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 lose."

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 Herald.

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