From Tame To Lame
What has become of the once-mighty globalization protest?
Thursday, April 26, 2001
A hunched Joseph Holt stood in front of a Gap store on San Francsico''s Market Street last Friday afternoon, trying to stay out of the rain. A blond 23-year-old from Kentucky and a globally conscious sort of guy, Holt had gone out of his way to buy his cup of green tea from a local shop while en route to the anti-globalization rally forming on the sidewalk nearby. The metalwork overhead didn''t make much of an awning, and his black hooded sweatshirt got wet anyway.
While Holt stood outside the store amid milling protesters, hundreds of their cohorts in Quebec City battled security forces to try to disrupt the Summit of the Americas, a meeting of all 34 national leaders of Western Hemisphere countries except for Cuba. The summit''s goal was to hammer out a proposed expansion of NAFTA to Central and South America called the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The rally and march in San Francisco was to be a show of solidarity for protesters in Canada.
As Holt and about 150 others waved their placards across from a huge multi-level shopping center, other groups of concerned citizens, including a contingent from San Juan Bautista''s El Teatro Campesino and several Cal State Monterey Bay students, were driving in caravans south to protest at the Mexico border.
But what used to be a black-and-white issue--free trade versus fair trade and corporate power versus people power--has turned shades of gray, and what people at both rallies found were dissolving protests that had lost their focus. Not only that, but here in Monterey County, labor groups--a primary component of the Seattle WTO protests--weren''t involved in either protest.
One of the reasons for the lack of effective opposition, theorizes Monterey Institute of International Studies professor Bill Monning, is the creation of new alliances, like labor and environmentalists, as well as the sheer complexity of the issues. For example, one side will say NAFTA has created jobs and another will say it has cost jobs. "They''re both right," Monning says.
And then there''s the desensitized audience to consider. "The San Francisco solidarity protests don''t achieve a whole lot," says CSUMB student activist Kevin Miller. "Unless you''re there to stop something, it''s just another San Francisco protest. It''s become almost a daily routine."
Picnic at the Border
Holt, who works in a Haight district health food store and studies circus arts, lives in the Mission district--a neighborhood that, to the chagrin of some locals, is being gentrified. To him, the global issues underlying street melees in Quebec City are certainly linked to local problems.
"It all comes down to the same thing. We''re all marching against the same thing, and that''s greed," he said.
One thrust of the San Francisco march was to publicly expose a local landlord accused of unfair evictions. Once the protesters got underway, hiking up Powell Street, marchers carried outsized refrigerator boxes fashioned into prop huts with hand-lettering that read: "No evictions. No FTAA."
The marchers plowed past gaping onlookers toward Chinatown. They chanted slogans like "People gonna rise to the top, ohh, ohh," but otherwise left the police with nothing to do but provide a clear path. The crowd moved past a tall white-haired woman with a large red-and-white umbrella waiting to the cross the street. She turned to a neighbor. "What are we protesting today?" she asked. When answered, she dismissed the protesters as a "rent-a-mob" who "don''t always have the whole story."
The marchers skirted the edge of Chinatown, proceeding to the house of a landlord they''d singled out for evicting tenants. The cardboard huts were left in front of his home, and there the matter rested. It''s unclear if the discarded boxes inspired any littering citations. If they did, it was the only act of civil disobedience committed all day.
Meanwhile, three carloads of people from the Salinas area had arrived in San Diego to attend a protest at the border with Mexico.
If the San Francisco protests were tame, the Tijuana version was, according to one local, lame.
Felix Lawrence of Salinas rode to the "border action" for the weekend but came away disappointed. He went along to videotape the productions by local theater groups El Teatro Campesino and Baktun 12. "It was a bit of a letdown," he reported on Monday. "It was very disorganized."
Lawrence figures about 1,000 people gathered, though others estimate twice that. There had been plans to hold a volleyball game, with the U.S.-Mexico border serving as the net. But the game was cancelled and the rally relocated because a road to the intended location had reportedly been washed out by heavy rain. "That''s too bad, because that had a lot of potential," he said.
In addition, a rally was held on the Mexican side, but it lost some momentum because protesters had to leave their placards, masks and other props on the U.S. side.
At the alternative rally site, the San Juan Bautista-based agitprop players put on what Lawrence described as a "bawdy caricature" of the forces pushing globalization and free trade. But there was no proper elevated stage, so few could actually see the play.
One thing that hampered the effort, Lawrence said, was the collision of "conflicting agendas" between non-violent protesters, anarchists, mainstream labor groups, feminists and others. There was no leader articulating the causes or the problems and no reliable source of information. "Everything came as secondhand rumor," he said.
Salinas resident and El Teatro Campesino player Luis Juarez said he wasn''t surprised by the pandemonious air of the event or the modest turnout. Mostly activists showed up, not a lot of mainstream working-class folks.
"You kind of expect it," he said. "Overall, it was kind of like a picnic, a picnic at the border."