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Published on Sunday, April 22, 2000 in the Seattle Times
Seattle's Free-Traders Listen For 'Justice In The Clamor'
by Mindy Cameron
By mere coincidence, I was in Washington, D.C., last weekend when everyone was talking about Seattle.

Of course, they were talking about the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, too. But cops at the barricades, tourists watching protesters, TV anchors and even the weatherman (forecast for the protest: Seattle-style drizzle), had Seattle on the brain.

I overheard a policeman explain to a questioner, "This won't be like Seattle. We are prepared. They weren't."

Hey, he said it. I didn't.

Early Saturday evening, shortly before the mass arrest of 600 protesters took place, a man from Chicago was explaining to his companion what happened in Seattle when people took to the streets: "Things got out of hand and the police chief and mayor lost their jobs over it."

I didn't bother to correct him. Facts are irrelevant when emotions run rampant on the streets, whether Seattle or Washington, D.C.

That's the frustrating reality trade advocates in Seattle are now addressing.

Earlier this month, about a dozen of them gathered in a snug, well-appointed conference room in a downtown office building to begin a conversation around this question: "How does a trade-dependent community respond to concerns about trade and globalization?"

There was a recognition, however grudging by some, that the same old messages and same old messengers are no longer sufficient.

There was a sense among these influential insiders that Seattle ought to be able to figure out a new way to advance the trade message. Seattle hubris lives on in the notion - If not us, who? If not here, where?

Hubris or not, those insiders may be right. Pollster Stuart Elway has found that people in Washington state understand the link between trade and a healthy state economy. At the same time, they favor including human rights, environmental and labor standards in trade agreements.

In a report last fall, two months before the WTO came to town, Elway predicted WTO protesters would "get a sympathetic hearing among locals."

Watching demonstrators late last year in Seattle and last weekend in D.C., it is easy - too easy - to dismiss them as a collection of restless young people in search of a cause, aging hippies reliving the good old days of anti-war fervor, and goofy fringe elements attracted to the scene like moths to a flame.

That's all true, but it is not the whole truth.

Todd Gitlin, a professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University, got it about right in last Sunday's Washington Post. "The movement currently gathering is a whirlwind," he wrote, "and it is sometimes hard to see the constructive side of a whirlwind."

The voices are strident, the messages simplistic. And so the wonkish insiders ("elites" to the folks in the streets) tend to dismiss the whole thing as a circus of protesters, people with little more than a bad attitude about what's going on in the world, kids who are all passion and no program.

Gitlin has an important reminder: "Movements are not built solely by the wise."

I'm beginning to get it.

There is more to this than kids with facial jewelry dressed as sea turtles, chanting slogans, carrying silly signs and taunting cops.

Much of the recent conversation among Seattle trade proponents was about the difficulty and discomfort when rational and coherent arguments for free and open trade meet the passion and emotions of the other side.

It is policy vs. personal. Head vs. heart. Two sides talking past each other in a dialogue of the deaf.

But it's the passionate ones who have had the huge stage - the streets of Seattle and Washington, D.C. - and quite possibly sparked a movement.

It's too late, as one pro-trade veteran wistfully suggested, to marginalize the irrational. What may be irrational to him - and to me - makes perfect sense to those in the streets.

Where do we go from here?

The fledgling conversation among Seattle trade advocates is a good step. Many of them recognize the need for reforms in how the WTO and World Bank and IMF operate. The noise on the streets makes the task easier for reformers on the inside.

Meanwhile, as Prof. Gitlin wrote last week, get used to untidiness. "Politicians would be well advised to sift out the nihilism from (last) week's cacophony, curb their dismissiveness and listen for justice in the clamor."

Good advice for Seattle free-traders in this post-WTO era.

Copyright 2000 The Seattle Times Company


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