Bringing down the WTO barricades
Thousands of activists, including a number from Sacramento, stormed the barricades at the World Trade Organization meetings in Cancún. And one local activist was hoping to capture the moment on videotape.
“Our world is not for sale, my friend / To keep you satisfied. / You say you’ll bring us health and wealth. / We know that you lied.”
—Sung by representatives of nongovernmental organizations within the World Trade Organization’s Cancún Ministerial Conference to the tune of the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love”
For each chunk of the red metal barricade thrown into the Mexican jungle by women and men from all over the world, the heat seemed to intensify. Drums beat faster. Clouds darkened.
Women from South Africa, Mexico and the United States worked with wire cutters to dismantle layer after layer of the barricade.
Behind it were thousands of protesters. Some were armed with sticks. Some had shopping carts (liberated from the Cancún Wal-Mart) full of rocks, bottles and other handy projectiles. Some held a rope to pull the barricade down. Some 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 and then disappeared from “the front,” or “ground zero,” or whatever you called this huge roadblock put up by the authorities. The steel barricade kept the thousands of protesters from marching kilometers up the road to the convention center in Cancún, where representatives from 148 nations were debating the details of free-trade agreements behind closed doors.
This secrecy, this lack of transparency, is one of many issues protesters have with the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Bienvenido a Cancún for the WTO Ministerial Conference, September 10-14.
Remember Seattle in 1999? You’ll recall riots, charges of police brutality and protests that shut down world trade negotiations. Since then, the most recent round of talks were held in Doha, Qatar, in a nation completely inaccessible to critics of the WTO’s plans to break down trade barriers for the benefit of global corporations.
To recap: Critics say that although it may be possible to create some sort of fair trade system—a democratic, equitable, transparent and ecologically sustainable world economy—the WTO isn’t even close to accomplishing that.
Though the World Bank has estimated that a trade pact between nations could bring something like $520 billion to the global economy by 2015 and carry 144 million people out of poverty, globalization foes say that, so far, increased global trade only has 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.”
In Cancún, the international anti-globalization activists were dubbed “globalifobicos” by the local media. The term aptly described the activists’ fears that rules dictated by giant profit-motivated corporations would spell continuing disasters for the world’s poor, for the average working José and for everyone else who isn’t among the tiny percentage of rich who are getting richer.
The term also evoked the community’s fear of the activists.
“They are on fire,” said a local hotel worker of the protesters. “We are very scary.” She meant “scared.”
The geography of the Cancún 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. Activists couldn’t get within six or seven kilometers of the convention center on the peninsula in the so-called zona hoteleria, or hotel zone. They couldn’t get past the barricade that prevented the excluded from getting the attention of the included, that protected the haves from an uprising of some desperate have-nothing-lefts.
And even if the protesters had gotten through the fence, they’d have had to face 5,000 policemen: locals, hired hands and officers of the Mexican federal police. Truckloads of police patrolled the city. There were checkpoints everywhere, and vehicles going from downtown into the hotel zone were stopped and searched.
On the horizon beyond the hotel zone, silhouettes of naval ships were visible not far from shore, near the Isla Mujeres. A person might get the idea that these protesters were armed with something more than rocks, sticks, some handmade banners and plenty of spray paint.
Maybe. A downtown Pizza Hut window was smashed early in the week. By midweek, many businesses were using plywood to protect their storefronts.
During the protesters’ largest action, the Saturday march, businesses locked their doors at the first sign of trouble.
And taking down the barricade that day seemed at first like the most aggressive action of the week. After wire-cutters freed a section of fence, protesters climbed the barricade to attach ropes. Then, hundreds grabbed two ropes and started pulling. Supporters, packed along the sides of the street, cheered.
Evan Tucker, 21, of Sacramento, yelled approval as each piece of fence was removed. His dark curly hair was damp from the oppressive humidity, as was his faded red T-shirt. It read, “Drop out. Rise up.” The red bandanna around his neck wasn’t a stylish revolutionary accouterment. It was lined with a small surgical mask in case the police decided to use tear gas to break up the crowd.
Tucker knows about protests. He was one of the 10 activists arrested this summer in Sacramento at the Ron Mandella Community Garden during the Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology in June. The activists chained themselves around an apricot tree. Police came and sawed apart the lockboxes that were holding them together. Tucker spent three days in jail.
