It was a quiet riot...

Published on Thu, Apr 26, 2001 by Meg Olson and Soren Velice

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It was a quiet riot...

By Meg Olson and Soren Velice

Vancouver musician Wikham Porteous wrote a new song for the rally at the Peace Arch last weekend. “The shoes that you’re wearing are made of lost wages and broken dreams,” he sang in the chorus. Many of the 2,000 plus opponents of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) gathered at the park looked guiltily at their footwear.

More than 100 state troopers brought in to protect Blaine from potential riots stood in the sun all day waiting for violence that never came. In all, several hundred law enforcement officers from 10 police departments from as far away as Grant County joined park rangers, federal protection service, customs, immigration and FBI agents waiting for the riot that didn’t.

Most who attended the April 21 rally chose to oppose free trade with song, theater, slogans and speeches, or by merely adding their numbers to protestors in Quebec City and across the continents. “The crowd’s going to grow and grow and hopefully someone will hear it,” Porteous said as he left the stage.

Labor groups, environmental activists, student associations, religious leaders and social reformers joined voices in denouncing free-trade agreements as a tool for multi-national corporations to maximize their profits at the expense of workers, the environment, social programs and national sovereignty. “In order to respond to this threat which is global and transnational, we must mount a response that is global and

transnational,” said Baptist minister Robert Jeffries. “No cause, no person can stand alone. We need each other.”

“What we’re talking about here is humanity - the people who make the world work,” said Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour. Sinclair echoed the sentiments of hundreds of union members present when he condemned the North American Free Trade Agreement for costing U.S. and Canadian workers jobs as manufacturing moved south for lower wages and weaker regulations.

“The basic thrust is, when you have a big corporation move its factory to Mexico for lower wages and environmental standards, they make the product cheaper and ship it back here and sell it for the same price,” said Teamster Jerry Halberg. “Is that fair?”

Sally Soriano of the Green Party of Washington said international free trade agreements had a chilling effect on national sovereignty. “What they all have in common is the capacity to overturn laws made by elected officials,” she said. “I don’t want another layer [of government] and have no access to overturning laws by officials I worked to put into office.”

“These agreements have written into them the ability for corporations to take governments to court if the government’s being “unfair” – it puts them above the law.” said Communist Party of Vancouver member George Gidora. “They can take the government to court but the government can’t take them to court for environmental degradation.”

Anita Zaenker of the Canadian Federation of Students worried a global free market would lead to the gradual privatization of social services and education. “The FTAA challenges one of the most important areas of our democracy – our public education,” she said.

The only speaker at the rally to draw anything but cheers was Joy MacPhail, deputy premier of British Columbia, who drew jeers for what some perceived as an attempt to hook a flagging campaign to a hot issue. “You might want to remember whose side you’re on and who’s on yours,” MacPhail said. “You have a government working to protect you from the FTAA.”

Many demonstrators left MacPhail on the podium, anxious to get underway with the march through the Peace Arch which, for most, was the culmination of the day of protest.

The diversity of the crowd was illustrated by the standards carried by different groups – from a papier-mache tentacled representation of Greed to the conservative flags and banners of labor unions.

Chanting “this is what democracy looks like,” and “fair trade, not free trade,” the throng of people almost encircled the Peace Arch, filling the north and southbound lanes of Interstate-5. In the interest of public safety Canadian authorities chose to close the highway prior to the march and U.S. authorities followed suit.

Winding north through the Douglas crossing, marchers split up, some returning to the speakers up the hill while others marched through the U.S. Peace Arch border facility, where they were prevented from moving into Blaine by a line of Washington State Patrol members. As about 20 reporters and photographers waited for batons and rubber bullets, the number of protestors dwindled to four, and then none, leaving media and law enforcement to shrug and shuffle off.

The only law enforcement to see any action was the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), who arrested eight protestors who lingered in the northbound lanes until close to 6 p.m. discussing whether or not to punctuate the rally by getting arrested in the name of protesting free trade.

“We’ve got to show corporate powers people are willing to go as far as this to stop what they’re trying to do,” Rick McCallion said just before being carried off the road by RCMP officers. Eventually the other seven people in the road were also arrested and loaded on a bus by RCMP, which cleared the area by marching in a column along the road. The crowd dispersed and the highway reopened.

“We hoped for the best and prayed the worst wouldn’t happen,” Blaine police chief Bill Elfo said as he received congratulations from city council on April 23 for his role coordinating the law enforcement buildup for the event.

While the cost of the law enforcement response is still being tallied, Elfo acknowledged it was significant. Participating agencies covered their own labor costs and the county department of emergency management is picking up the tab for housing and feeding officers. Local businesses such as the Inn at Semiahmoo and Figaro’s Pizza provided discounted services to help defray costs.

“Absolutely not,” Elfo said when asked if he thought the law enforcement response was overkill given the largely peaceful demonstration. “I don’t think we could have been too prepared. We had to keep it from spilling into the community.” Elfo added several older Blaine residents had expressed fears the event could be a repeat of an anti-war demonstration in the 1970s that left broken glass on Blaine streets.

Elfo said valuable lessons were learned. “This was the largest law enforcement mobilization in the history of Whatcom County,” he said. “If nothing else it was a great training exercise for a civil disturbance or a natural disaster.”

Others took away a different lesson. “You know, a lot of this makes a lot of sense,” said a customs agent discretely sporting a “no-FTAA” button and watching protestors stream through the border.

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