On the front lines of protest

From Reno to Cancun, local activists join the thousands who gathered to send a message to the World Trade Organization

Aaron Buskirk, who traveled to Cancun from Reno, climbs the barricade to get a better look at the Mexican police on the other side.

Aaron Buskirk, who traveled to Cancun from Reno, climbs the barricade to get a better look at the Mexican police on the other side.

Photo By Deidre Pike

For each chunk of red-metal barricade thrown into the Mexican jungle by women and men from all over the world, the heat intensified. Drums beat faster. A woman sang at a higher pitch. Clouds darkened the sky.

Women from South Africa, Mexico and the United States worked with wire cutters to dismantle layer after layer of barricade. Waiting behind were thousands who came to protest the meeting of the World Trade Organization. Some were armed with sticks or pushed shopping carts (liberated from the Cancun Wal-Mart) full of rocks, bottles and other projectiles.

Some held a rope to pull the barricade down, like Aaron Buskirk, 22, and Dan Gingold, 24, who traveled from Reno to Cancun for the protests. Gingold, who has a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Latin American studies from UNR, speaks Spanish like a native. He spent a year in Spain and several months in Mexico, where he lived with Zapatistas on a community farm for several weeks.

“The WTO’s business is making lives easier for global corporations and harder for the working people of the world,” Gingold said.

Some activists played musical instruments. Some sat in palm trees reporting on the event for independent media outlets around the globe.

Battering rams, one made from a telephone pole and the other a sodden log from the jungle, appeared then disappeared from the Front, or Ground Zero, or whatever this huge roadblock was called. The steel barricade kept the thousands from marching up the road to the Convention Center in Cancun, where representatives from 148 nations were debating a set of homogenized rules for global trade.

The WTO’s secrecy is one of many issues the protesters have with the organization. The group is seen as a tool of economic imperialism, a force that co-opts land, labor and resources of less powerful economies largely to line the pockets of international investors. Weighing in on the subject with reporters recently, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, said that working people around the world had many of the same complaints about the WTO: “It’s bad for their jobs, bad for their livelihoods and bad for their income. Small farmers in Africa lose their jobs just like steelworkers in Ohio.”

Welcome to the WTO
Remember Seattle in 1999? Riots? Police brutality? Protests that shut down world trade negotiations? Some expected the WTO’s Fifth Ministerial in Cancun Sept. 10-14 to be a repeat of the Seattle brawl—or worse. There were estimates that 50,000 to 250,000 protesters would show up.

That didn’t happen, nor did mass arrests or endless reports of police brutality.

But those who made it to Cancun were single-minded in their criticisms of the WTO. While some critics of a global one-size-fits-all economy say it may be possible to create a fair-trade system—a democratic, equitable, transparent and ecological sustainable world economy—the WTO isn’t even close.

Though the World Bank has estimated that a trade pact between nations could add around $520 billion to the global economy by 2015 and bring 144 million people out of poverty, globalization foes note that increased global trade has only led to an expanding gap between rich and poor.

“If globalization was going to help the poor, the last 20 years of very rapid globalization should have made everyone rich by now,” states a report prepared by the San Francisco-based International Forum on Globalization. “But, as globalization accelerates, the benefits are not trickling down to the poor, but up—to the wealthiest people on Earth.”

That notion worries and angers many people. Activists fear that rules envisioned and dictated by giant, undemocratic, profit-mongering corporations will spell continuing disaster for the environment, public services and the world’s working poor.

One Mexican university student marching with protesters Saturday, 24-year-old Alfredo Bravo, said he’s convinced that economic reform can’t take place without looking at issues of poverty.

""People should be able to go to school and eat well,” he says. Bravo studies economics, and says he’s at work on a thesis about a fiscal inequity between the federal government and municipalities in Mexico. Dressed in tennis shoes, beach shorts and no shirt prior to the start of the march, he expressed a readiness to fight police if necessary.

“Everyone should rise up against their oppressors,” he said.

But conveying that message to those meeting inside the hotel zone proved difficult.

The geography of the coastal area—a long peninsula that connects to land on both ends and encloses a picturesque blue lagoon—couldn’t have been better suited to security purposes. The WTO meetings for delegates, staff and members of non-governmental organizations took place in Cancun’s hotel zone, a strip of high-rise, high-end hotels built for affluent tourists. Between the white sand beaches and immaculate golf courses were shopping centers and malls. Subway, McDonald’s and the Outback Steakhouse. Planet Hollywood. The Tycoon Store.

Activists couldn’t get more than a couple dozen protesters within three or four miles of the Convention Center. Barricades prevented the protesters from getting the attention of those included in the global decision making.

