When Words Fail...

By Will Baker

I couldn’t believe my eyes. A surrealistic feeling swept over me as I watched the streets of downtown Seattle erupt in violence. The news images of the protests and subsequent police and National Guard response triggered by the World Trade Organization’s (WTO’s) meeting in Seattle created a flashback for me to the Vietnam era war protests that I observed when I was a boy. It is my understanding that the civil unrest in Seattle was actually the largest such occurrence in any American city since the Vietnam War.

But what was it all about? I understand that passions run high when issues such as globalization and free trade are discussed. But I was dumbfounded to think that what I witnessed on video could result in response to this meeting of the WTO. Personally, I feel strongly that the human potential can only be realized through globalization. The basis for this feeling is that it seems to me that there is a great deal of energy wasted on nationalism. This is not to say that patriotism has no place. However one need only look to the huge amount of resources which were expended during the Cold War to see my point. Just imagine how much better off the world might now be if all of the blood and treasure expended during the Cold War had been redirected towards activities that advanced human kind. And this is just one narrow example focused on a single period in history. I am also aware that such statements are usually dismissed as idealistic daydreaming. But I simply sometimes cannot restrain the Utopian in me.

And of course there are environmental and labor issues connected with this debate. Many feel, quite strongly, that environmental issues are being set aside for the sake of enabling free trade and enriching the multinational corporations that benefit from it. And others feel that worker’s rights seem to be taking a second place to the pursuit of profit. Compelling arguments have been made in support of these positions. However the meltdown which we witnessed in Seattle leads me to believe that some folks feel that there is no reasonable expectation that fruitful dialogue is possible. Why else would they resort to violence? It has been my experience that, when words fail, violence often results.

I am also wondering whether the police and military response to the demonstrations were appropriate. The sight of U.S. citizens being pelted with rubber bullets makes me cringe. As does the fact that the authorities used tear gas and pepper spray on our fellow citizens in an attempt at dispersing the crowd. I feel compelled to point out that our nation has a rich history of utilizing non-violent protest as a means of achieving social change. The women’s suffrage and civil rights movements come immediately to mind. Of course this is not an endorsement of the few violent protesters who incited the police to action. However I am wondering if the declaration of Civil Emergency was not a case of overkill. And the cynic in me is wondering if this was a mechanism of expediency utilized by the authorities to avoid further embarrassment on the world stage.

As I write, the WTO gathering is winding down in its final day of meetings. There have been protests each and every day in response to this event. However, while earlier in the week the protestor's main intent was to highlight their perception that the WTO’s decision making process is mostly a secretive affair that alienates a majority of the stakeholders, and that the organization’s policies cause harm to the global environment and exploit worker’s rights, last night’s protests had a different feel. While earlier in the week, the protestors were mostly made up of folks who did not live in Seattle, last evening the residents of Seattle took to the streets, not to protest the WTO, but rather the heavy handed manner in which they believed that the authorities responded to the protests.

Of course, what was entirely lost in this whole affair was the debate on the merits of free trade and globalization. Our country’s WTO delegation truly believed that the meeting in Seattle represented an opportunity to negotiate world wide trade regulations that would protect the environment and worker's rights. However it seems to me that the spotlight has clearly shifted from the issues at hand to the manner in which the authorities in Seattle responded to the protests.

It seems to me that there is a lesson here for us all. Whether we are negotiating a world wide trade pact or dealing with our children, if we allow tempers to flare, then the opportunity to focus on the issue at hand becomes lost. The primary issue becomes subsumed by our response to the issue. For example, if my child does not tell the truth, and my response is other than calm reasoning, explaining why it is wrong to lie, the consequences of the behavior to one’s reputation etc., but rather ranting and raving, for my child, my behavior in response to her behavior becomes the issue. And the opportunity to deal productively with her behavior is lost.

So the WTO meeting has left us with a new issue. One that has nothing at all to do with globalization, the environment, the perception of a secretive decision making process, or worker’s rights. But the abuse of power by the Seattle authorities and whether they were cohered into doing so by federal officials to avoid embarrassment on the world stage. How troubling and very surprising life can oftentimes be.

 (Essay Collection)