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Shadow Summit

As tear-gas canisters flew in Quebec City, about 1,000 activists rallied at the U.S.-Mexican border to protest the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Despite a heavy police presence and one brief confrontation between a faction of the protesters and California Highway Patrol officers in riot gear, the border protests Saturday inspired none of the chaos that the Quebecois capital witnessed all weekend.

The demonstration was one of many local actions -- in several U.S. cities, and as far afield as Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo -- staged last week in solidarity with the tens of thousands who took to the streets in Canada. All were joined by their opposition to the trade negotiations, which would severely weaken national labor and environmental laws, and their eagerness to testify that, as one protest sign put it, “Our resistance is as transnational as capital.”

By 1 p.m., more than 1,000 people, most of them students and youth activists, had gathered at Larsen Park in San Ysidro, within sight of the rusting metal border fence. An immigrant worker from Hollander Home Fashions, a Vernon bedding factory that’s been on strike since March, yelled over the drone of a circling police helicopter, leading the crowd in a chant of “Si, se puede!” Speaker Tom Morello, guitarist for the activist rock band Rage Against the Machine, summed up the reasons to oppose the FTAA, which would extend the free-trade zone created by NAFTA to the tip of Tierra del Fuego. “NAFTA was a failure,” Morello said. “More people live in poverty today -- thanks to NAFTA. More people are landless and homeless -- thanks to NAFTA. More people have died trying to cross the border into the U.S. -- thanks to NAFTA. More people are working in sweatshops, are uninsured and are unemployed -- thanks to NAFTA. So when our government says, ‘Let’s expand NAFTA to more nations and more people,‘ we say, as the Zapatistas say, ’Ya basta!‘ -- enough already.”

Medea Benjamin, former Green Party candidate for the U.S. Senate, asked the crowd, “How many of you would like to live in a world where human beings have as much right to cross borders as Microsoft computer chips?” and, pointing to the border a few hundred yards behind her, promised, “One day we will tear down this fence right here.”

At about 3:30 the group began marching to the border, many wearing blue stickers bearing the names of immigrants who died while attempting to enter the United States, victims of the INS’s Operation Gatekeeper, which encourages risky crossings through the desert by fortifying the border in populated areas. Escorted by police on motorcycles and horses, demonstrators marched past an outlet mall, chanting “Burn down Nike” and “Hey hey, ho ho, Nike sweatshops got to go!” Another 10 police officers in riot gear jogged out of the mall parking lot to insulate the Nike Factory Store from the passing crowd.

Just next to the plaza fronting the pedestrian border crossing, more riot police guarded the entrances of the World Duty Free department store (its motto: “A Whole New World of Shopping”). About half the marchers crossed the border to reach the second half of the demonstration, which took place at Playas de Tijuana, in the shadow of the bullfighting ring on the Mexican side of the fence. Most were stopped and searched by Mexican authorities, who confiscated protest signs and literature. A sizable crowd remained behind, and about 50 black-masked protesters paused to taunt the dozens of CHP officers lining the chainlink fence that separated the freeway from the plaza. Police readied their tear-gas guns as a few rocks and hundreds of yellow wildflowers were tossed over at the police line.

Tensions subsided when, at about 4:30, the remaining protesters retreated from the fence and marched back toward the park, leaving behind an unequivocal reply to George W. Bush‘s stated anxiety that excessive attention to labor and environmental concerns might “destroy the spirit of free trade.” Written in chalk on the cement of the border plaza were the words “la chingada con libre comercio,” which translates loosely as “fuck free trade.” Within 10 minutes the usual business of the border had resumed. A steady stream of Mexican laborers filed back home, joined by the occasional American tourists in T-shirts and sandals, all pausing only briefly to contemplate the messages scrawled on the ground beneath them.