Where was the Color in Seattle?
Looking for reasons why the Great Battle was so white
"I was at the jail where a lot of protesters were being held and a big crowd of people was chanting 'This Is What Democracy Looks Like!'
At first it sounded kind of nice. But then I thought: is this really
what democracy looks like? Nobody here looks like me."--Jinee Kim, Bay Area youth organizer
In the vast acreage of published analysis about the splendid victory
over the World Trade Organization last November 29-December 3, it is
almost impossible to find anyone wondering why the 40-50,000
demonstrators were overwhelmingly Anglo. How can that be, when the WTO's
main victims around the world are people of color? Understanding the
reasons for the low level of color, and what can be learned from it, is
absolutely crucial if we are to make Seattle's promise of a new,
international movement against imperialist globalization come true.
Among those who did come for the WTO meeting were some highly
informative third world panelists who spoke Monday, November 29 about
the effects of WTO on health care and on the environment. They included
activist-experts from Mexico, Malaysia, the Philippines, Ghana, and
Pakistan. On Tuesday, at the huge rally on November 30 before the march,
labor leaders from Mexico, the Caribbean, South Africa, Malaysia, India,
and China spoke along with every major U.S. union leader (all white).
Rank-and-file U.S. workers of color also attended, from certain unions
and locals in certain geographic areas. There were young African
Americans in the building trades; blacks from Local 10 of the ILWU in
San Francisco and Latinos from its Los Angeles local; Asian Americans
from SEIU; Teamsters of color from eastern Washington state; members of
the painters' union and the union of Hotel Employees and Restaurant
Employees (H.E.R.E.). Latino/a farmworkers from the UFW and PCUN
(Pineros and Campesinos del Noroeste) of Oregon also attended. At one
point a miner from the South Africa Labor Network cried, "In the words
of Karl Marx, 'Workers of the world, unite!'" The crowd of some 25,000
Among community activists of color, the Indigenous Environmental Network
(IEN) delegation led by Tom Goldtooth conducted an impressive program of
events with Native peoples from all over the U.S. and the world. A
15-member multi-state delegation represented the Southwest Network for
Environmental and Economic Justice based in Albuquerque, which embraces
84 organizations primarily of color in the U.S. and Mexico; their
activities in Seattle were binational.
Many activist youth groups of color came from California, especially the
Bay Area, where they have been working on such issues as Free Mumia,
affirmative action, ethnic studies, and rightwing laws like the current
Proposition 21 "youth crime" initiative. Seattle-based forces of color
that participated actively included the Filipino Community Center and
the international People's Assembly, which led a march on Tuesday
despite being the only one denied a permit. The predominantly white
Direct Action Network (DAN), a huge coalition, brought thousands to the
protest. But Jia Ching Chen of the Bay Area's Third Eye Movement was the
only young person of color involved in DAN's central planning.
Seattle's 27-year old Centro de la Raza organized a Latino contingent in
the labor march and local university groups, including MEChA (Movimiento
Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan), hooked up with visiting activists of
color. Black activists who have been fighting for an African American
Heritage Museum and Cultural Center in Seattle were there. Hop Hopkins,
an AIDS activist in Seattle, also black, made constant personal efforts
to draw in people of color.
Still, the overall turnout of color from the U.S. remained around five
percent of the total. In personal interviews, activists from the Bay
Area and the Southwest gave me several reasons for this. Some mentioned
concern about the likelihood of brutal police repression. Other
obstacles: lack of funds for the trip, inability to be absent from work
during the week, and problems in finding child care.
Yet several experienced activists of color in the Bay Area who had even
been offered full scholarships chose not to go. A major reason for not
participating, and the reason given by many others, was lack of
knowledge about the WTO. As one Filipina said, "I didn't see the
political significance of it how the protest would be anti-imperialist.
We didn't know anything about the WTO except that lots of people were
going to the meeting." One of the few groups that did feel informed, and
did participate, was the hip-hop group Company of Prophets. According to
African American member Rashidi Omari of Oakland, this happened as a
result of their attending teach-ins by predominantly white groups like
Art and Revolution. Company of Prophets, rapping from a big white van,
was in the front ranks of the 6 a.m. march that closed down the WTO on
The problem of unfamiliarity with the WTO was aggravated by the fact
that black and Latino communities across the U.S. lack Internet access
compared to many white communities. A July 1999 federal survey showed
that among Americans earning $15,000-$35,000 a year, more than 32
percent of white families owned computers but only 19 percent of black
and Latino families. In that same income range, only 9 percent of
African American and Latino homes had Internet access compared to 27
percent of white families. So information about WTO and all the plans
for Seattle did not reach many people of color.
