Prepared by Iphigen Sloe for Why War?
Commentary and Analysis of the WTO protest in Montreal
Aug. 6 — On Monday July 28th less than one thousand activists congregated in the streets of Montreal to display opposition to, and disrupt, the meeting of twenty-six ministers in town to discuss the World Trade Organization's Doha development agenda, a program launched in November 2001 to allegedly establish a more equitable approach to international trade for developing nations by the close of 2004. The protest, organized by the Popular Mobilization Against the WTO, had special leaning toward new post-September 11th racial profiling in Canadian immigration programs, in conjunction with dispelling the rhetorical myths of an increasingly ironic "free trade" platform espoused by the US—dominated WTO mission statement. The blanket reduction of import tariffs the WTO propagates and economically enforces floods local markets with foreign capital and business, handcuffing local producers at the mercy of monolithic transnational corporations.
The breadth of economic disasters unfolding on a global level is itself evidence of the effective power of the little understood organization of unelected officials that daily shape and constrict the economic possibilities of populations as near as Canada, as far as the Philippines where, to the benefit of multinational corporations, natural resources have been stripped away and massive indigenous populations displaced. Thus the protest concentrated especially on the WTO's narrow vision of reducing economic borders while yet doing nothing to facilitate the movement of peoples as a result of often coercive and imperial economic measures waged from afar. The protest did not stress the personal over the political, a popular leftist critique of contemporary social—political movements, but conflated the two as they rightly are, demanding not mere emotional sympathy but an intelligible empathy impossible to ignore: populations are directly suffering at the hands of an unaccounted—for league of transnational corporations and such suffering is not only communicable, but politically intelligible and in demand of action.
The WTO and the economic policies of nations they so vigorously influence and direct, have galvanized an evolved political entity of global reach that is neither safely classified as a nation—state nor as an autonomous corporation of corporations; instead, a new, more powerful political entity is taking shape which demands a scrutiny and dissection wholly absent in mass media; the evolving corporate—nation entity must be forced to account for the political and economic accountability it daily demonstrates across the globe, from the plotting of strategic sweatshops to the unrepresentative, imperial tenets of "free trade".
The displacement of populations is the most overt and racialized symptom of the WTO's trade policies, both detectable on a local level and yet lamentably forgotten in the press, erased from the political agendas of lobbied politicians too deep in the pockets of those rich corporations that paid for their soft cash campaigns. Thus the Action Committee Against Racial Profiling of Pakistanis, marching in Montreal bearing "news" that few know of, will not, and needs not, discriminate between the state's discrimination of Pakistani refugees and the WTO's economic war waged on the "third world". The Immigration and Refugee Board in Canada has rejected about 80 percent of Shia Muslim refugee claimants though most will be executed upon return, which means slaughtered, killed, raped. Likewise, the Coalition against the Deportation of Palestinian Refugees demands the city of Ottawa cease the deportation of Palestinians back to refugee camps in Lebanon. The political jargon built to house these very issues has been uniformly adopted and co—opted by network media lexicon itself, erecting that same discourse of detachment and abstraction indicative of a hidden world of manufactured pain. The third world is thus called the third world, twice removed from the First, the second world being that no—zone rarely mentioned and aptly so, for what nation, what population, will ever cross the threshold when held so tightly taut by the chains of a mysterious league of unelected officials with the audacity to on the one hand distribute wealth as an only an empire could, toward a narrow, unaccounted—for, ruling elite, while on the other hand trumpeting its economic armies by the sweet—sounding smell of "free trade"?
The press, when hungry, eats such rhetoric up. The pattern is not unfamiliar: Israeli invasions are incursions; marital law is a gentle parental curfew; to conquer is to occupy; colonies are settlements; wars are operations. The few sound bites the WTO merits on the five—minute International News segments on local American networks will be coupled with masked thugs and ruffians breaking Gap windows. Dismissed as counterculture liberal delinquents without that special historical legitimacy only state—endorsed violence can carry unquestioned, the ideology will not be once examined, nor their cause prodded for even a possible justification. No mass media will cover it in our increasingly episodic TV democracy; nor then will John and Jane Q. Public ask why it is the WTO does what it does. No one knows, and why would they when NBC is itself owned by the largest weapons manufacturer in the world.
Yet the protest failed. The Popular Mobilization Against the WTO failed to organize a coalition capable of collecting the numbers readily available and tactically necessary for a campaign of disruption. Even still, with the small numbers present, a greater effect could have been organized, perhaps even more efficiently than with larger numbers, but yet through organizational structures built more on coordination rather than control. The Scenario Committee that facilitated the Spokes Council meeting, which directs the general behavior and coordination of the protest's movement as a whole, centralized an already decentralized swarm of affinity groups that had come to Montreal with more in mind than mere snake marches winding through well—policed and well—corralled zones the Montreal authorities prepared for the march. Though the Sheraton, where the WTO delegates were meeting, was too closed—off for such a small protest to penetrate, the Spirit of Seattle could have been roused elsewhere with ease.