And even if the protesters had gotten past barricades, they’d have had to face some 5,000 policemen: locals, WTO security, hired hands and officers of the Mexican federal police. Truckloads of cops patrolled the city. There were checkpoints everywhere, and vehicles going into the hotel zone were stopped and searched.

On the horizon, silhouettes of naval ships were visible not far from shore, near the Islas Mujeres. With all the manpower, a person might have gotten the idea that these protesters were armed with something more than chain store shopping carts filled with rocks and sticks, some handmade banners and plenty of spray paint.

Justified precautions?

Protesters who’d been planning on a fight with police turned their energies to building a new barricade of their own across a street in Cancun. In the distance, a line of Mexican police stands at the ready.

Photo By Deidre Pike

Maybe. A downtown Pizza Hut window was smashed early in the week. By mid-week, many businesses were using plywood to protect their storefronts.

"[The WTO] chose this strategy: barricades, tanks, battleships,” said Lesley Adams, 26, of Medford, Ore. “They’re protecting their castle. And people are getting pissed.”

Quelling dissent
Though WTO talks weren’t open to the public, Adams closely followed this round’s goings-on.

“The Third World is trying its best not to be bullied. [The WTO] is falling apart on the inside, and we on the outside support that.”

In fact, by opening day of the ministerial, several developing nations, including many Latin American and Asian countries, agreed to unite in demands for fair trade policies. By Sunday, the rebel group of developing nations had grown to more than 20 nations and was calling itself the G-21 or Group of 21, a nod to the powerful G-8 superpowers from the United States and Europe.

That was as much as activists, who’d been planning trips to Cancun for months, might have asked for. They’d flown here from South Korea and Switzerland and Africa. They’d hitchhiked down from Canada. One van carrying more than 20 computers to be used for an Indymedia Cancun Web site was stopped on the road to Cancun. The computers were confiscated. More were donated.

Early in the week, activists from Food Not Bombs passed out a free meal in front of the Ritz-Carlton. Others stripped down and spelled out the words “No WTO” in the sand. Nudity sells. The media showed up.

But still, few stories were making the front page of newspapers. Acts of protest went unnoticed. Busloads of Mexican students and farmers, campesinos (10,000 by some accounts), arrived in town Tuesday and marched through the city to the blockade in front of the hotel zone. A few protesters broke apart cement blocks and threw them at the police, who responded by throwing the cement chunks back at protesters. The most devastating moment was a suicide—and even that ended up buried on the back pages of many newspapers.

Lee Kyung Hae, 56, a South Korean farmer, killed himself, a kind of hara-kiri, atop the barricade at Ground Zero on the first day of WTO talks. Lee stabbed himself while wearing a sign around his neck: “The WTO kills farmers.” His statement became the symbol and the battle cry of the protesters throughout the week of protests.

Hae left a suicide note for members of the South Korean delegation to the WTO, asking them to take a stand against the WTO’s support of corporate globalization. In the note, he described the changes in his community: “Farmers who gave up early have gone to urban slums. Others who have tried to escape from the vicious cycle have met bankruptcy due to accumulated debts. For me, I couldn’t do anything but just look around at the vacant houses, old and eroding. Once I went to a house where a farmer abandoned his life by drinking a toxic chemical because of his uncontrollable debts. I could do nothing but listen to the howling of his wife.”

Protesters spray painted “Lee vive!” on signs and walls during the march.

“That man felt like taking his life was something he needed to do to reach a group that doesn’t allow him to participate,” Adams said. “Honestly, when I came down here, I was emotionally prepared to have the police kill one of us. Someone committing suicide was not an idea I had in my head.”

She understood what Hae was trying to accomplish.

“It’s because of the system,” she said. “He was just trying to make it real, but the media here are glossing over it. … People die every day from our country’s domination and oppression. It’s shocking.”

Screaming for a voice
From the outside, the building that was headquarters for the Indymedia center in Cancun didn’t look like the home of a sophisticated computer network where independent media activists put out a Web site, cancun.medioindependientes.org, that was getting heavy traffic. There were more than 10,000 hits on most days last week.

A brown cardboard sign for Comida No Bombas hung on a cyclone fence around the yard. The windows were covered. Two Mexican students guarded the entrance.

Before noon Friday, an activist called Almond popped into the Indymedia center with a story. Almond is a northern California tree-sitter affiliated with Earth First! and other environmental groups that save trees from companies that turn them into boards and sawdust.

That morning, he said, several activists had infiltrated the hotel zone for covert ops. “We just got the front page of every newspaper in the world!” he said. This turned out to be untrue.

