Jean Grossholtz: Once Again Into The Fray…


(Jean attends her lebenty hundredth demonstration against the fenced-in decision making of wealthy northern governments acting out the dreams of corporate capital)

It is the first week in June 2007. The G8 meets in Heiligendamm, Germany a fancy spa on the Baltic Sea north of Rostock. The heads of state of the most developed, richest, countries of the world meet to decide the fate of us all.

And of course, those of us in opposition rally to confront them and to say: No you can’t, no you cannot hide away in 10 star resorts. No! We will be there; we will make sure the world knows of your scheming! (In my life “I” has become “We”. A lifetime of activism and commitment to people’s actions for justice has united me with thousands of wonderful comrades around the world. )

We call out our own Alternative Summit and we select three themes which we think are at the center of the world’s problems. We prepare to confront the Gang of 8 in our discussions and in non-violent direct action.

The three themes were migration, agriculture and militarism. The alternative summit took place before the heads of state met and included workshops, a daylong demonstration and a major march on each of these themes.

In addition an opening march and demonstration and a mass blockade was planned. We would surround the G8 site overriding their wall of police and fencing with a wall of our bodies denying their right to make decisions hidden from public view and from those in whose name they claim to act.

The basic philosophy of the events was a commitment to de-legitimizing the G8, that is, to refuse to assume that they could or had the right to do anything about anything. Not to ask them to adopt policies or commit to actions but rather to confront them with a clear people’s agenda. We knew from our earlier experience that their commitments and manifestos meant nothing. For example their earlier commitment to helping Africa and providing development aid had only materialized in minute numbers and some countries ignored it altogether.

The G8 opposition was committed to confrontation and to non-violent civil disobedience. In the Internet discussions and post demo evaluations there was much talk of the Myth of Seattle. Those of us who were there did not consider it a myth but rather an open recognition of the linking of variety of issues and a broadening of the understanding of the costs of the World Trade Organization and its so called Free Trade Policies. It was the first time the world had a look at the polyglot collection of those in opposition and it built long-term connections between many of us. It also allowed the countries of the South a more realistic view of the United States not as a monolithic untouchable empire but a government faced by popular resistance to its policies.

The policies we were opposing then are, in fact, the causes of the crisis in migration and agriculture. At that time it appeared we could reverse the corporate machine. But now the costs have been levied, much of the world turned over to private capital and the regulations so sorely won and put in place to save our health, our labor, our planet, overturned.

We talked across ideologies, genders, languages, ages. Unlike North Americas who seem forever stuck in a fear of class conflict, Europeans in the movement seemed to have accepted a theme of precariousness. The precariousness of people caught in the mess of this world economy. This stands in opposition to the U.S. movement’s emphasis on the poor downtrodden victims and our need to Help Them. Thus ignoring that all of us are victims of this system and all of us suffer. And therefore, of course, ignoring the need to change the structure of power, structures that hold in place the very means of creating “downtrodden victims”.

The opposition began on Saturday June 2 with a massive march and rally of between 25,000 (the police) and 80,000 (the demonstrators) One steam of the march emerged from an ecumenical celebration in a church organized by Jubilee South the group working to cancel the debts of countries of the global south. They had huge red balloons with that message on them that filled the church and delineated the procession. Another stream started at the campsites of the demonstrators.

A cheerful, peaceful march with many banners and colorful puppets, with clowns and musicians met and rallied at the Harbor where a stage had been set up and many bands were ready to play for the spirited throng. It was a scene of joy in our coming together, a celebration of our commitment.

But now a police helicopter hovered over the rally point blocking out the speakers and raising the anger of the crowd. Meanwhile the police concentrated on those they thought would cause trouble and they believed to be violent. Anyone covering his or her face or wearing black was open game. Over the next days people were accosted and searched, arrested for carrying pocketknives, or having a kerchief around their neck. In time the police presence and their actions broke out into a scuffle between police and demonstrators, which got reported in the press as “Over 400 Police Hurt “ In fact this was a lie and a much overblown report. The hospital reported a handful of police with bruises and several demonstrators seriously hurt.

The G8’s response to our actions, like the response to our actions against the World Trade Organization 4:34 PM or the World Bank, has been the escalation of the police presence. At Rostock this was overwhelming. Police and Swat teams had been shipped in from all over Germany. The Police had built an enormous fence miles away from the meeting site and costing some enormous amount of money. They had closed off the airport and throughout much of the ensuing days they closed down the local transport system. The reasons for this were never clear to those of us participating and watching the actions.

There were constant parades of police car, groups of police in full riot gear marching around watching and hovering over black clad demonstrators, searching people in black clothes. It was a bit ironic to know the German delegation was committed to getting G8 agreement on action to reduce carbon emissions while outside they were expanding their own carbon footprint.