Before coming to Cancún, Tucker and partner Davida Douglas, 30, manager of the 20th Street Art Gallery, decided they weren’t going to risk arrest by Mexican police.
Douglas took part in the Seattle protests in 1999. “I managed to stay out of jail then,” she said. “But I felt ineffective, running away from tear gas. You’re out there with your sign, and, before you know it, you see tear gas and don’t know what’s going on.”
When Douglas and Tucker arrived in Cancún, they ended up helping feed activists by working with others to organize a temporary Comida No Bombas (Food Not Bombs) in Cancún.
“One of the things I like is that you get to see people being amazing,” Tucker said.
We ducked out of the way of a twisted hunk of barricade moving through the crowd and toward the jungle. The last of the gate came down, and many were ready to rush into the waiting rows of policia.
Someone started a chant of “Lee! Lee! Lee!” in memory of Lee Kyung Hae, 56, a South Korean farmer who had committed suicide, a kind of hara-kiri, atop the barricade. On the first day of WTO talks, Lee died wearing a sign around his neck: “The WTO kills farmers.”
Lee 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.
Finally, the last of the barricade was pulled away. The road was open. The police were waiting. There were shouts of “Guerra!”
Tucker said he favored continuing the march past the barricade toward the convention center, another seven kilometers down the road.
Others cried for peace, for a violence-free end to the day’s actions.
Shouts of “Lee! Lee! Lee!” sounded so much like “Peace! Peace! Peace!” that several people were unknowingly chanting the latter harmoniously.
The WTO meetings for delegates, staff and accredited members of nongovernmental organizations took place in Cancún’s hotel zone, a strip of high-rise, high-end motels built for mostly Western tourists. Between the white-sand beaches and immaculate golf courses there are shopping centers and malls. Subway, McDonald’s, Outback Steakhouse, Planet Hollywood, the Tycoon Store.
There are only two ways from downtown Cancún onto the single road that snakes among the beach resorts. Only one way could be reached by protesters marching on foot, and that was blocked by cops and a tall red fence.
“They chose this strategy: barricades, tanks, battleships,” said Lesley Adams, 26, of Ashland, Ore. “They’re protecting their castle. And people are getting pissed.”
Though WTO talks are not held openly, Adams followed this round’s goings-on closely. “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 the opening day of the conference, several developing nations, including many Latin American and Asian countries, had agreed to unite in demands for fair trade policies. By Sunday, the rebel group of countries had grown to more than 20 nations and was calling itself the G21, a nod to the powerful G8 superpowers from the United States and Europe.
That was all the activists, who’d been planning trips to Cancún for months, could have asked for. They’d flown there 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 Independent Media Center, or Indymedia, Cancún Web site was stopped on the road to Cancún. The computers were confiscated. More were donated soon afterward.
Early in the week, activists from Food Not Bombs handed out a free meal in front of the Ritz-Carlton. Other protesters stripped down and, with their naked bodies, spelled out the words “No WTO” in the sand. Nudity sells; the media showed up.
But still, most stories weren’t making the front pages of newspapers. Acts of protest went unnoticed by corporate media. 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 concrete blocks and threw them at the police, who responded by throwing the concrete chunks back at protesters. The most devastating moment was Lee’s suicide—and even that ended up on the back pages of many faraway newspapers.
“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 Lee 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.”
Renee Hudgins-Lopez came to Cancún to take a stand against the WTO, to learn more about global trade and to make a video—her first project—for Access Sacramento. She and her friend Austin Lewis, a 54-year-old freelance writer and Sacramento poet, headed downtown Friday for the first time to meet some activists, register with the Indymedia folks and begin the video project.
After making a small donation to Indymedia Cancún, Hudgins-Lopez received accreditation and the privilege of using the facility’s computers to work on her video project. Her goal was relatively simple: She had come to learn about the media by attending the many meetings and panel discussions. “I want to gather information together and educate people,” she said.
From the outside, the Indymedia Cancún office didn’t look like the home of a sophisticated computer network where independent media activists were putting out a Web site that was getting heavy traffic. There was a brown cardboard sign for Food Not Bombs on a cyclone fence around the yard. The windows of the building were covered. Two Mexican students guarded the entrance. There were more than 10,000 hits on www.cancun.mediosindependientes.org most days last week.
