"We [the transnational corporations] are now in the driver's seat of the global economic engine. We are setting government policies instead of watching from the side-lines."
David Rockefeller, 1994
On Sunday night, 22 April 2001, CBC ran a special edition of Counterspin with host Avi Lewis. The program featured a panel of four government officials from the elite group of the thirty four countries involved in the FTAA process in front of an audience who had either attended the "People's Summit" or had been present on the streets of Quebec.
Maude Barlow, of the Council of Canadians, and Elizabeth May, of the Sierra Club, along with many others less well known, spoke to the panel, making their points regarding the weaknesses of the FTAA. Predictably, the Agreement was defended weakly by the Liberal representative, who was obviously on uncomfortable ground.
The big surprise of the evening was a young woman who rose to speak, and wondered why so many diverse groups of people (environmentalists, labour unions, church groups, human rights activists, world peace movements, indigenous peoples, etc.) would be protesting free trade and the spread of democracy. Her puzzled eyes strained around the room for answers; wasn't free trade between nations a good thing? Wasn't democracy a good form of government?
What was the matter with all these protesters, anyway? Why were they protesting?
Why indeed. Why would intelligent and knowledgeable people risk pepper-spray, hosing, beatings, and plastic bullets to take a stand against an agreement that the involved governments were busy trying to sell us as a "job-creating, democratic, trade agreement"?
Perhaps, just perhaps, what they're selling isn't what we'll get.
Obviously she hadn't done her homework. She received many answers throughout the program, and we can only hope that her perspective on these supposed "Free Trade" agreements changed with a deeper understanding of the corporate agenda hidden behind the complicated words of text. Certainly bells should be ringing somewhere for her by now. These agreements put corporate profits before people's needs, and have little to do with trade, and everything to do with the rights of foreign investment.
They tell us that "democracy" will be protected, that no tyrant-ruled state will be allowed to join this elite club -- this nonsense from a government whose jack-booted police, all six thousand of them, were fully prepared to storm into innocent protesters. Many of the countries now included in the thirty four privileged treat their public in exactly the same way.
Democracy is a government of the people, for the people, by the people. When the elected government will not listen to those who elected them, and is determined to go along with the corporate march towards economic globalization, making the rich richer and the poor poorer, and to enforce their own will upon the people by organized force, this cannot be dignified with the title "democracy". They aren't talking about democracy as we understand it; in their vocabulary "Democracy" is just a synonym for "Capitalism" with no restraints, and Globalization means corporate domination of the whole world through privatization and deregulation.
They tell us that privatization and deregulation are good for the consuming public, but the facts speak otherwise. Alberta's residents and businesses are beginning to scream as their hydro rates increased one hundred per cent after deruglation, California is scrambling now to reestablish public control over her hydro facilities. As in the first world, so in the third. Privatization of Bolivia's water supply raised the rates to the public so outrageously that millions of Bolivians marched in the streets in protest. When the protesters refused to back down, the Bolivian government, under dictator President Hugo Banzer, declared a "state of seige", arresting protest leaders from their beds in the dark of night, shutting radio stations down in mid-sentence, and sending soldiers into the streets with live ammunition.
When a seventeen-year old boy was shot in the face and killed by an American-trained sharpshooter, and angry mobs threatened mayhem, the company which had been given control of Bolivia's water supply, Bechtel, decided it was time to get out of its contract with the Bolivian government, and the government was forced to meet many of the demands of the protesters. Bolivia remains under martial law, and deep unrest prevails.
In the South American country of Colombia, the minister of the environment, Juan Mayr, is refusing to recognize the rights of the Embera Katio Indians who walked 800 kilometers to speak with him, and set up camp outside his office in Bogota. The government, supported by its military, began flooding their tribal lands without relocating the Indians. The Indians are demanding that their rights be respected as guaranteed by international law, and that the government should immediately resolve the ecological problems caused by the damming of the Sinu River, which is resulting in famine downstream of the dam. One of their most prominent activists has "disappeared", and Amnesty International has issued an urgent action on his disappearance for fear of his safety.
