Urgent Lessons for Ottawa Protest

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After years of battle, the pro-corporate globalization forces have won a victory in Qatar. In a report from Qatar, the head of the Council of Canadians, Maude Barlow, says that nongovernmental organizations on the ground at the World Trade Organization (WTO) talks “are devastated.”

The WTO, you will remember, was the target of the first huge anti-corporate globalization action in Seattle a couple of years ago. The demonstration, combined with the resistance of developing countries to the WTO agenda, scuttled that round of talks and gave new power and visibility to protesters. Now the talks are back on.

The United States and other rich countries are using the “war on terrorism” to bully and bribe poor countries into supporting the WTO agenda, which will expand corporate power and increase the gap between rich and poor.

The monumental events of September 11 and its aftermath have had an impact in both strengthening the position of the rich countries and weakening the anti-corporate globalization forces, especially in North America.

In a polarizing climate of fear, where any critical viewpoint faces immediate and vicious attack, the times are very tough for any movement for social change. But the danger is greatest for the anti-globalization movement, both because it has been the most visible and effective movement for change, and because its strength lies in an uneasy coalition of diverse forces.

Much of the institutional part of the movement — including unions and large NGOs — seems to be taking a step back from mobilization. Unions are unsure of their members’ support. NGOs are worried about governmental or public backlash to their funding. Both groups have become more cautious.

The more radical wing of the movement, on the other hand, seems to see any significant change in tactics as a retreat.

On November 17, in Ottawa, there will be a mobilization that, on the surface, looks like previous mobilizations in Quebec City and Windsor. A local group, Global Democracy, is organizing a protest against the G20, the International Monetary Fund and the WTO. It expects “thousands.” Plans are afoot for creative confrontation, like the teddy-bear catapult in Quebec City.

What’s missing now is the support of most institutional groups. In Seattle, Quebec City, Windsor and Genoa, there were tactical and philosophical differences in the movement, but both institutional and radical groups mobilized.

In Ottawa, there is no sign that the unions and big NGOs — with the exception of the Council of Canadians (COC) — are playing a role. This is partly due to the short notice about the event, which makes it more difficult for unions to organize. But there is little doubt that the impact of September 11 has deepened already existing divisions.

According to David Robbins, a young anti-corporate activist now working for the COC, “Mainstream groups are being careful, which seems to mean not doing things.” He adds, “There is still a class war out there and we are the only side expected to stop fighting.”

The main march on Saturday morning will be non-violent, according to the Global Democracy Website. But on the day before and the afternoon after the march, groups who do not promise non-violence will be organizing other actions.

The reality of the anti-globalization movement is that there are groups who adhere to what they call “diversity of tactics.” Most of these groups do not use violence themselves, but they will not condemn or stop others who choose to use violent tactics.

The problem with the “diversity of tactics” argument is that a tiny group who wants to throw stones at cops can put thousands of people into danger — people who have not chosen to be in danger. In Quebec City and Genoa, organizers created a safe or “green” zone. This is the plan in Ottawa, too. But the past has proven that, when police violence escalated, no one was safe.

The radical wing of the movement sees enforcing demonstration rules as authoritarian and simply will not accept it. They also reject arguments that the heightened level of polarization and potential for repression creates a new reality post-September 11, where promising non-violence is even more important.

Young people I’ve talked to who support non-violence say they cannot insist upon it because they would exclude an important part of the movement. The problem here is that a much larger number of people end up being excluded because they can’t afford to risk arrest, violence or a backlash in their membership.

After September 11, an anti-war, anti-corporate movement could be reaching out to many immigrants and refugees. Many understand very well what the price of this war is. But the cost of participating in a protest that may turn violent is too high for them. Women’s groups, who in Ottawa tried to establish rules for non-violence, have also been excluded by the rejection of such an agreement.

So many of these groups are voting with their feet.

Neither wing of the movement can be effective without the other. The radical wing has created energy, dynamism and attracted the youth that put the anti-corporate movement back on the map after the failure of the old left. The institutional wing provides resources, continuity, credibility, establishment contacts and a broader base.

Each group thinks it is justified in its disagreements with the other. But the cost of allowing disagreements to turn into permanent splits is too high. This is what happened in the workers’ movement during the First World War.

We are still suffering the consequences of the split between the radical Communists and the moderate social democrats from that time. The events of September 11 raise the urgent necessity for dialogue, discussion and compromise in the anti-globalization movement.

Nothing is more important.

Further Reading

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