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Nature and Politics

What Seattle Wrought

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

Exactly this time a year ago a truly prescient person monitoring bus,car and plane traffic into the city of Seattle could have predicted that Al Gore’s presidential bid faced serious trouble on its left. The mostly young people pouring up Interstate 5 from Oregon and California and other states were the green street warriors who had managed by November 30 to paralyse downtown Seattle and shut down the opening ceremonies of the WTO conference. And these same young people made up the core organizers of Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy which denied Al Gore the crucial margin in Florida and New Hampshire.

As the WTO delegates abandoned Seattle in defeat at the end of that tumultuous week, illusions were almost as thick as the tear gas along Pike St. Exulting in the humiliation of the free traders in the Clinton-Gore administration, many on the left hailed the coming of age
of a new coalition. Among its supposed components: the militant greens in the form of Earth First!, Rainforest Action and Direct Action Network; more mainstream green groups such as the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth; Ralph Nader’s citizen’s trade campaign; labor’s
legions mustered in Seattle under the banners of the AFL-CIO.

Amid the general euphoria there were those who pointed out that labor’s leaders such as AFL-CIO chieftain John Sweeney had in fact played a very prudent role, ensuring that their members stayed at a safe distance from the turbulence of downtown. Indeed, months earlier Sweeney had told his Seattle subordinates that the AFL-CIO had no interest in shutting down the WTO, but wanted to make enough noise to guarantee Big Labor a seat at the table.

Similarly, while the 650,000-strong Sierra Club sponsored a police-approved “Turtles and Teamsters” parade the day before the WTO was scheduled to officially convene, the Club’s executive director Carl Pope rushed to condemn what he decried as the violence of the street
protesters. Pope had no such condemnation for the indiscriminate brutality of the Seattle police.

With the advantage of nearly twelve months’ hindsight we can now see that those (present authors included) who questioned the notion of a broad-based anti-WTO coalition were on the money. These twelve months offer us a political parable of a very different nature, a parable about the ability of a relatively small number of militant people to shake the system by sticking to their principles.

After all, what happened to Sweeney’s labor legions after the WTO was run out of Seattle? It was not long before the Clinton administration thumbed its nose at the AFL-CIO by pushing through Congress permanent
trade normalization status for China, a campaign led by then-Commerce Secretary William Daley, now Al Gore’s campaign manager. Big Labor fumed, but the fuming was impotent, as Clinton and Gore had reckoned
from the start it would be. After getting a sound kick in the teeth over China (and precious little else over the preceding eight years) the AFL-CIO threw itself into the task of electing Al Gore.

For their part, the established mainstream green organizations like the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters knew well enough (though they would sooner die than admit it) that in terms of
environmental achievement the Clinton-Gore years had mostly been a bust.

It took a lifelong long rebel like the late David Brower to say as much categorically on the record. But like Sweeney’s AFL-CIO, the big green groups rallied to the Gore campaign, demanding nothing in return.

The ties between mainstream environmentalism and the Democratic Partyare so enduring that even Friends of the Earth which vigorously opposed Gore in the Democratic primaries, and which endorsed Bradley, came crawling back into the fold. By late October FOE’s executive director, Brent Blackwelder, was touring the Pacific Northwest, urging Nader supporters to back Gore.

But a huge gulf now separates the official leaders of America’s green groups from activists across the country. Carl Pope could get his board to commit the Sierra Club’s financial resources to Gore’s relection, but that didn’t mean that the Club’s activists obeyed Pope’s call to fall
into line and abandon Nader. The young folk on those Seattle streets who locked down and awaited the gas, pepper spray and batons a year ago were not of a mood to be intimidated into support of the Democrats by
furious sermons from Pope, Blackwelder or Gore’s Hollywood surrogates such as Ted Danson, Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford.

There is a new breed of green: people who have come of age during the Clinton-Gore years, and who have cut their teeth as activists fighting projects that had been given the okay by Gore’s people at EPA, or by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt or by Forest Service chief Mike
Dombeck. These are militants have gone to jail protesting the WTI hazardous waste incinerator in Ohio, or who hung from redwood trees in northern California.

After Seattle last November these green militants went on to protest against the IMF and World Bank in Washington DC in April of this year. And then they decided it was important to organize protests at both political conventions, first against the Republicans in Philadelphia,
then against the Democrats in Los Angeles.

One would have thought that Al Gore and his strategists might have scented danger as the LA police trampled green activists with horses and sprayed them with gas and rubber bullets. But they never woke up until it was too late, because they had been operating so long under the assumption that these green activists had nowhere but the Democratic Party to turn to, regardless of how far to the right that Party might have drifted.

Now the Democrats gnash their teeth as they look at those 95,000 green votes in Florida that went to Nader. In a southern state like Florida this defection was as inconceivable to Democratic party regulars as was
the prospect to the mayor of Seattle of having the WTO meeting shut down a year ago.

The leaders of the Democratic Party and their friends at the top of the big green outfits had done business amiably for so long that they entirely missed the reality of a new generation for whom these accomodations were entirely repugnant.

A year has passed since Seattle and they remain deluded. One the environmentalists’ top lobbyists recently warned Nader’s supporters that he’ll be looking for them “on the front lines in DC” when Bush takes power. But the front lines aren’t in Washington DC. They’re in the forests of the Pacific Northwest; in the chemical plants and oil refineries of Cancer Alley; in the wildlands of Montana; the strip mines of Appalachia. Here have been the battle fields, the training grounds for the direct action that humiliated the organizers of the WTO in Seattle a year ago. CP