WTO Meets Occupy Wall Street
October 21, 2011 1 Comment
Today’s blog is by Janet Thomas, author of The Battle in Seattle: The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations and Day Breaks over Dharamsala: A Memoir of Life Lost and Found. Thomas has written plays about abortion, sexual abuse, nuclear war, the Vietnam War, and the war against the environment, books about hostel travel in the West, and she’s been editor of a magazine about spas around the world. She lives and teaches on San Juan Island in Washington State.
In November 1999, 60,000 people poured out of nowhere to occupy the streets of WTO Seattle on behalf of global social, environmental, and economic justice. It was a week of shock and awe when farmers, union workers, students, teachers, pilots, economists, environmentalists, faith leaders, indigenous people, office workers, human rights activists, writers, musicians, artists, turtles and the rest of us showed up from the far reaches of the planet. We stunned the world and one another. Nobody saw it coming. There was no social media; there were no smart phones; cell phones were few and expensive; and the Web was not yet research-reliable.
The organization of WTO week was pocketed away in various corners of concern—all centered around the impact of the growing corporate monopoly over the resources of our planet and the lives of its people. There was a two-day teach-in about the impacts of corporate domination with scholars and policy makers from all over the world. There was a forum on the global corporate war system and another forum on the corporate impact on global health and the environment. The expanding use of genetically modified foods and the invasive nature of genetic research was a major concern. So was the corporate takeover of food production and farming. Back then, Starbucks was part of the problem. Their bottom line came at the expense of farmers in South America, held hostage by the corporate coffee bean, who could no longer grow food for their families. Organic, shade-grown, and farmer co-op coffee was not yet in the cup. In India, farmers were forced to grow cotton on their land while their families went hungry. They still are, and the suicide rate of Indian farmers, through the ingestion of the agricultural chemicals that were supposed to make their lives better, is an ongoing tragedy. Follow the food and you eat your way right into the greedy reaches of agribusiness, where a dollar reigns and a human life is disposable.
On N30, that iconic day in November, I found myself walking on the streets of WTO Seattle behind a small group of peasant rice workers from Japan. They were wearing their white peasant garb and couldn’t speak much English, but they sang their rice-worker songs and were euphoric in their gestures of delight at the communal affection and appreciation on the streets. They were being seen and their song was being heard. They were recognized, acknowledged, and respected for the integrity of their lives and their struggle.
I was walking by myself in the midst of the crowd on the streets of Seattle that day and those Japanese peasant rice workers embraced me with their joy and jubilation. But why were they there? Answering that question became the seed, metaphorically and otherwise for my book The Battle in Seattle: The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations.
Growing rice in Japan, as with grapes in France, is rooted in generational farming. Many families participate, each taking care of their own rows, each preserving their own seeds from year to year—seeds that adapted over hundreds of years to small bits of land and to the hands that carefully farmed. But because Montsanto identified the genetics of their seeds, the farmers were no longer entitled to own and cultivate them. And the seeds they were forced to purchase came complete with terminator genes so they couldn’t be saved from year to year. And so began the end of economic justice, the end of generations of culture, the end of safe rice, and the end of a vibrant and viable future. Theirs was a unique story on the streets of WTO Seattle—as was every story on those streets that week. What wasn’t unique was the human spirit rising in embrace of what was just and fair for humankind, and for all sentient beings, including this living, breathing planet.
The phrase of the week was civil society. To be civil is to be most of all respectful. A civil society is a respectful society. It honors deep democracy, where the integrity of an individual life is honored. It is fair. It recognizes and celebrates differences and unique ways of being in the world. It doesn’t quantify everything, bottom-line everything, weigh and measure the worth of a human being by a stock portfolio or bank account. Civil society is the bedrock of the future. Corporate society is anathema to civil society; its global domination means the end of our unique and individual stories—whether we are peasant rice farmers in Japan, teachers in Manhattan, or longshore workers in Long Beach.
The Occupy Wall Street movement is an outpouring of civil society. The media might wring its corporate hands over the lack of specifics and solutions, but civil society knows what’s right and what’s missing: the fundamental human right to a meaningful life for everyone on this planet. Everyone has a story and their story matters. Follow our individual, family, cultural stories and they lead to everything that’s right and everything that’s wrong with our world. Civil society knows the difference; corporate society doesn’t have to. This is where the line is drawn in the sands of global society. When 99 percent of us occupy the Wall Streets of the world, those simple words, right and wrong, come to life like those peasant rice workers on the streets of WTO Seattle. They mean something. So do we all.
- Occupy Wall Street Library (peopleslibrary.wordpress.com)
- Decolonization and Occupy Wall Street (racialicious.com)
- We Are the 98% (1% of our population is in prison) (mattbors.com)
- Quoted: Jelani Cobb on #OccupyAtlanta (racialicious.com)
- Occupy Wall Street Fights for Diversity (alternet.com)