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Gas Mask in a Shopping Bag: Looking Back at WTO Seattle

WTO one-year anniversary rally, 2000,

Seattle Central Community College

I’ve never been much of a shopper, particularly at places like Nordstrom’s or the Gap, (I like Value Village) but today since we’re marching downtown to celebrate N30 I brought a couple of shopping bags with me. It’s a good idea to bring your own bags when you demonstrate downtown, just in case you get the urge to go Christmas shopping.

Last year during the events on Capitol Hill, a Seattle Central student overhead a sergeant telling his police squad how to profile the civilian population. Only instead of racial profiling, they were profiling protesters and shoppers. The sergeant told his men that it was important to get the troublemakers and not the responsible citizens, i.e. the shoppers. So he told them that if people on the street were wearing backpacks, they were probably protesters and deserved a little pain compliance. If, on the other hand they were carrying bags, they were probably just shoppers and they were OK. Let them go shopping.

So today I brought my gas mask and swim goggles in a shopping bag. This is what our First Amendment rights have come to: a gas mask in one hand, a Nordstrom’s bag in the other.

December first last year I was walking up Pine St. with a young woman when her respirator fell out of her backpack and she was instantly arrested by National Guard and Seattle police. Can anyone tell me: Are gas masks still illegal in Seattle?

Banning possession of a gas mask-which is banning the right to protect yourself-is a very apt metaphor for what our political and economic system is doing to us. With weapons like the World Trade Organization multinational corporations would make it illegal for us to protect our rights, our food, our knowledge, our genetics, and our planet. Any law, which stands in the way of so-called “free trade,” can be virtually struck down by a panel of three corporate lawyers.

By the logic of the WTO, the wearing of a gas mask would constitute protectionism. They want the tear gas to be used in a free trade with our lungs. What right do we have to get in the way of free trade and protect our bodies?

This is not a new story. This goes back thousands of years, to the first state societies in which one human being, for the first time could steal the labor of another by using organized violence. Max Weber defines the state as the institution which controls the legitimate means of violence. The WTO is an attempt to legitimate stealing of common resources by private interests.

We now call this privatization. Privatization means you commit a crime and you get a property right. But property is an illusion. As Chief Seattle of the Duwamish said in 1855, as the Americans privatized his people’s land on which we stand:

“ln all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude.”

On a global scale, corporations take the collective creations of mankind, the collection creations of 3.6 billion years of life and they get a patent on it. The steal it. Columbus got a patent on the New World from the Queen Isabella and got his share of gold and slaves. Now, as Vandana Shiva points out, we are seeing the same conversion of crime into property right within the realm of inner nature as biotechnology firms like Monsanto get rights to genetic sequences produced by the planet. And just as Columbus needed the monarchy to protect his claim, so too do the multinationals need their granting authority in the form of the WTO and other international charters for corporate theft.

Increasingly we are seeing moves by the powerful to privatize our education, to privatize our social security, to privatize the prison system, to privatize common land, to divide up the commons just as the Europeans divided up Africa in the 19th century.

This is the agenda that the rulers of the planet brought to Seattle on N30, 1999. Who would have thought that when the free trade propaganda ended and the bombardment of the mass rnedia stopped and the WTO landed, out we would come 50,000 chanting over the clouds of chemical weapons and poisons:

WHOSE STREETS? OUR STREETS! 

We won that battle against the WTO! We: turtles, Teamsters, Lesbian Avengers, hula-hoop guys, French farmers, steelworkers, puppeteers, Indian fishermen, African delegates, longshoremen who closed down the West Coast, UNAM students in Mexico City, Seattle community college students, and let’s not forget the Seattle firemen who refused to turn their firehoses on their fellow citizens!

Each, a brush stroke on an enormous canvas. We won with imagination, solidarity and the spirit of Emma Goldman, America’s favorite anarchist grandma, who said over a century ago:

I don’t want a revolution where I can’t dance.

The first thing colonialists always outlaw is dancing. And on that day that our sisters and brothers walked out of the King County jail, Emma was dancing like crazy!

And now when they use the word Seattle in the boardrooms of the multinationals it means disaster. And now when people who resist their rule say Seattle it means hope.

We can’t be paralyzed by the global dimensions of the economic, political and ecological crisis we are living through.

Remember that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Consider the way that dandelions bust up through the cracks in the city streets looking for sunshine! Or the way that alders shoot up through the wreckage of the clear-cut! Or the way Bob Marley sings,

Get up, stand up! Stand up for your rights!

We can take our hopes from nature because we are part of it. We always have a choice. Live on your feet or survive on your knees. As the philosopher Hegel wrote, if you want to be free you have to risk life.

If you want to live in a free country you have to act like it’s a free country!

More articles by:

Peter Knutson can be reached at peterknutson@comcast.net.

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