Intelligent Graffiti, Hysterical Police

01 November 2001
In the media
Published at
New Internationalist

We gather in the garden of a squat overlooking Lake Geneva. The location is La Cologny, the wealthiest part of Geneva. The next-door house belongs to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, and we can see the headquarters of the World Trade Organization (WTO) across the lake from here. We have come from Europe, Latin America, Asia and North America to the International Seminar on Globalization and Resistance. In makeshift tents we tell our stories, share our struggles, learn from one another, gain strength. We are detained together for a morning after a dawn raid by Geneva police who search the property and take all of us – including a six-year-old girl – away in riot vans. Participants come from indigenous and environmental groups, labour and social-justice movements, North and South. The struggles are local, rooted in people’s immediate concerns and surroundings. On one thing, however, we all agree: the neo-liberal global economy threatens our ability to develop self-reliant societies based on human values. And, as someone observes during a workshop: "If we can’t organize transnationally, we’re dead".

Susan George, Director of the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute, describes the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) as the "centrepiece of globalization", a trade treaty which gives "all rights to transnational corporations, all duties to governments and no rights to people". The MAI is so clearly led by the corporate agenda that it has been instrumental in galvanizing a broad base of resistance. As Susan George tells us: "When people learn about this treaty, they understand instantly that they have to work together". In France alone, between 70 and 80 organizations have joined the effort to stop the MAI. The anti-MAI campaign continues to unfold internationally.

One of the new platforms for this kind of international exchange is People’s Global Action (PGA). It is not an organization but a network of grassroots movements from around the world, formed after a conference in February 1998. Attendees included members of the Zapatista movement of Mexico, the Nigerian Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, Play Fair Europe! and the Indian Karnataka State Farmers’ Association. The PGA organized huge demonstrations against the WTO in Geneva in May, when squatters stood side-by-side with human-rights workers, peasants and union members in a display of international anger which took global bureaucrats by surprise. Geneva is left with a legacy of intelligent graffiti and hysterical police. The PGA manifesto, written after the February conference, reads: "Despite the huge material differences, struggles in privileged and underprivileged parts of the corporate empire have more and more in common, setting the stage for a new and stronger sort of solidarity... Scattered around the world again, we will not forget. We remain together. This is our common struggle".

One of the most powerful aspects of this international coalition is the information exchange it has created between Northern and Southern activists, exploding assumptions that all Northerners see globalization as "inevitable progress", or that all Southerners see it as the "road to development". During the seminar we watch remarkable video footage of the May action. I am left with the image of Indian women standing outside the WTO declaring: "We don’t want your Coca Cola! We don’t want your Kentucky Fried Chicken!"

Daniel Zapata, Native American activist from the Dineh (Navajo) and Hopi communities in the US, epitomizes the new coalitions and solidarity groups emerging in the international activist community. He was sent by his people to outreach with communities affected by coal mining and the threat of forced relocation in Wales, England, Scotland, Germany, Poland and France. He says of the Europeans: "These people are what John Trudell called 'blue Indians' because they too know how it feels to be disenfranchized from the political, legal and cultural infrastructures... What is happening in the Brecon Beacons is happening in the Shenandoah Mountains". He adds: "We’ve seen the corporations come together for all the wrong reasons and we have to come together for the right reasons and head them off at the pass".

The PGA are planning events in Europe for May and June 1999. Several hundred activists from all over the world will come together to demonstrate in European cities, including Geneva, Paris, Cologne, Brussels, London. The timing of the visit will coincide with the G8 summit in Cologne. It promises to be a dramatic statement of global protest from the coalitions of the dispossessed to the world policy-makers, bankers and transnational corporations. The Karnataka State Farmer’s Association is already planning to send 500 Indian peasant farmers to tour Europe and take part in all the events.

In the wake of the Russian and Asian economic crises, the champions of global capitalism are already on the defensive. Next summer promises to be a landmark display of global resistance and solidarity. Susan George says: "Not since the Vietnam War have I seen a movement come together like this".