This same Minister is supporting oil exploration on the ancestral lands of the UWA tribe (North East Columbia), and he has openly granted approval for goldmining in the Caqueta river in the South, permitting the use of mercury in the process. This is poisoning all the river life as it runs into the Amazon system. Protesters in Columbia are either silenced or killed, and international action is needed against the actions of this man.
In Mexico the voice of the people, including its indigeous populations, is quickly silenced by the huge powerful government-controlled union thugs who have an ongoing war with regular recognized union activists. This, despite promises by the newly elected President Vincent Fox who speaks with a silver but forked tongue that there would be sweeping changes, and that he would do a better and more fair job of governing the country than his predecessor.
Canadian church leaders went to Mexico to see for themselves how NAFTA was working, and were appalled by the conditions there. Apparently NAFTA has indeed provided more jobs, but the jobs don't pay a living wage, so people are worse off than they were before, many farmers have been forced from their land, and conditions are getting worse by the minute. These Canadians were getting a first-hand look at the gaunt human face of "free trade", where people work in modern assembly plants and return home to plywood shacks and Third World conditions, without water or proper hygiene. The people are now slaves in their own country.
Now to Quebec. The focus of the media has been on the violence of the protesters, but stories of what really happened are filtering through via the internet and a daring new web site. The following is part of a true story sent to me by a personal friend. Behold the new face of Canadian "Democracy":
"Hi, I just got back to Toronto this morning on an all night bus from Quebec City. I am pretty out of it, like sleep-deprived, swollen feet from walking and running at least 11 hours for four days, and what I believe to be some form of shell-shock. I hate to say this, but its the analogy that comes to mind; I feel like a war survivor. The city looks like a bomb hit it, and I guess thousands did; thousands of tear-gas bombs. By the time I left everyone was so tired and in shock that we were all pretty senseless. We tried to do a jail solidarity march, but agreed to turn around three-quarters of the way there. There were too many riot cops, and we were too tired to think clearly. We were too afraid to stray from the group in case the cops thought we would trash a store or something. Noone felt safe to even go to the wash-room.
"By Saturday evening they were randomly dragging people out of crowds and arresting them for no reason. We got word that the arrestees were stripped naked in front of the others, hosed down with cold water, and strip-searched in the most violating way you could imagine. They were not allowed to call their lawyers. They were only allowed to give testimony by video, instead of in person.
"One of the organizers was kidnapped by police on Friday. His name is Jackie." [I believe she is referring to the violent kidnapping of Jaggi Singh by police dressed as protesters who did not identify themselves until they were dragging the luckless Mr. Singh into an unmarked van. His only crime was chucking teddy-bears at the riot police, and making good speeches. This incident has sparked a demand for an human rights investigation.]
"Friday afternoon was a day of history, watching the fence come down. I happened to be at one of the main entrances when it happened. There were thousands of us gathering from the different marches at a street called René Levesque, and one brave soul climbed the gate. There were two gates set up there, and he was in between the two. He started shaking them, with the help of everyone around, and the wall came down. The people went ecstatic, but still very controlled. Only about a dozen or so people from the Black Bloc entered, armed with sections of metal gate that you would see sectioning line-ups. There were about three people to one of these gates. Others were provoking the cops, throwing rocks and toilet paper rolls.
"The riot cops didn't react right away, but once more and more people charged in, they released tear gas. I was to the side of the fence in a tree, watching from above, and could see in the not so far distance wafts of tear gas billowing from the adjacent street. Then it hit. They shot a cannister off right in front of me and the other 2-300 peaceful protesters, and we all left quickly, but without running. I had no idea it would make me react the way it did. I panicked, and had to be reminded to walk. I found an alley thank goodness, with snow, and cleaned my eyes as much as I could. The gas wafted everywhere, so even in the alley it came streaming in. Lesson 1: stand upwind.