Before noon on Friday, an activist called “Almond” popped into Indymedia Cancún with a story. Almond is a Northern California tree-sitter affiliated with Earth First! and other environmental groups that save tall leafy things from companies that turn trees into boards and sawdust.
That morning, he said, several activists had infiltrated the hotel zone for covert ops. He reported this news to Soña Angelica, an activist with Indymedia Tucson.
At 2 a.m., he and others had left downtown with barely enough money for a cab. Using donated climbing gear, the group had ascended to the top of an unfinished high-rise across from the convention center. There, they had 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.”
“We just got the front page of every newspaper in the world!” Almond said. This turned out not to be true.
By day, Angelica is an office worker, and she moonlights as a freelance writer. Her long hair was neatly braided Friday. Her T-shirt read, “My heroes have always killed cowboys.” She said it took several teams of media activists working around the clock to keep the world informed about actions in Cancún. “There’s a lot going on,” she said. “It’s overwhelming.”
The upside to independent journalism is that anyone can be a reporter or a photographer or post an audio clip to the Indymedia sites. Dissatisfied with bland, meaningless corporate media? Do it yourself. Write your own stories. Make a video. Publish online at the Indymedia Web site.
“Don’t just hate the media because it misrepresents the issues you care about,” Angelica said. “That’s really the crux of it.” She spent most of Thursday night editing a video of Tuesday’s march.
“I stood in one place and let the entire crowd march past,” she said. “I added some music, some dissolves. I wanted to give a sense of the number of people. It was a huge group.”
Other street actions 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. I met Starchild, another Northern California activist, during a quick, small protest of Wal-Mart.
A half-hour later, at the Hard Rock Cafe, something was up. I ran into David Barbour, 56, a computer programmer from Richmond. I’d met Barbour earlier that day at the “convergence center,” a central hangout next door to Indymedia Cancún for activists from every group. It was also a great place for artists, who used the space to work on their huge, angry Mayan-god puppets for Saturday’s massive march.
Barbour considers himself a kind of reawakened activist. “I’ve been a liberal all my life,” he said. “But because of all the stupid things that Bush has done, I’ve become much more political.” He’s worked with California Peace Action and has helped introduce anti-Patriot Act resolutions in Northern California towns. He enjoys his job as a computer programmer, he said, but all is not right in his world.
“I find myself angry and afraid most of the time,” he said. “And the only way I can deal with that is to be politically active. They are creating a world in which I don’t want to live.”
Barbour introduced me to Skip, who pulled me out into the street to whisper a tip about an upcoming Hard Rock Cafe action at precisely 3 p.m.
“We don’t want any journalists getting there early,” warned Skip, taking my business card.
“So, are these guys risking arrest?” I asked.
Skip nodded gravely.
Sure enough, at 3 p.m., a dozen protesters arrived in front of the Hard Rock’s giant guitar and 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.”
The protesters finished. The police collected the signs and banners. The protesters spoke with reporters from Fox News.
Barbour watched the proceedings from a bit of a distance.
“I’m just here to be undercounted,” he said, smiling.
By Saturday, many activists were getting restless, feeling it was time to be confrontational. A huge march. A grand show of force. Maybe more.
At the Parque las Palapas downtown, where activists camped out under giant tarps, the 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, the barricade blocking the way to the convention center.
Two taxis drove up and unloaded activists wearing matching shirts that read, “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.
Camping in the park with the anti-imperialists were Aaron Buskirk, 22, and Dan Gingold, 24, who both traveled to Cancún from Nevada. Gingold has a bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies, and he speaks Spanish like a native. Gingold lived a year in Spain as well as many more months in Mexico. He spent several weeks living with Zapatistas on a community farm in Southern Mexico.
Gingold gave some thought to the question of whether violent force on the part of protesters would be justified. He seemed fairly undecided. In the end, he said violence might be the only way to finally get the kind of media attention the activists sought.
“That’s the postmodern protest dilemma,” he said later as we 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 had spotted a battering ram made from a liberated telephone pole and a large garbage receptacle on wheels. The pole was tied to the bin.
