with schools of papier-mache dolphins. The goal is to present a vivid image, as demonstrators confront local police.

KRETZMANN: When you have a visual of Seattle police arresting people in sea turtle costumes at the request of WTO bureaucrats in suits, it's pretty clear what's going on.

EATON: The street protests will all be part of a coordinated campaign to get the world's news media to report the impacts of world trade on labor and the environment. It's expected more than 50,000 protesters will converge on downtown Seattle, outnumbering the trade delegates and the media by ten to one. To rally people in Seattle, one group is broadcasting commercials on the Internet.

(Dramatic music. Voice-over: "At this month's World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, are the world's biggest economic problems really on the agenda? Overproduction. Overconsumption. A growing underclass. A world awash in chemicals. Is economic progress killing the planet? Let's go to Seattle and put those questions on the WTO agenda.")


EATON: The prospect of mass demonstrations has created a sense of trepidation among many in downtown Seattle. Police are advising merchants to have fire extinguishers on hand in case any of the protests get out of hand, along with plywood to board up any broken windows. Which brings up a certain irony about the timing and location of the summit. I'm standing here about a block away from where the trade delegates will meet, in the heart of Seattle revitalized shopping district. In front of me are the very products the WTO countries represent: three stories of Nike tennis shoes, for example, or FAO Schwartz with aisle after aisle of imported toys. But these same streets, now filled with shoppers and tourists, will be swollen with activists during the trade talks, which occur in the first week of the holiday shopping season. In essence, the WTO summit is shutting down the very trade the organization promotes.


EATON: Supporters of global free trade are openly critical of the protesters. Patricia Davis, president of the Washington State Council on International Trade, dismisses the activists as extremists.

DAVIS: Unfortunately, there are groups who are anti-trade. I think they're a small minority, but they're anti-trade, anti-capitalist, anti-globalization, stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off, who have co-opted the environmental and labor arguments to scare people with.

EATON: Ms. Davis is confident the world will focus on what happens inside the summit, not on the street.

DAVIS: We're going to go on the map for having the Seattle round that sets the trade agenda for the next four or five years in this world. And it happened here, the spotlight is on us, we'll forget about the protesters. And what's really going to be meaningful is the agenda that is set and the progress that is made in helping settle some of these very serious and contentious issues.

EATON: Already, though, activists have begun to show a knack for stealing the spotlight.

CROWD 1: (Shouting) End corporate greed!

CROWD 2: (Shouting) Take back the power!

CROWD 1: (Shouting) End corporate greed!

CROWD 2: (Shouting) Take back the power!

EATON: They staged a noisy demonstration when WTO head Michael Moore arrived in Seattle on a recent planning visit.

CROWD 1: (Shouting) End corporate greed!

CROWD 2: (Shouting) Take back the power!

EATON: The White House has been dispatching top Cabinet officials to Seattle to try to defuse the situation. Environmental Protection Agency chief Carol Browner told a town hall meeting that the administration would never roll back American environmental laws to support global trade.

BROWNER: I would never, ever agree to change an air pollution standard which I set...

EATON: But activists at this meeting weren't convinced.

BROWNER: Excuse me. If you want me to answer it...

EATON: The session broke down into a series of catcalls from the audience, forcing Ms. Browner to leave.

(Shouting in the audience)

EATON: It's unclear if protesters will be able to actually disrupt the WTO summit itself. A large security zone will be established around the conference site and the talks are closed to the public. Still, activists vow to be a major presence. For Living on Earth, I'm Sam Eaton in Seattle.



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