Disparate Grievances Land At Same Doorstep Air Nikes To Sea Turtles, Corporations Are Tie That Binds.

Posted: December 02, 1999

SEATTLE — Tom Wilson, 54, a utility consultant, has spent years fighting the multinationals that have moved in to mine copper and gold in his home state of Wisconsin. This week, he used up his frequent-flier miles to come here and fight what he sees as a rising tide of global capitalism - by protesting the policies of the World Trade Organization.

"What we're seeing is a control of world power by corporations," said the white-haired Wilson as he stood on a Seattle street corner yesterday in a yellow poncho printed with the words "Seattle '99, Protest of the Century." Wilson, who earns his living by helping utilities set up low-income home heating, lifted his poncho to show off the words on his red T-shirt: NOT FOR SALE.

Around him, on a downtown street, cordoned off by police in riot gear, stood several hundred other peaceful protesters - people who came to lobby for Tibetan freedom, for the safety of sea turtles who can get hooked in shrimpers' nets, for an end to slave labor, for boycotting companies that use sweatshops. People with politics as far apart as Greenpeace and the Teamsters.

And Tom Hayden. If the tens of thousands who descended on Seattle took the city and the nation by surprise, the fabled Sixties radical-turned-California-legislator was there yesterday, proclaiming that such activism had never really gone away; it had just become harder to see.

With two days of mass protests in Seattle, said Hayden, who will turn 59 this month, "the waters of invisibility are parted."

Unlike Hayden, most of the people in the streets here have not had careers of politics and causes. But none seemed to doubt that the WTO was their enemy.

Dan Steinberg, 28, of San Francisco, Calif., said the World Trade Organization touches all Americans' lives when it meets in closed sessions and makes decisions in the name of free trade that lower environmental and economic and social justice standards worldwide.

"The WTO subverts democracy by declaring democratically achieved laws - such as restrictions on child labor - as being trade barriers," said the registered patent agent, who said he took time off from his job at Stanford University to come to Seattle this week.

"The organization is run by big businesses. And if we don't stop them they will control the world," Steinberg said.

After Tuesday's vandalism, the city declared a civil emergency, imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew downtown, called in the National Guard and announced a no-protest zone.

By yesterday evening, nearly 500 people had been arrested without incident - most piled into buses during a morning protest, when dozens of people sat in a circle in a downtown square, refusing to give ground to police.

Over and over again, officers cuffed them with plastic wristbands and moved them out. The drama was carefully documented by protesters, dozens of whom held video cameras, the trademarks of confrontations in the era after Rodney King. Many protesters also carried cellular phones, networking with each other as they fanned out through the city.

As double-length city buses drove off with the arrested protesters inside them, supporters raised a cheer. Most said they approved of the civil disobedience.

"I believe they're being wrongfully arrested," said Charlie Mulcahy, 41, of Seattle, who came to the protest with fellow members of Sheet Metal Workers Union Local 66, and stood out in the crowd in his blue union jacket and short hair.

"We share the same issues. We want workers' rights. We're against child labor. But I think if it was 200 or 300 sheet metal workers - in our jackets and our hard hats - that we would not be touched [by police]. It's just because we seem more mainstream."

Mulcahy, who was carrying a broom, said he had come downtown to be part of the protest, but also to sweep up broken glass.

"I took the day off. I was a little disturbed last night seeing the looting and the destruction of a city I helped build. It's a little heartbreaking," he said.

Mulcahy and other WTO opponents said it was only a small handful of self-proclaimed anarchists who caused trouble on Tuesday.

They did, however, say some of the stores that were damaged might have been singled out: stores such as Banana Republic and NikeTown, stores that protesters said symbolize the new world order, dominated by big chains that make big profits off cheap foreign labor.

Just who the vandals were - and where they came from - was unclear. But on Tuesday night, one local television station pointed out an irony: that one of the young men breaking NikeTown windows was wearing Nikes.

Yesterday, some Seattle residents found themselves in impromptu arguments over just such matters with the mostly well-to-do looking protesters.

"Where'd that parka you're wearing come from?" John Hickman, 58, an engineer, asked a young protester who told him he was fighting sweatshop labor.

The young man looked down at his LL Bean jacket, and said, "I don't know, but I don't need it. I could always make my own parka."

"Globalization got you that parka," Hickman said. "And I have no problem with that. If I have a choice between buying a $12 jacket made in Indonesia over a $200 jacket made here, I'll vote with my wallet and buy the cheap one at Kmart."

Yesterday, much of the graffiti remained on downtown buildings - an odd collection of swear words and gang tags and political messages, from "Free Mumia," to "End Corporate Rule," to "Eat the Rich" to "Destroy Power." Outside the toy store FAO Schwarz, a graffiti message read "Open Space, Not 'Toys.' "

Few shoppers and businesspeople ventured downtown - where most stores remained closed, with grim-faced security guards standing watch behind locked front doors. Some of Tuesday's protesters came downtown yesterday - not to protest, but help s clean up the mess of the day before.

Teenagers in the crowd said this week's protests were their first.

"It's cool," said Emily Seeton, 17, of Seattle. She had a banner pinned to her jacket that said, "This is a Peaceful Protest." "Like, I kind of feel we're making history. We're taking a stand on things that are important to people."

Around midday, a couple of hundred protesters gathered alongside NikeTown, chanting and waving signs. Police on megaphones threatened to use "chemical agents," then pushed the crowd south, past a boarded-up Banana Republic.

Some in the crowd wore T-shirts criticizing the chain stores - like one young man's blue shirt whose one word, in white, mimicked the print of the Gap logo. Instead of Gap, the shirt proclaimed, "CRAP."

In the crowd, many people paid reference to the 1960s, saying there hadn't been such a protest in America since Chicago in 1968.

But at a meeting of legislators trying to keep up the anti-WTO momentum, Hayden scoffed when asked if Tuesday's protest was a revival of the Sixties protest era. Protest has always continued, he said.

"This may be one those turning-point events when the waters of invisibility are parted and people see what is going on all around them," said Hayden.

He said he's hopeful that bonds forged between the diverse groups who descended on Seattle will last.

"A lot of these groups have had their heads down or they've been accepting token crumbs from the Clinton table for so long that they haven't looked around much," he said. "The change that occurred here is a change in psychology. We stopped the WTO. They deserved to be stopped. And the thing that did it was the power of the street."

"We've lifted expectations and we've shown people what can happen when we all join together and fight."

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