All week I’ve been cringing at the news. Tear gas. Broken windows. Bloody faces. The National Guard called in to defend Seattle against anti-WTO demonstrators. From far away, totally in sympathy with the demonstrators, I’ve been yelling at them, “No, please, get hold of yourselves! Don’t tar our cause with violence!”

Cops taking over the streets.

Photo by Sherry Bosse.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Of course only a tiny fraction of the protesters in Seattle were violent. The folks I know who went there are middle-aged, serious, professional. They conducted workshops and prepared well-reasoned press briefings. Their grievances are real and important to every person on earth.

One friend there emailed Thursday morning: “There were teachers, steel workers, longshoremen, carpenters, pilots, farmworkers. Speakers were clear that it was about working people AND the environment. There was a colorful, well-mannered march through the city. The sun came out. We sang and chanted and waved our signs. The only bad parts were scrambling over dumpsters and seeing smashed windows. When we left the streets, back came the vandals, to be burned into the public mind as what the protest was about. But what it was really about was a beautiful assembly of caring, concerned people with serious points to make.”

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

My first reaction to this travesty was to blame the demonstrators. Couldn’t they rein in the extremists? Didn’t they give everyone training in nonviolent engagement? Warriors for human rights and nature should have learned long ago, from Gandhi and Martin Luther King and nuclear power protests, how to avoid the “irresponsible terrorist” label.

Actually many did learn that lesson. Another email message argued: “If we want to help those at the other end of the political spectrum see what we see, we should talk about things that are meaningful to THEM. Like national sovereignty. People who object to U.S. troops being commanded by NATO officers should also be opposed to submitting the U.S. economy to control by foreigners. I’d like to see a phalanx of conservatively dressed grown-ups parading with signs that say, ‘Hands off the U.S. economy!'”

But this outburst of WTO opposition was not centrally planned. People poured in from all over the world. The excitement may have attracted local rowdies who neither know nor care about the WTO. My conspiracy-minded friends suspect they were corporate plants. And every protest movement has its radical edge. Not even Gandhi was able to control the extremists in his cause.

Protestors on parade.

Photo by Sherry Bosse.

When the cameramen can choose between activists talking earnestly about corporate abuse of intellectual property rights or delinquents breaking windows on the street, what will appear on the nightly news? Part of the problem here was the sensationalizing media, falling into another well-worn, trivializing reporting groove. Cover an election like a sports event; talk about game strategy, not the issues before the nation. Cover a natural disaster like some sort of statistical soap opera; keep a body count and interview sobbing survivors. Cover a protest as in the ’60s; emphasize the bizarre behavior and ignore the serious participants.

The trade issue is an especially tough one for the major media to cover fairly, since they are themselves large corporations that have helped shape the WTO. They broadcast over and over the central myths of free trade. Free trade will make everyone better off. As people get rich, they can afford to clean up the environment. The larger a corporation gets, the more efficient it gets. What’s good for General Motors (Microsoft, Wal-Mart, Boeing) is good for the country.

None of these statements is clearly demonstrable, but all of them serve the interests of the privileged and powerful. People went to Seattle to protest abuses of the privileged and powerful. We can hardly expect the privileged and powerful to give us an even-handed report.

The reporters, however, are only the handmaidens of the real powers, the trade ministers and the corporations who flock around the WTO helping to write its rules. Maybe they are the real causes of the violence in Seattle.

Reclaiming the streets of Seattle — peacefully.

Photo by Sherry Bosse.

They are indeed, when it comes to authorship of the WTO mindset that made the protesters so angry: Trade Uber Alles, trade above environment, above fair working conditions, above full consumer information, above national sovereignty, above protection of health. The powers may have inadvertently created the outburst they are now confronting, not just by creating the injustices that propelled outraged people to Seattle, but also by expecting and warning of violence.

The head of the WTO had been worrying out loud about “terrorists.” The police were warned to prepare for the worst. The cops were nervous; this sort of thing doesn’t happen every day in Seattle. A few jeers, a shot of tear gas, a scuffle, and there are the sensational shots for the evening news. From the Winter Palace to Kent State, from the Bastille to the march on Selma, this is an old drama. It doesn’t take much to push the proletariat over the edge; then you can dismiss their cause as lawless and illegitimate.

The problem is, neither causing violence nor reacting righteously against it will get us, the whole world of us, where we need to go. A new layer of social structure is being invented here, a global government, appropriate for and needed by a world of rapid communication and transportation. So far this government has been created entirely by the powerful, for their own benefit. It can’t last that way. People won’t tolerate it. And it doesn’t have to be that way. We can conduct orderly and profitable trade in ways that do not oppress workers, communities, or the environment. We urgently need to do that.

We can find out how, if we stop focusing on the self-protective elites and the destructive hoodlums and start listening to the less colorful but far more numerous and constructive folks on both sides of the real, crucial argument.