WTO protest reveals the power of peaceful resistance

WTO protest reveals the power of peaceful resistance

October 31, 2003
Written by Staff Reports
David Holden

Left out of the dialogue with the powers-that-be, thousands of persons representing civil society traveled through several time zones and slept in tents and makeshift accommodations to be part of the World Trade Organization's (WTO) fifth ministerial meeting in Cancun, Mexico, in mid-September.

Trade unionists, along with a variety of student, religious and environmental activists, gathered to share, dialogue and collaborate on a variety of global economic concerns - everything from intellectual property rights to nanotechnology.

To be sure, our accommodations were much less luxurious than those in the hotel zone, where WTO ministers and their entourages enjoyed private beaches, expensive restaurants and trendy stores.

The physical separation was symbolic of the global divide that separates the vast power and wealth of decision makers - and those who influence wealthy corporations - from the rest of society. What made the separation even more stark was the barricade of chain-link fence built during our protests to prevent any access to the WTO proceedings.

On the first of two marches, a 56-year-old South Korean rice farmer, Lee Kyung Hae, who had earlier carried a sign that read "WTO Kills Farmers," committed ritual suicide at the barricade. It was a defiant, desperate act of radical protest. His death became a galvanizing force for this community of protesters.

I feared the protest would turn violent, and I knew many were ready for an angry confrontation with police. But as we reached the barricade, organizers were prepared. Using rope that had been braided together to form strong cables attached to the barricade, protesters pulled together, for about an hour, until slowly those Jericho-like walls came tumbling down.

Some were ready to confront the police waiting on the other side. But then came the moment. The South Korean contingent asked for a moment to pay tribute to their fallen friend. They humbly begged for respectful and mindful silence. Their call was passed backward into the throng. Unlike anything I had ever experienced before in similar protests, 5,000 persons sat.


After a moment, organizers urged the silent throng to protest non-violently. It was an emotional turning.

People returned to chanting in English, Spanish and a variety of other languages. But the violent spark was extinguished and the protest ended peacefully.

Almost as a benediction from God, the WTO ministerial ended hopelessly deadlocked, the outcome hoped for by most of civil society represented there. The respite will provide an opportunity to turn the tide toward more accountable, transparent, and democratic global trade policies -- policies that will benefit all, and not just an elite few. This will only happen if persons who seek a more just and sustainable world seize this moment to work together.

The Rev. Wallace Ryan Kuroiwa is minister and team leader for the UCC's Economic Justice Ministry Team of Justice and Witness Ministries.

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