At 2 a.m., he and others left downtown with barely enough money for a cab. Using donated climbing gear, the group ascended to the top of an unfinished high-rise across from the Conference Center. There, they hung a huge banner—about 50 feet wide and 30 feet tall, Almond said—on which they’d painted a Spanish slogan that translates to “Get them all out!”

“And they’re going to have to let it hang there,” he said. “They can’t get it down.”

That wasn’t the only action on Friday. A group of protesters blocked the street in front of the Convention Center for at least a half hour, by some accounts, before the police arrived.

Later, at the Hard Rock Café, something was afoot. An activist named Skip passed on a tip about an upcoming action at precisely 3 p.m.

“We don’t want any journalists getting there early,” warned Skip, gravely nodding when asked if activists were risking arrest.

Dan Gingold, 24, has a bachelor’s degree from UNR and a passion for the people of Mexico.

Photo By Deidre Pike

At 3 p.m., a dozen protesters got down on their knees to eulogize public services. Each carried a cardboard sign shaped like a gravestone: “RIP health care, RIP public schools,” etc. A large banner promised that: “A better world is possible.”

The police arrived and let the protesters finish reading remarks from the gravestones. They smiled patiently as the group sang, “The Earth is not for sale,” to the tune of “We Shall Overcome.”

They finished. The police collected the signs and banners. The protesters spoke with reporters from Fox News.

Confrontation at the Front
Finally Saturday. Time for a huge march, a grand show of force.

At the Parque de Palapas, where activists like Gingold and Buskirk camped out under giant tarps, Zapatistas, anti-imperialists, anarchists and Maoists (among others) prepared to march to join more groups. There had been meetings and discussions—seemingly interminable talks—and the consensus was to bring shopping carts full of projectiles on the march to Ground Zero, Cancun.

Two taxis drove up and unloaded activists wearing matching shirts: “Africa is not for sale.” One man began beating a bongo. Across the parking lot, an older Mexican man began a folk song while strumming his guitar. A whistle blew.

Gingold thought about whether force on the part of protesters would be justified. He seemed undecided. In the end, he said violence might be the only way to get the media attention the activists sought.

“That’s the postmodern protest dilemma,” he said later, as he walked with protesters to Ground Zero. “You’re a protester, but in a way you’re also—I don’t want to say pandering—but you are in a way. That has a strange air to it. … Hey, look at this!”

Gingold spotted a battering ram made from a telephone pole and a large garbage receptacle on wheels. The pole was tied to the bin.

At the parque, an Associated Press reporter, Mexico City bureau, approached Gingold and Buskirk and asked if they spoke English.

With old-school reporting ease, he offered cigarettes to gain trust and friendship.

Gingold broke the silence by admitting that he does, in fact, speak English.

“So are you guys going to march as far as you can get?” the reporter asked.

Gingold shrugged.

The reporter’s cell phone rang. He answered and filed his report: “The protesters say they’re going to march as far as they can get.”

Then the pre-march—a hike to meet up at a busy intersection with activists coming from another part of the city—began. Guys carrying huge banners and signs joined the mass.

“I think we’re marching with the Maoists,” Gingold said. “We wanted to march with the anti-imperialists, but this is OK.”

The march stopped at an intersection of two major streets. Activists painted over the corporate logos on yellow road-side umbrellas. They wrote “Fuck the WTO” along the curbs and climbed up signposts to put anarchy symbols over street names.

Not far from Ground Zero, the Infernal Noise Brigade performed alongside the road. Members dressed in matching black uniforms with orange stripes and pointed black hats played a polished, jazzy marching tune. Flag girls in front. Horns. Drums. Bringing up the rear, a girl with an electronic device added a sample of screeching, roaring, industrial, metallic, clanging “infernal noise.”

The march came to another halt where a group of women linked arms across the road. As the women gathered, blocking the rest of the parade, long ropes were draped in the middle of the road. The barricades would be cut, then pulled away with the ropes.

Buskirk considered arming himself with a stick from the jungle alongside the road.

“I’m not planning on hitting anyone,” he said. “It’s just for protection.”

“I don’t know,” Gingold replied. “The ones with the sticks will be the ones they go after first.”

This protester was giving out copies of a political publication as he marched through the streets of downtown Cancun.

Photo By Deidre Pike

A young guy stood atop a shopping cart full of debris and projectiles as pictures were taken. He raised his fist for the cameras.

Then it was time to move. The women marched forward first, chanting: “Women as slaves, never again.”

They climbed the fence, and the dismantling began.

It took almost two hours to cut through the layers of reinforced-steel cyclone fence barricade.