"I helped a woman reporter and her 12-year old son who didn't have any protection. I had stopped to pick up a 3 dollar pair of swimming goggles on the way to Quebec. I can't say that they saved my life, but they allowed me to be saved from a lot of the torture of the toxic, horrible and painful shit that the police and government made us endure to get our point across through peaceful protest. I ended up doing a lot of First Aid to people that were slightly more naive than I that didn't bring any protection. ..............
"At this point the riot squad was doing their well-versed choreography that we taxpayers paid for, and moved beyond the fence into the neighbouring streets. Speaking of neighbours, the ones that stuck around were so helpful. One woman came out and asked us if we needed any food, water, or clothes! A lot of people opened up hoses for water for us, or we threw our water bottles up to them and they filled them for us.............
"By this point, the cops were shooting gas down streets that they couldn't even see down. Tear gas was pouring from every direction and we couldn't tell where it was safe to be. I needed a break ...., and found a church where there were about 100-300 people resting while being moved by a drum circle echoing through an open but roofed part of the church ..... we did this amazing and powerful living rivers cerimony with Starhawk where we blessed bottles of water, and passed them through the crowd. We had fish puppets, and blue streamers with long streams of blue fabric. It was joyous and peaceful, and I believe we helped set the tone for peaceful and powerful demonstrations....... everyone from all over and from so many different backgrounds that will be affected by the FTAA all coming together in solidarity.
"Nevertheless the tear gas continued, and people became more enraged as the police destroyed joyful and peaceful celebrations of people taking back public space: the streets and parks, squares and sidewalks, sacred centres and highways. There was more rock-throwing, taunting the police with name-calling, .......... and the smog from the gas clouded the clear, glowing orange sun-set. " Night came, and I went with some friends to the Convergence Center for a poetry event organized by a bunch of Newfoundlanders. I met more wonderful and amazing people there ....... we did some debriefing of everyone's day, and our hearts and spirits grew stronger from the strength of all the stories and passions mixing together ........
"I couldn't believe how the tear gas made me react. I couldn't stop swearing, and felt like kicking whatever was around me. It made me violently angry, and sorrowful at the same time. It's a strange feeling, this combination, because I knew why I was sorrowful. It's because of the state of democracy and how twisted it has become, yet the anger is fueled by this. And the fact that the gas was forcing me to emote at a time when I was supposed to be strong and empowered and voicing my opinions, yet retreating uncontrollably by the gas made me feel like a victim, which made me want to rage! So it's no wonder that the agression of the protesters escalated as more tear gas flew through the air. I understand the anger of the youth and the oppression that we feel, and the tear gas just helped to establish this even more ... I can't imagine what pepper-spray would be like. I didn't get any full on, but they were mixing it with the gas by Saturday.
"So this is part of one day in the life of a naive, earth-loving west coast girl. This is what democracy looks like. And I am ashamed for the supposed leaders and their ignorance of human nature. I am now angrier than ever, and this only makes me want to stand up stronger and taller and spread the words of truth and lies that we are surrounded by. This spreading of the truth travels farther and carries more weight than any amount of tear gas or pepper spray is capable of."
This is only one story of many such stories pouring through cyberspace. Judy Rebick writes that
"Standoffs between police and protesters continued all day. Plastic bullets injured several people, including one woman who was hit in the throat. She required an emergency tracheotomy.
"As of Sunday morning, 450 people had been arrested. People were held in jail, denied the right to contact their lawyers or their families, and without food, reported Quebec's Civil Liberties Union. Both male and female accused were stripped, searched, and left naked in front of the others. These abuses were corrected after the union intervened."
Many peaceful protesters were beaten with batons, and others assaulted with concussion bombs. Helicopters and two tanks were also used by the powers-that-be against their own citizens. If this is their idea of democracy, they can keep it; we don't want it. We will destroy it eventually, and replace it with true democracy. And the Voice of the Turtle will be heard in this land.