rabble news | August 27, 2007
The politics of corporate party crashing
As activists assess their next steps, many wonder : can we still work together, dig the SPP’s grave still deeper, and then push it in ? And where do we go from there ?
by Joel Davison Harden
The North American global justice movement just exposed the “Security and Prosperity Partnership” (SPP), the latest corporate assault on our democracy, environment and human rights.
Big business was forced to admit their elite-led project must emerge from lobbyist backrooms, and face debate in elected legislatures.
Meanwhile, other business voices (like former Liberal Deputy Leader John Manley, and the Canadian American Business Council) criticized the “lack of transparency” in the SPP process itself.
The Editorial Board of the Hill Times (a newspaper read by all federal MPs) ran a lead column demanding the SPP be brought before parliament.
This split was caused by our movement’s activism, and is a partial victory in itself.
We rejected their propaganda, and refused their protest zones. We crashed the corporate Bush party in Montebello, and put big business back on the defensive where it belongs.
Even worse for Stephen Harper, that inveterate control-freak, his arrogance may finally come back to bite him.
Did Harper’s apparent lack of concern for protests mask a more ominous, underhanded strategy ?
Did he (or someone in his office) authorize attempts to discredit protesters through agents provocateurs ?
A recent Supreme Court decision explained the Prime Minister’s Office is regularly briefed on security measures for meetings when other Heads of State are involved. What might a public inquiry into this week’s events dredge up ?
Between this, Harper’s embrace of oil barons, and his loyalty to the Bush-Cheney “War on Terror,” the conditions are ripe for activists to deliver a knockout blow this fall. The wind is back in the sails of North America’s global justice movement, and not a moment too soon.
The SPP : a sign of weakness
As activists took on the SPP, we learned an important lesson, one that hints at our power.
We learned big business and government officials felt compelled to conduct the SPP process in secret, away from the prying eyes of public scrutiny.
While progressive researchers (like Teresa Healy of the Canadian Labour Congress) toiled mightily to get SPP documents, government officials largely refused access to key speeches and files.
This secrecy is a sign of weakness. A brief review of recent history demonstrates this is true.
Anyone remember the 1988 federal election that focused on a Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the U.S.? A majority of Canadians voted for parties that opposed the deal. Given the circus mirror produced by Canada’s election rules, however, Brian Mulroney’s Tories implemented it anyway a year later.
What about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), introduced by Jean Chretien’s Liberals in 1993 ? When standing for election, Chretien claimed he opposed NAFTA. That, of course, didn’t stop him from implementing it once his government got elected.
After these two public debacles, “free trade” advocates felt put upon. They quickly shifted to negotiating new trade deals in secret.
This led to the next fiasco in 1997, otherwise known as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI).
After Maude Barlow got a leaked version of the text, she exposed the MAI for what it was : a charter of investment rights for multinational corporations, where governments could be sued for lost profits and “sheltered markets.” Mass teach-ins were held to expose the MAI and its serious implications.
Public health care, post-secondary education, and other public services were all described as “sheltered markets,” receiving “unfair subsidies” from government. The MAI proposed an international legal process to pry open these “markets” for corporate gain.
Not surprisingly, when people got wind of this, they pressured their governments to torpedo the MAI. France did so publicly in 1997, and that drove a nail into the MAI’s coffin.
The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) that came later would suffer a similar fate. After large protests in Quebec City (2001) and Miami (2003), South American governments took turns snubbing it. By 2005, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez pronounced the FTAA “dead,” and invited the world to debate strategies for “fair trade.”
As the FTAA imploded, North American big business set to work on the SPP. This time, through the mouthpiece of George W. Bush, they had a new spin : “security trumps trade.”
After the events of September 11, 2001, the SPP was pitched as a means to deliver “security” and “prosperity” for Mexico, Canada, and the U.S.
But as progressive researchers soon discovered, these warm, Orwellian words disguised backroom deals between top officials, where domestic regulations in Mexico, Canada and the U.S. would be shoe-horned to the lowest common denominator.