Cops from the hotel side of the fence poked the women through the fence as the work progressed. Gingold and Buskirk were among those pulling the rope.

The workers were hot and thirsty. A cry went out for water at the front.

A shopping cart full of water pouches rolled in and was emptied within seconds.

One of the women, taking a break, wandered back into the crowd. She pulled off a thick leather glove to wipe sweat from her face.

“I need some serious fucking manpower at the front,” she told a friend.

Photojournalists and TV cameras lined the outskirts of the crowd. Someone pointed out birds circling in the sky.

“Did you imagine there’d be vultures?” someone asked.

“Let’s pretend they’re condors,” another said.

A man mumbled something in Spanish. Gingold translated.

“He said they’re some sort of hawk-eagle thing.”

Time passed. A group of South African women who’d been inside the “cage"—between layers of barricade—took a break and noted a reporter taking notes.

“Don’t forget to write that ‘Africa is not for sale,’ “ said Donna Andrews, 28, as she panted in the shade of a palm tree. Andrews, with the African People’s Caucus, said cutting the barricade was a meaningful act in itself.

“The symbolism of hacking the gate is that the WTO must go,” she said. “It’s undemocratic.”

In South Africa, trade liberalization hit the working class hard, she said. Tariffs fail to discourage foreign imports or goods created with government subsidies on behalf of the United States or Europe. This kind of subsidy makes it nearly impossible for domestic companies to compete. That puts South African companies out of business.

“Working class women are losing jobs,” Andrews said. In addition, the country sorely needs to be able to manufacture its own drugs to fight the AIDS epidemic. Andrews doesn’t think the WTO’s much-publicized pharmaceutical maneuvering will help that situation.

“We will be unable to produce essential drugs,” she said.

And it’s not like working class women or AIDS patients will ever have a way to appeal to the WTO, an inaccessible, non-elected instrument of corporate globalization.

“Africa is a place for them to make money while we are dying,” she said.

After protesters wielding wire-cutters freed a section of fence, others climbed the barricade to attach ropes. Then hundreds grabbed a knot on two ropes and started pulling. More yelling and the last piece of barricade clunked into the jungle.

A large puppet (right) represents Chaak, the Mayan god of rain, who is “upset” about the WTO’s plans for privatization of water. The large sign calls for an end to the war in Iraq and the abolition of the WTO, which in Spanish is the Organizacion Mundial del Comercio (OMC).

Photo By Deidre Pike

Guerra and peace
The road was open. The police were waiting.

There were shouts of “Guerra!”


Others cried for peace, for a violence-free end to the day’s actions.

Shouts of “Lee! Lee! Lee!” in honor of Lee Kyung Hae sounded so much like “Peace! Peace! Peace!” that several people unknowingly chanted the latter.

There was no rush to the gate. Instead, calm descended. A voice from the front declared: “Today’s action is over.”

Protesters were invited to sit down while a group of Korean activists came forward to honor the memory of their countryman with speeches and flowers.

People sat.

“Today we have shown the power we have when we are united,” said a speaker.

The crowd cheered.

A few disappointed activists began harvesting the metal barricades from the jungle’s edge.

Buskirk ripped duct tape from his cardboard arm guard.

“Why did they have to pull the fence down if they’re not going to go in?” he asked his friend.

“It’s symbolism,” Gingold answered.

On the way back to downtown Cancun, it became apparent what kept so many activists busy during the speeches. They’d erected a new blockade along another street using the leftovers chunks of red barricade, sticks, leaves and banners. A row of federales stood about 50 feet behind this new barrier.

“I think it’s over,” Gingold said.

“What are they going to do now?” someone asked.

“I think they’ll all fall asleep,” said a guy from Sweden.

“Tomorrow, everyone’s going to take down their tents and go home,” Gingold said.

Failure to communicate
By the ministerial’s end on Sunday, it was clear to most that the WTO’s Cancun talks had failed. The G-21 walked out on the meetings, citing unsatisfactory offers on behalf of wealthy nations that hadn’t done enough to address such issues as agricultural subsidies, labor and environmental protections.

A South African media source called the conference “doomed,” but added that developing countries had found power in flexing new-found muscles.

Posts to the Indymedia Cancun Web site were exuberant. One story quoted a Kenyan delegate: “If it were not for the protesters out on these streets, we would not have been able to shut down these talks.”

The message so important to the anti-WTO activists—the ideal on which Lee Kyung Hae spent his life—was finally reaching the people who needed to hear it.

The slogan chanted throughout the week of protests hung in the air.

“The people united will never be defeated."