Comparisons between the World Trade Organization protests here and the protest movements of the '60s became a media micro-industry last week. One reporter even asked me, is the pepper spray helping you relive your youth? My response was that it beats taking Viagra.
My serious take on the question might surprise you. Based on five days of joining in protests, marching, being gassed myself, sitting on cold pavements and hard floors, I have to say I am glad to have lived long enough to see a new generation of rebels accomplish something bigger here in 1999 than we accomplished in Chicago in 1968 with our disruptive protests at the Democratic National Convention.
Unfortunately, the public has been given a picture of the protests that's as foggy as tear gas. While the scattered violence got most of the media attention, the protesters were overwhelmingly committed to nonviolent action. Of the 587 people arrested, virtually all were committing acts of peaceful civil disobedience, such as violating curfew or entering the no-protest zone.
Events get magnified at close range, and it's impossible to know whether the protests here have discredited the WTO fatally or will have any lasting effect. But consider the difference a week can make. I came to Seattle as a state legislator concerned about the WTO's impact on state and local government, and it seemed to me that most Americans knew nothing about the WTO. Now I hear people talking about it with suspicion. Many Americans said Generation X was apathetic until last week. Then, in Bill Gates's backyard, protesters, most of them young, stopped the organization of the new global economy in its tracks--however briefly--and sent the pundits looking for new generational labels.
The 1968 protest in Chicago was the crest of a wave that had been rising for eight years, through thousands of protests from the civil rights movement to the anti-war movement. The Seattle protest, rather than riding a wave, allowed a whole new generation of activists to surface, bringing attention to one of the world's most powerful organizations.
In 1968, people expected Chicago to be Chicago--you could see the protest building. Here, the city and the authorities seemed generally stunned; the protesters accomplished more with less.
Seattle will have greater consequences. In Chicago, we were dealing with a single issue: the Vietnam War. The Seattle activists were confronting the very nature of the way economics, environmentalism and human rights are going to be shaped for the rest of our lives. The so-called new world order has to do with everything: exports, prevailing wages, sweatshops, sea turtles, the price and quality of food. The Vietnam War was going to end eventually, but the new world order will not. You'll either be part of it or you'll be frozen out.
Clearly another major difference is that the issues that brought the protesters to Seattle had such broad-based support from labor and environmentalists--the traditional base of the Democratic Party. President Clinton, while distancing himself from his role in shaping the WTO, expressed support for the protesters' goals. This is quite different from the attitude 30 years ago of President Lyndon B. Johnson--or the actions of Mayor Richard Daley--toward us anti-war rebels in the streets of Chicago.
The Seattle protesters' confrontation was forceful, effective and innovative. They shut down the WTO meeting, albeit temporarily, by chaining themselves together in the streets for as long as 12 hours last Tuesday. Bicyclists recorded the scene with hand-held cameras, enabling the organizers to broadcast live on the World Wide Web. They managed to maintain an attitude more buoyant and carnival-like than violent. Hard hats walked with nature lovers. Students mobilized in action teams with names like the Radical Cheerleaders, the Dot.Commies and the Unarrestables, whose marches were led by a giant puppet of a crying Buddha. American campuses are still more silent than they were in the '60s. But the Seattle protesters represent the breakthrough of the vast hip-hop generation into a public effort to challenge the system.
To the young people who fasted in jail and froze in the streets, the WTO represents all they fear about the future. They will not find a home in the market globalism of Clinton, who appeared tone-deaf by referring to the protests as "hoopla" while endorsing their goals in the same breath. Still, they are just as unlikely to be part of Pat Buchanan's anti-WTO model and narrow nationalist constituency.
For the first time in memory, the patriotism of the corporate globalizers is in question, not that of their opponents. Do the Clinton administration's investor-based trade priorities benefit America's interest in high-wage jobs, environmental protection and human rights? Are American democratic values and middle-class interests secondary to those of transnational corporations? As a grass-roots movement seeking the overthrow of what it sees as an oppressive system, Seattle '99 was more like the Boston Tea Party than the days of rage we knew in the late '60s.
Tom Hayden, a California state senator, was one of the Chicago 7 convicted of inciting the riots that disrupted the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Their convictions were later reversed.