Limited knowledge meant a failure to see how the WTO affected the daily
lives of U.S. communities of color. "Activists of color felt they had
more immediate issues," said Rashidi. "Also, when we returned people
told me of being worried that family and peers would say they were
neglecting their own communities, if they went to Seattle. They would be
asked, 'Why are you going? You should stay here and help your people.'"
Along with such concerns about linkage came the assumption that the
protest would be overwhelmingly white as it was. Coumba Toure, a Bay
Area activist originally from Mali, West Africa, said she had originally
thought, "the whites will take care of the WTO, I don't need to go."
Others were more openly apprehensive. For example, Carlos ("Los" for
short) Windham of Company of Prophets told me, "I think even Bay Area
activists of color who understood the linkage didn't want to go to a
protest dominated by 50,000 white hippies."
People of color had reason to expect the protest to be white-dominated.
Roberto Maestas, director of Seattle's Centro de la Raza, told me that
in the massive local press coverage before the WTO meeting, not a single
person of color appeared as a spokesperson for the opposition. "Day
after day, you saw only white faces in the news. The publicity was a
real deterrent to people of color. I think some of the unions or church
groups should have had representatives of color, to encourage people of
color to participate."
Four protesters of color from different Bay Area organizations talked
about the "culture shock" they experienced when they first visited the
"Convergence," the protest center set up by the Direct Action Network, a
coalition of many organizations. Said one, "When we walked in, the room
was filled with young whites calling themselves anarchists. There was a
pungent smell, many had not showered. We just couldn't relate to the
scene so our whole group left right away." "Another told me, "They
sounded dogmatic and paranoid." "I just freaked and left," said another.
"It wasn't just race, it was also culture, although race was key."
In retrospect, observed Van Jones of STORM (Standing Together to
Organize a Revolutionary Movement) in the Bay Area, "We should have
stayed. We didn't see that we had a lot to learn from them. And they had
a lot of materials for making banners, signs, puppets." "Later I went
back and talked to people," recalled Rashidi, "and they were discussing
tactics, very smart. Those folks were really ready for action. It was
limiting for people of color to let that one experience affect their
whole picture of white activists." Jinee Kim, a Korean American with the
Third Eye Movement in the Bay Area, also thought it was a mistake. "We
realized we didn't know how to do a blockade. We had no gas masks. They
made sure everybody had food and water, they took care of people. We
could have learned from them."
Reflecting the more positive evaluation of white protesters in general,
Richard Moore, coordinator of the Southwest Network for Environmental
and Economic Justice, told me "the white activists were very
disciplined." "We sat down with whites, we didn't take the attitude that
'we can't work with white folks,'" concluded Rashidi. "It was a
Few predominantly white groups in the Bay Area made a serious effort to
get people of color to Seattle. Juliette Beck of Global Exchange worked
hard with others to help people from developing (third world) countries
to come. But for U.S. people of color, the main organizations that made
a serious effort to do so were Just Act (Youth ACTion for Global
JUSTice), formerly the Overseas Development Network, and Art and
Revolution, which mostly helped artists. Many activists of color have
mentioned Alli Chaggi-Starr of Art and Revolution, who not only helped
people come but for the big march in Seattle she obtained a van with a
sound system that was used by musicians and rappers.
In Just Act, Coumba Toure and two other members of color--Raj Jayadev
and Malachi Larabee--pushed hard for support from the group. As a
result, about 40 people of color were enabled to go thanks to special
fundraising and whites staying at people's homes in Seattle so their
hotel money could be used instead on plane tickets for people of color.
Reflecting on the whole issue of working with whites, Coumba talked not
only about pushing Just Act but also pushing people of color to apply
for the help that became available.
One of the problems Coumba said she encountered in doing this was "a
legacy of distrust of middle-class white activists that has emerged from
experiences of 'being used.' Or not having our issues taken seriously.
