It's been nine years since the Battle in Seattle and the WTO demonstrations that rocked the free trade movement to its core. What transpired on the streets inspired the WTO's marginalized smaller countries to stand up and speak out for their own economic rights. As a result, it is no longer an organization in which a few wealthy countries make all the decisions in their own interests. The WTO has been reduced to a semblance of democracy.
In 1999, more than 60,000 people were on the streets of WTO Seattle to fight for economic transparency, for fairness and for doing the "right thing" for the future of both people and planet. As the current global financial meltdown takes its toll, the relationship between then and now is evident: Greed is no good and does no good.
The corporate culture that distorted, manipulated and shamelessly profiteered from the aberrant system it created is now taking down the middle class. All the issues raised in 1999 are now creating awareness in the media, panic at the tables of power in Washington, D.C., and nightmares on Wall Street. Too bad it took so long. If the insights, instincts and information of civil society in WTO Seattle had been attended to in 1999, perhaps 2009 would not be looming as a year of global financial catastrophe.
The world that was out on the streets of WTO Seattle was speaking to the fundamental issues of human rights and human decency, concepts painfully lacking in financial bottom-line scheming. Struggling farmers came from as far away as Africa, Japan and South America because they wanted the freedom to own their own seeds and grow food for their families. They were protesting the corporate policies that forced them to raise profit-driven crops that replaced sustainable, life-giving agriculture.
The streets of WTO Seattle gave voice to union members -- from teachers and airline pilots to ferry workers and longshoremen -- who wanted fair wages, health care and a stake in the future of the companies in which they worked. There was an unlikely collusion of historical adversaries in industry and the environment joining together in an outspoken claim to economic and environmental justice. WTO Seattle brought together hundreds of nonprofit organizations long familiar with the struggles of the multitudes around the world who own neither stock portfolio nor computer.
And there was a massive influx of educators, policymakers and committed activists from all over the world giving workshops and presentations.
Within the midst of all this readily available information, the national media gave nearly all its attention to a few broken windows and one burning garbage can. Civil society was calling out for restoring global economic justice, questioning values, examining systems and acknowledging the interdependence at large that prescribes our world.
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But there were very few journalists in the mainstream media who researched the issues behind the demonstrations. The esteemed New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote an article titled, "Senseless in Seattle" in which he described the demonstrations as "a Noah's Ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960's fix ..."
In recent years, Friedman went off around the world to learn a thing or two. It seems to have rescued him from his own Noah's Ark of corporate provincialism. It's too bad that he, and so many other journalists like him, didn't pay attention when it mattered. If they had, they might even have seen Barack Obama coming.
It was young people who sat down in the streets of Seattle and kept the interests of the corporate elite from taking over the WTO table. They are the ones who got beat up and pepper-sprayed, wrongfully arrested and who fought for years in the courts to see justice prevail. We all know about the judgments and settlements made in favor of the demonstrators. It turns out they weren't terrorists after all; their rights were violated.
It's the same passionately committed youth movement that mobilized to elect the first black president of the United States. The underlying cause remains the same: Corporate profits should not come at the expense of life. When it does, the social infrastructure of society is shredded.
Someone once said that capitalism destroyed communism and now it's destroying democracy. It doesn't have to. In its beginnings, capitalism was locally and regionally based and invested. People knew who the boss was. These days, the boss is an offshore "it" with all the rights of a human being that just happen to override all the rights of real human beings. The truth is: Companies and corporations with values and policies that serve employees and community do not have to give up profits in order to do so. They simply have to give up mindless and soulless greed.
In 1999, that's what WTO Seattle was all about. And that's what it's still all about. Thanks to everyone who showed up on the streets of WTO Seattle wearing their values, principles, generosity and knowledge on their sleeves. The world needs you now more than ever.