Critique in the Streets
by Jennifer Berkshire
Dollars and Sense magazine, July / August 2001
If you followed the U.S. media's coverage of last spring's
protests against the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, you
saw an endless film loop of masked demonstrators and riot police
framed by a fog of tear gas. But this narrow view missed the real
.scene on the streets: a vibrant civil society in action and a
movement that is effectively talking back to trade.
From all across the hemisphere, demonstrators gathered in
Quebec City to oppose the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA),
a proposed trade zone that would stretch from the Arctic Circle
to the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego. They were joined by tens
of thousands of Canadians, who not only opposed a very specific
target - the 2.5 mile chain link fence erected to separate them
from George W. Bush and his co-delegates to the official Summit.
As a symbol, the "wall of shame" sent a potent message
that, in the "free trade" era, there was no room for
debate. That message infuriated Canadians, who felt that democratic
governance itself was under attack. Partly for this reason, the
protests drew university students, environmentalists, trade unionists,
and ordinary folk from all over Canada, along with thousands of
Quebecois unionists, and students who walked out of 15 high schools
in Quebec City and nearby Montreal.
That same impulse brought the entire Canadian labor movement
out in force. The 400,000-member Quebec Federation of Labor (FTQ)
- hardly a bastion of radicalism by Canadian standards - spent
months educating its members about the FTAA pact. Of course, many
trade unionists at the protests were members of manufacturing
unions - steelworkers and autoworkers for whom another "free
trade" agreement poses a direct and immediate threat. But
the professional employee unions were on hand too, along with
nurses, construction workers, and service workers of every stripe.
"The writing is on the wall," said Jacques Theoret,
an FTQ representative. "If this thing goes through, we all
Canadian journalists, unlike their U.S. counterparts, felt
obligated to report the presence of a dispute. By the second day
of the Summit, French-language TV stations in Quebec and Montreal
had begun broadcasting the street scenes around the clock. Reporters
from mainstream dailies repeatedly asked the same questions that
the protestors were asking: When would the public be allowed to
see the draft treaty? Was it really necessary to hold the official
Summit behind bars? Even media representatives who initially supported
walling off the official Summit from the protesters seemed to
feel differently when they were trapped inside of the perimeter,
with nothing more than photo-ops to report on.
Thanks to the Canadian media's vigilance, there was also widespread
coverage of tensions within the official Summit itself. Since
the opposition was so diverse and broad-based, the Summit's participants
- especially the host, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien -
could not just dismiss the protests out of hand. The clamor outside
the wall also created the space for leaders of poor southern countries
to dissent from the "free trade solves all" view. For
example, Kenny Anthony, Premier of St. Lucia. warned that, while
"globalization has brought prosperity to some, we cannot
deny [that] it has destroyed the lives of others."
Making dissent visible may turn out to be the most important
contribution of the anti-corporate globalization movement. Still
in its infancy, the movement has forced politicians and pundits
to defend trade policies that seemed untouchable just five years
ago. Consider the recent remarks of Canadian Trade Minister Pierre
Pettigrew, an avid free trader. "We all know that the FTAA
could be the generator of wealth for our citizens and our industries,"
Pettigrew told a May gathering of the Council of the Americas.
"But we must first help our citizens to overcome suspicions
they have about the trade deal."
The movement has begun to display some impressive offensive
skills as well, dominating the debate about the lack of affordable
AIDS drugs in Africa. Last month, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer
announced that it will now offer Diflucan, an antifungal medication,
free of charge to HIV/AIDS patients in the fifty least developed
countries in the world where HIV/AIDS is most prevalent. That's
a victory the movement can claim.
In the United States, activists are now gearing up for another
major demonstration in Washington, planned to coincide with meetings
of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in September.
Together, these actions - Seattle, Prague, Quebec City, D.C. -
are the expression of an emerging global civil society. And each
brings us closer to goals that activists working separately in
separate countries could never achieve. A
Jennifer C. Berkshire is a freelance writer who lives outside
of Boston. She covered the Quebec City protests for the Boston