By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
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By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It‘s an early Saturday morning in the gritty Mission District of San Francisco, but as 27-year-old Juliette Beck blows into her office, the fact that it’s a weekend is irrelevant. She has no time for relaxation. Over the previous week, she organized a demonstration against Al Gore and Bill Bradley at the Democratic State Convention in San Jose, addressed an international convention of 500 trade unionists in San Francisco, conducted a speakers‘-workshop training session, organized a symposium on the global economy, sat in on several marathon coast-to-coast conference calls, worked on a political video, helped write a guerrilla-theater script and organized five ”citizen lobbying“ meetings with Bay Area Congress members. She has come to work today to find more than 400 e-mail messages stacked up in her desktop computer. And, oh yes, she’s scheduled herself to spend both weekend days in intensive workshops organized by a group colorfully called Art and Revolution.
But there‘s no resentment. ”Activism is not a job. It’s a way of life,“ says the tall, thin, fair-skinned UC Berkeley grad. ”It‘s a 24-hour-a-day commitment to promoting social change. That’s simply what I do.“
And Beck isn‘t some sort of freak case. She’s a full-timer on the staff of Global Exchange, a nonprofit that from this second-story hardwood-floored and fern-adorned ramble of cubicles acts as a sort of hothouse incubator, churning out a whole new bumper crop of young radical political activists.
Their politics are not always clearly defined, lacking the stark ideological outlines of the ‘60s generation. But there’s a common sense of urgency these young activists share, a belief that the economic and social imbalances of the world are volatile, intolerable and immoral. Some are motivated by little more than guilt about being white, privileged and American. But others, like Beck, demonstrate a profound and sophisticated commitment born of serious study and analysis.
From a conservative doctor‘s family in San Diego, Beck arrived at Berkeley interested in organizing little more than school dances. But after classes in environmental science, and then a few more in international finance and development, Beck emerged with a zeal to change the world.
Just how much Beck and her fellow activists are changing it is a notion up for grabs. But one thing is for sure: They got the attention of the entire world for five days last December when they came together with 50,000 like-minded souls -- from Teamsters to Turtles -- and rocked the city of Seattle. Protesting the once-obscure World Trade Organization (WTO) and what they see as its policies of corporate globalization, the protesters occupied that city’s downtown streets, marched, hollered, sat-in, conducted ”direct action,“ and withstood torrents of tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets in what has now become the near-legendary Battle in Seattle.
Casual observers might write off Seattle as one of those unavoidable but inconsequential social hiccups that periodically interrupt the placid status quo. But they do so at their own peril. Because, among American activists, Seattle has become a watershed, much as Chicago ‘68 was for the previous generation of politicos. Seattle can be seen as a sort of big bang of activism, spinning off hundreds of individual activists who returned home energized, cranked-up and ready to rumble some more. ”In Seattle we opened up a big can of kick-ass, and no one’s gonna be able to put the lid back on so easy,“ says populist radio host and author Jim Hightower, the former Texas agriculture commissioner. ”Seattle is only the beginning.“
Indeed. Now comes Act 2, planned protests during the week of April 9-16 in Washington, D.C., where two more global agencies, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, will be holding summit meetings. And then, if everything stays on track, the Spirit of Seattle will be coming this summer to Los Angeles. ”Mark my words,“ says Beck. ”We will have thousands of people in the streets in Los Angeles this summer, to protest the Democratic Party‘s position on trade.“
But first, the plans for Washington. Some are calling it ”Seattle East,“ others just ”A16.“ But whatever the protests are called, it appears that thousands more angry Americans will converge on the capital and, as Beck says, ”bring the business of the IMF and World Bank to a halt.“ This so-called Mobilization for Global Justice, much like Seattle, will feature a full menu of nonviolent events and demonstrations, ranging from teach-ins, to marches, to parades, to street theater, concerts, rallies and coordinated direct action aimed at gumming up the works of the targeted international agencies. And in the midst of this coming mobilization hangs the destiny of what is now the single most important political initiative of the waning Clinton administration -- permanent normal trade status for China, and its entry into the WTO.
If A16 rattles Washington as its organizers intend, and if the high tide of dissent laps at the gates of the Democratic Convention this summer, the punditocracy -- in much the way it did after Seattle -- is going to be scratching its head, asking how all this unpleasantness could erupt smack-dab in the middle of the longest economic expansion on record, and just when everybody thought college kids were more interested in IPOs than in WTOs.