To quell any fears, SPP pundits insist the process is about “fine tuning” and “adjusting national regulations” given commitments made in “free trade” agreements.
Critical analysis shows the SPP is more like a corporate-led overhaul. The process itself, directed by 30 of the planet’s top CEOs, is currently reviewing over 300 areas of government regulations, tasking working groups to propose “harmonized rules” in (among other things) health care, labour standards, border security, military procurement policy, bulk water exports, and corporate licensing.
With this information at our fingertips, activists have exposed the SPP for what is truly is : a sign of weakness. After being burned before, big business and their government allies were skulking about in the dark, and we just turned the lights on.
But where do we go from here ?
With the SPP protests, the elite were reminded that secrecy strengthens the dissenter’s cause.
But as activists began mobilizing in May 2007, we faced our own key lesson. We learned that two broad tendencies needed to work together.
On the one hand, some wanted events to focus on the SPP summit in Montebello. Those of this view ranged between some encouraging “family friendly” demonstrations, and others keen on trying to shut the SPP proceedings down through “direct action.”
On the other hand were activists who wanted “family friendly” events in both Ottawa and Montebello. Those of this view felt it was important to plan large-scale events on the weekend that people safely attend. These efforts, it was argued, could usefully compliment other “direct action” events in Montebello, and continue the outreach needed to expose the SPP.
Initially, it appeared everyone would be happy, until a mass teach-in being organized by national groups (scheduled in Papineauville, down the road from Montebello) got canned by police. Teach-in organizers felt they couldn’t risk another police intervention, so they moved their event to Ottawa.
Once this happened, protesters intent on getting to Montebello were irked. Until then, events had been scheduled in both Ottawa and Montebello, but the presence of national groups in Montebello reassured some that emphasis would be put on the SPP summit itself.
When that plan changed, the aforementioned two tendencies spent weeks fighting each other.
Then, about four weeks before the SPP summit, a breakthrough happened. At the end of a painful three-hour meeting, local and national organizers agreed to plan a family friendly protest event in Montebello for Monday, August 20, the day after large-scale events in Ottawa.
Those inclined to “direct action” in Montebello agreed to respect the family friendly event. National groups felt more comfortable financing transportation costs for Montebello plans. This hardly ended disagreements, but it gave folks a common project to work towards.
Still, on the day activists were bound for Montebello, many wondered how events would turn out. Would “family friendly” activists publicly criticize “direct action” protesters ? Would “direct action” protesters respect “family friendly” zones ? Would agents provocateurs insert themselves to muck up the best laid plans ?
In the end, with good fortune and good intentions, things worked out rather well. The police were clearly under orders not to storm the crowd, despite the fact that we didn’t stay in designated protest zones.
The Council of Canadians joined with 1,500 “family friendly” protesters to present 10,000 anti-SPP petitions to the gates of the Montebello summit. After a tense fifteen minutes, some fell back 300 feet to a family friendly “green zone,” though many stayed to join “direct action” protesters who were cheered as they marched, music blaring, to the gates.
There is a lesson in these events, and it bears repeating as global justice activism moves forward.
Communication between “family friendly” and “direct action” protesters is crucial, and must be built into future organizing in the appropriate way. As we organize separately, we must continue to find ways to support each other.
We need creative “direct action” to confront the warmongers, climate change deniers, and corporate profiteers imperiling our planet. Such confrontation, in my opinion, is most effective when assault or property damage isn’t part of the plan.
We also need large, inclusive, “family friendly” events to build the largest movement possible. These events, in my opinion, are most effective when organized beyond the self-defined “Left,” and when principled, plain language is used to shift public opinion.
Both strategies came together in Ottawa and Montebello. Both are required for success in the politics of corporate party crashing. Both can mobilize bottom-up dissent to the SPP, and give voice to the thousand alternatives coursing through our movement.
Believe it : a better world is still possible. Let’s get on with the task of getting there.
Joel Davison Harden is a peace activist and a former leader of the Canadian Federation of Students (Ontario, 1998-2000). He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science (York University), and looks forward to keeping big business on the run.