An Associated Press reporter from the Mexico City bureau approached and asked if we spoke English. We said nothing. With old-school reporting ease, he offered cigarettes to gain our trust and friendship.
Gingold broke the silence by admitting that he did, in fact, speak the language.
“So, are you guys going to march as far as you can get?” the reporter asked.
The guys nodded.
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. We walked alongside people carrying huge banners and signs.
“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 a formerly busy intersection.
Activists painted over the corporate logos on a bevy of yellow umbrellas at the side of the road. They wrote, “Fuck the WTO,” along the curbs and then climbed up signposts to put anarchy signs over street names.
Not far from ground zero, we heard the Infernal Noise Brigade practicing alongside the road. Members dressed in matching black uniforms with orange stripes and pointed black hats played a polished, jazzy marching tune. There were flag girls in front. Horns. Drums. Bringing up the rear was a girl with a music-sampling device that added electronic 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 and 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, man,” Gingold replied. “The ones with the sticks will be the ones they go after first.”
I took a picture of a young guy atop a shopping cart full of debris and projectiles. He raised his fist for the camera. I didn’t get the shot. I held a finger up, “Wait, por favor.” His arm went down. My camera went up. His fist went back up, and he growled for the camera. Then, it was time to move again.
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 the heavy, reinforced steel cyclone-fence barricade.
Cops from the hotel-zone side of the fence poked the women through the fence as the work progressed. Gingold and Buskirk volunteered to pull 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.
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 my taking of 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 has hit the working class hard, she said, as tariffs have failed to discourage foreign imports, goods often created with the help of huge government subsidies on behalf of, say, the United States or Europe. These kinds of subsidies make it nearly impossible for domestic companies to put out a competitive product, and 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 an epidemic of AIDS. Andrews said she didn’t think the WTO’s much-publicized pharmaceutical maneuvering would 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 globalization. “Africa is a place for them to make money while we are dying,” she said.
More yelling, and the last piece of barricade clunked into the jungle. But 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 come forward to honor the memory of Lee with speeches and flowers.
“Today, we have shown the power we have when we are united,” said a speaker.
The crowd cheered.
A few disappointed activists began pulling at the twisted, discarded 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.
As we walked back to downtown Cancún, we saw what kept the disgruntled activists busy during the speeches. Restless anarchists and college students had erected a new blockade along another street using the leftover 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 added.
It was Sunday, the last day of talks, and Davida Douglas had just finished making lunch for more than 100 hungry activists. Douglas, as planned, didn’t spend much time at Saturday’s march. She showed up, was slightly disappointed in the turnout and went back to work figuring out new ways to cook the potatoes donated to Food Not Bombs by the campesinos.
She felt that cooking was a good activist role for her, especially when she remembered Seattle. “Some people see the Black Bloc anarchist and say, ‘That’s not me,’” she said. “But there’s so much to do. You could clean bathrooms or make signs. Attend a forum—whatever. There’s a lot of folks out there breaking down barricades who’d hate being stuck in the kitchen. But they still gotta eat.”
She sat in the cool shade of a garden behind the downtown hotel where she and Tucker were staying. The two planned to leave Cancún on Monday. They weren’t going right back to Sacramento but planned to spend some time kicking back in their hammocks and camping on a remote Mexican beach.
Douglas said she was glad that Food Not Bombs came together to feed the hungry activists in Cancún.
“You know what they say: ‘You gotta fuel the revolution.’”
By the conference’s end on Sunday, it was clear to most that the WTO’s Cancún talks had failed. The G21—the developing nations who’d united within the WTO to serve the interests of their own people—had walked out of the meetings. Some cited unsatisfactory offers on behalf of wealthy nations that refused, for one thing, to stop subsidizing agricultural industries to the detriment of farm owners and laborers abroad. One specific target of the G21 was the more than $330 billion in agricultural subsidies that come from countries that are members of the Organisation for Co-Operation and Economic Development.
A South African media source called the conference “doomed” but added that the developing countries had found power in “flexing its newfound muscles.”
The message so important to the globalifobicos—the ideal on which Lee spent his life—finally was reaching the people who needed to hear it.
A slogan chanted all day Saturday hung in the air: “The people united will never be defeated.”