Involving people of color must be done in a way that gives them real
space. Whites must understand a whole new approach is needed that
includes respect (if you go to people of color thinking you know more,
it creates a barrier). Also, you cannot approach people simply in terms
of numbers, like 'let's give 2 scholarships.' People of color must be
central to the project."
Jia Ching Chen recalled that once during the week of protest, in a jail
holding cell, he was one of only two people of color among many Anglos.
He tried to discuss with some of them the need to involve more activists
of color and the importance of white support in this. "Some would say,
'We want to diversify,' but didn't understand the dynamics of this." In
other words, they didn't understand the kinds of problems described by
Coumba Toure. "Other personal conversations were more productive," he
said, "and some white people started to recognize why people of color
could view the process of developing working relations with whites as
Unfortunately the heritage of distrust was intensified by some of the
AFL-CIO leadership of labor on the November 30 march. They chose to take
a different route through downtown rather than marching with others to
the Convention Center and helping to block the WTO. Also, on the march
to downtown they reportedly had a conflict with the Third World People's
Assembly contingent when they rudely told the people of color to move
aside so they could be in the lead.
Yet if only a small number of people of color went to Seattle, all those
with whom I spoke found the experience extraordinary. They spoke of
being changed forever. "I saw the future." "I saw the possibility of
people working together." They called the giant mobilization "a shot in
the arm," if you had been feeling stagnant. "Being there was an
incredible awakening." Naomi, a Filipina dancer and musician, recalled
how "at first a lot of my group were tired, grumpy, wanting to go home.
That really changed. One of the artists with us, who never considered
herself a political activist, now wants to get involved back in Oakland.
Seattle created a lot of strong bonds in my small community of coworkers
They seem to feel they had seen why, as the chant popularized by the
Chicano/a students of MEChA goes, "Ain't no power like the power of the
people, 'Cause the power of the people don't stop!"
There must be effective follow-up and increased communication between
people of color across the nation: grassroots organizers, activists,
cultural workers, and educators. We need to build on the contacts made
(or that need to be made) from Seattle. Even within the Bay Area,
activists who could form working alliances still do not know of each
With mass protests planned for April 16-17 in Washington, D.C. at the
meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the
opportunity to build on the WTO victory shines brightly. More than ever,
we need to work on our ignorance about global issues with study groups,
youth workshops, conferences. We need to draw specific links between WTO
and our close-to-home struggles in communities of color, as has been
emphasized by Raj Jayadev and Lisa Juachon in The Silicon Valley Reader:
Localizing the Effects of the Global Economy, 1999, which they edited.
Many examples of how WTO has hurt poor people in third world countries
were given during the protest. For example, a Pakistani told one panel
how, for years, South Africans grew medicinal herbs to treat AIDS at
very little cost. The WTO ruled that this was "unfair" competition with
pharmaceutical companies seeking to sell their expensive AIDS
medications. "People are dying because they cannot afford those products
," he said. A Filipino reported on indigenous farmers being compelled to
use fertilizers containing poisonous chemicals in order to compete with
cheap, imported potatoes. Ruined, they often left the land seeking
But there are many powerful examples right here in the U.S. For
WTO policies encourage sub-livable wages for youth of color
everywhere including right here.
WTO policies encourage privatization of health care, education,
welfare, and other crucial public services, as well as cutbacks in those
services, so private industry can take them over and run them at a
profit. This, along with sub-livable wages, leads to jeopardizing the
lives of working-class people and criminalizing youth in particular.
Workers in Silicon Valley are being chemically poisoned by the chips
they work on that make such wealth for others. WTO doesn't want to limit
those profits with protection for workers.
WTO has said it is "unfair trade" to ban the import of gasoline in
which certain cancer-causing chemicals have been used. This could have a
devastating effect on people in the U.S., including those of color, who
buy that gas.
Overall, WTO is controlled by U.S. corporations. It is secretly run by
a few advanced industrialized countries for the benefit of the rich and
aspiring rich. WTO serves to further impoverish the poor of all
Armed with such knowledge, we can educate and organize people of color.
As Jinee Kim said at a San Francisco report-back by youth of color, "We
have to work with people who may not know the word 'globalization' but
they live globalization."
Reprinted with Permission. Â© Colorlines.
- 104 Globalization
- 110 Trade Justice