On Monday, the first day of three days of protest, the snake march quickly fell into acts of corporate window—liberation, graffiti artistry, and short intersection lockdowns. By the early afternoon, the swarm retreated to the declared Green Zone — a zone designated to be "safe" by the protest organizers — where 340 of the 600 would be promptly arrested after a short raid. The mass arrest was crippling to the remainder of the protest in the following days; more than half of the 40 medics were arrested with the more radical affinity groups, a tactful move on the part of the Montreal police, for by 4 pm most were declared arrested and could be detained for 24 hours (and nothing more, by Canadian law), thus safely removing them from Tuesday's actions. Most were charged with unlawful assembly and, more harshly, rioting, with a maximum sentence of two years in prison. All 340 were held on buses for 9 hours without food, water, or bathrooms, a human rights violation according to Canadian law.
Two hours later, at the Spokes Council, it was learned that most of the Scenario Committee had itself been arrested. An announcement interrupted the council declaring that even those who were performing jail solidarity, which consists of waiting for hours with food and water for the released, were being arrested outside the prison. An activist had been pulled out of a phone booth and incarcerated. A mood of indignant motivation to disrupt was perfectly consistent throughout the auditorium. Of all the Spokes Council meetings and conferences I have attended, this was the only one where total consensus was reached to rally in a snake march on Tuesday and disrupt the city. Unlike the more moderate antiwar movement, whose Spokes meetings must accommodate large contingents of faith—based peace vigil organizations and more passive "march and banner" student organizations, the antiglobalization movement is generally much younger, more radical, and very much student—led. It is more understood that no message will be carried anywhere if it is not wrapped up in pure disruption, that you might as well not come at all if you are not to come to shut down the city. It is more understood that a media spectacle, or that the destruction of corporate symbols, or the pure liberation of space and the city, is what, if anything, will let the world know what the WTO is and why and how it ought to be held accountable for grievous crimes against humanity. Disruption as an end will never be ideologically sufficient but only provisionally necessary for the evolving Global Justice movement's political ends. Disruption as media spectacle functions as a vehicle of mass, public informational networking, an often unfortunate strategic short—term goal in a frustratingly harsh media climate. Few organizers, especially amongst independent media outlets catering to a self—selected, narrow readership, have not felt the nausea of pumping truth out to no one and not nearly everyone in this disInformation Age where network news rhetoric, in all its grandeur and sensationalism, has assumed the power and function of reality. Disruption, thus, is tactically necessary, if not by some leftist dogma, then by proxy; and if it is to be done, as the Popular Mobilization organizers claimed to have set out to do, it ought to be done right, by an informed strategy of decentralized models.
The snake march, as a tactical organization structure — when the only organizational structure at work in the street — does not work. It centralizes and traps autonomous affinity groups under a single head of control. There is nothing to coordinate. It snakes feebly through the streets with meek fanfare and gaping looks on the sidewalk. Everyone looks like a tourist, detached from the event at hand. Police squadrons chaperone the march with a safe perimeter; nothing happens. Instead, "flying clusters" of detached affinity groups ought to have been operating elsewhere, near, and in communication with the snake march head such that independent groups could take down intersections and splinter the police contingents, and furthermore coordinating the snake march to intersect with mobile locked—down contingents, as a second wave. It is not difficult, requiring only a handful of cellphones and willingness. Both elements were in abundance.
At the Spokes Council meeting, affinity groups even registered but were not utilized tactically. Exemplary cases of past successful disruptions were seemingly forgotten and failed to influence the strategy and tactics of the protest. No cell phone networks were coordinated. Real—space did not intersect with real—time on a tactical level in the street. The police had an easy Tuesday: eventually groups dispersed and "went home" after an impromptu and falsely hopeful splinter march to the Sheraton. Those of us who remained sat and held an intersection at the Sheraton, shaking our heads and wondering where everyone went, why they went, and how, in such a political climate where the world seems about to crumble into some asymmetric world war the likes of which few hawks in Washington seem to be able to fathom. A mere nationally—coordinated guerilla war in Iraq is still surprising field marshals and Pentagon brass alike. Where has everyone gone, we were all sincerely wondering. How could mere dis—organization and old, useless forms of disruption be revived at all in some symbolic parade of mere objection when in our hands we hold forms of organization and coordination capable of bringing governments and corporations to their knees?
I hear it everywhere from every (frustrated) activist I meet: the movement, in some bizarre post—invasion lull, seems asleep at a moment that is crucial. Bush's polls are slipping, Iraq is degenerating into a full scale nationally—coordinated guerilla war, North Korea is threatening nuclear war, the economy is slipping out from under us and into Depression—esque tremors, and even the press is picking up on Bush's lies, albeit too late. Activists everywhere are frustrated with the numbers, fearing the return of that same political apathy characteristic of mid—2002 when the world began to forget about Afghanistan in anticipation of colorful shock and awe fireworks over Baghdad's Palestine Hotel which too is fading into another of the many consecutively short chapters of an episodic American history built for a TV ADD attention span. Activists are no exception to the American model of memory and enduring attention; in Montreal and everywhere, a decline in the public spirit amongst those with the most is evident.