The protests in Seattle were supposed to adhere to a schedule, a plan, a choreography. There were signed permits. There was an official route for the protest march. Anyone with a gripe about the World Trade Organization was supposed to proceed in an orderly fashion down a certain street, holding banners, wearing amusingly satirical costumes, humming old Pete Seeger songs. The schedule did not mention rioting.
Now we have to pose the awful question: DID SOMEONE FORGET TO FAX THE SCHEDULE TO THE ANARCHISTS?
All across America, people are surely wondering what exactly is going on in Seattle, and whether the street protests and mass arrests are a sign that it's safe to break out the old Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane albums. Confusing the situation is our general lack of understanding of two key facts about the World Trade Organization: 1. What it is.
2. What it is that we are not supposed to like about it.
So we need to get a handle on that. We need to vow, by the end of today, that we will not mentally confuse the World Trade Organization with the World Wrestling Federation. I had always assumed the WTO was nothing more than your standard profit-crazed, blood-sucking Trilateral Commission-like cabal of extremely powerful old men hellbent on global domination. I didn't realize it was something that some people were actually worried about.
Until now, the WTO was most famous for GATT, which is famous for being sort of like NAFTA. What these people do is, they get together and invent acronyms, and then sell them all over the world for enormous profits.
Obviously, the whole dispute is about free trade, and whether free trade can be "fair trade," and whether it leads to jobs going overseas to foreign sweatshops, and whether all this imperils sea turtles and other endangered species because some countries have lax environmental laws, and so forth, a very complicated stew of political and economic ingredients. What's really surprising is that the people who don't like free trade--the Pat Buchanans and Ross Perots, the unions, the environmentalists, the freaks, the randomly angry people--were somehow able to stand one another's presence long enough to organize a massive protest.
Question: Why did they hold a meeting of the WTO on the Left Coast, as opposed to, say, Des Moines? Did the WTO secretly want to stir up trouble? Did they consider holding the gig in Berkeley? Santa Cruz?
Seattle had hoped, in what may be a case of extreme civic hubris, to corral the protests into a kind of feel-good, cappuccino-sipping encounter session. Apparently the city leaders were under the impression that the Sierra Club is as radical as it gets on the West Coast of the United States. (The Sierra Club is not happy with the violence. Executive Director Carl Pope said Tuesday night: "We deplore the violence exhibited today, which usurps the real story of 50,000 people who stood together to demand respect for workers and the environment.")
As The Post's John Burgess has reported, the city symbolically renamed Pine Street "Union Way," in honor of the protesters from organized labor.
President Clinton, who since childhood has been desperate to get everyone to come together in harmony, said he thought the people on the outside had legitimate gripes and should be allowed inside the meeting. It may be that the '60s were so long ago, so distantly removed from our millennial moment, that Clinton forgot that there are people who don't "take meetings."
They take to the barricades. It has always been so.
Regardless of whether they're right or wrong, a riot (or "civil unrest," to use a favorite euphemism) is an effective method of generating coverage of a grievance. This story was on the front of the financial pages just a couple of days ago. Officially boring! If you march in an orderly line, you're always going to be in the back of the news queue.
A final note: I'd like to write what I really think about the WTO, but I've been informed that if I do so I'll be slapped with a tariff. And I hear that really stings.
Joel Achenbach's Rough Draft column appears three times a week--Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays--in the PM Extra edition of washingtonpost.com.