It would appear that political protest is becoming a major part of international trade negotiations. In less than two years, thousands of protesters have been mobilized for trade talks in Quebec City, Seattle and Washington D.C. While much attention has been focused on the relatively small number of protesters who would be considered to be extreme in their views, Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Suzanne Elston says that the majority of the activists are ordinary people doing extraordinary things:
It would appear that political protest is becoming a major part of international trade negotiations. In less than two years, thousands of protesters have been mobilized for trade talks in Quebec City, Seattle and Washington D.C. While much attention has been focused on the relatively small number of protesters who would be considered to be extreme in their views, Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Suzanne Elston says that the majority of the activists are ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
A couple of years ago I was shocked to discover that I had a file with the Canadian Intelligence agency. At first I thought it was funny. I mean I’m such a threat to national security. I think I’ve had one speeding ticket in 20 years, I’ve never been arrested and the most radical thing I thought I’d ever done was get a second hole pierced in one ear.
Apparently, my government thought differently. I’d been working with a local group trying to make public safety an issue at a nearby nuclear power plant. Our group consisted of a retired nurse, a couple of housewives, an autoworker, a schoolteacher and a biologist. Hardly the makings of a subversive group of terrorists, but we were being watched, nonetheless.
The problem wasn’t what we were doing; it was what we were asking the government to do. Our nuclear industry was still shrouded in the secrecy that had given birth to the nuclear weapons program a half a century earlier. We were dangerous because we wanted to change that.
We wanted them to create a transparent process around nuclear health and safety issues. Among other things, we wanted them to let the public know when there was a spill at the plant or when workers weren’t doing their jobs properly.
What’s ironic about all this is today the very ideas that had us labeled as radicals worth watching are now a regular part of public policy. We didn’t change our ideas, everybody else just caught up.
And now a whole new generation of activists is being watched because they want an open and honest process around free-trade issues. Like us, the majority of them are law- abiding, tax-paying citizens who simply want their voices heard. They want to make sure in the move toward globalization things like environmental protection and human rights aren’t ignored. They’re protesting out of frustration because they’re being shut out of the process.
Look at the people that I know who went to Quebec City. One colleague is a university professor and yet another is a respected author who works on cancer prevention. But perhaps the best example is my friend Denise. She’s the mother of four boys and has been teaching at a religious high school for 20 years. In her spare time she sings in her church choir and leads a youth group. Denise was tear-gassed as she sat in a prayer circle with a bunch of other women for no apparent reason. Talk to anyone who was in Seattle or Quebec or Washington and you’ll hear similar stories.
These are not radical terrorists who are threatening to dismantle society as we know it, but that’s exactly how they’re treated whenever they gather to try and influence the process – and with good reason. They pose a much more serious threat to the status quo than any bomb wielding terrorist. And that’s because they are right and righteousness is a terrifying thing.
Social activists are frequently persecuted by the very system that they seek to improve. Look at the civil rights movement. People were harassed, beaten, jailed and even killed. Why? Because they upheld an ideal of social justice that transcended the status quo.
This same process has happened over and over again throughout history. The anti-war protests during the 60s, Tianammen Square a decade ago. Every time people had a vision that frightened the powers of the day.
And so now this latest generation of social revolutionaries is trying to slow the push toward globalization. They’re concerned that the environment, local cultures and developing nations will suffer. But rather than being applauded for their courage and vision, they are being stalked by government agencies like common criminals. Sound familiar?
The good news is that in time, like so many times before, their ideas will gain momentum until they reach a critical mass. Eventually the powers that be will get it, and the system will change, and we will wonder (or even forget) what all the fuss was about.