When the summit started, demonstrators marched to the fence and again
actions at the fence were provoked and expanded by police presence. The end result another aborted confrontation-- demonstrators wishing to tell the G8 what they thought, police hired to keep them away.

The fight is clearly because in this world there are those who would take down the fence, say to the Heads of State it is not reasonable for you to squirrel yourselves away from the people who put you in power in the pretense you are acting in our name. The governments of the world do not wish to hear this, are frightened of mass protest.

Returning from protesting the G8 meeting in Germany and a Europe which has all but given up on the United States, to a country enmeshed in a silly procession of presidential candidates talking past one another and their questioners, a Vice President who says he has no public accountability and can keep any and all of his actions secret, and a President daily more isolated from Reality and from his own political constituency. What a mess!

True the Europeans are themselves confused by what is happening in their own politics. In a café in the south of France some young Frenchmen told me they hold Bush responsible for bringing Sarkozy to power.

No one is happy about his or her own government. Everyone I met was disaffected and most were confused as to what to do about it. Many anarchists were convinced they could bring off a rebellion in the streets that could force a change but others are not so sure either that there was popular support for such a move or that it would bring about anything more than a regime change of no long-term importance.

But most of those at Rostock trying to de-legitimize the G8 were sure of one thing capitalism is the problem. We cannot live a humane democratic egalitarian life under a regime dominated by a lopsided distribution of wealth and structured by a market system. Where one goes from there, and more important, how we get there, is a matter of great dispute.

The three issues of the Alternative Summit at Rostock detailed a horrendous view of the world we live in.

Discussions of “flight and migration” centered on the forces that pushed people out of their homes and families, the forces that drew them northward and what they found there. The evidence was presented by African groups and the information we brought to these meetings were a clear condemnation of neo-liberal economics and particularly the so called “Free Trade” agreements of the World Trade Organization. It was generally presumed that for the north the focus was labor, the commitments of capitalist to cheap labor at any cost to their communities. A labor force willing to work for low wages and disciplined by their illegal presence serves the needs of international commerce. But the dangerous migration of such a labor force meant they risked their lives. Once they arrived fear of discovery and deportation, the livelihood of their underpaid families and the meaning of labor itself were all on the table.

The migration issue here and abroad is tied directly to the increasing labor shortages caused by low birth rates and poor education systems. The racist fears being raised in the north obscures the reality on all sides of the question. Strategizing cross border labor organizing and a general commitment to human needs like health care and education is not only possible but would improve life for all of us, rich and poor, north and south.

Agriculture, the second big issue, is the rock upon which the WTO has collapsed. The unwillingness of the European Union and the United States to remove the tariffs, import duties and outright subsidies that protect their agricultural giants from competition has roused a bitter anger in the south who now stand firmly refusing to open their markets any further.

The shot heard round the world on this issue was I believe the discussion of Cotton at the WTO Ministerial meeting in Cancun in September 2003, when a handful of the poorest countries in Africa presented a proposal to reduce the North’s subsidies to their cotton farmers and were told by the US trade representative contemptuously, “diversity your production.” These countries had pointed out that they could not sell their cotton on the world market that the biggest source of their foreign exchange was denied them and that the foreign aid they received (with conditions), was less than their cotton would bring if the world market price represented the real cost of production. It is a sick reflection of our times to know that the World’s concern for Africa is a Bono concert. (In some circles a new verb ‘bonoed” has come to mean a misled and mystical initiative from the global north. )

The hundreds of thousands of people from the global south seeking entry into the northern industrial states is in large part the result of the destruction of small farmers and local food production. Meanwhile in the United States, those who argue that government should get out of business that regulations curb progress, that welfare and public health care are unearned and unwarranted entitlements, are the very people who support politicians who pontificate on the need to support American farms while watching the total destruction of small farms and local agriculture. The US agriculture bill now before Congress is more of the same. It provides huge subsidies most payments to large farms that can then sell their produce below the world market price and drive unsubsidized farmers here and abroad out of business. The monopolization of the American food business by 5 or 6 huge corporations like Cargill, ADM and ConAgra, has all but eliminated local food production and hold us all hostage to whatever these corporations find the most profitable

The third issue, war in Iraq of course is an everyday reality for the world. It is everywhere seen for what it is the failing U.S. empire’s last-ditch effort to control oil and the crossroads of the Middle East. Many in Europe are hard put to explain why despite all the evidence of the gross failure of this policy the Bush administration persists. But so are we Americans. And we live here.

Discussion in the streets and the forums and the press generally suggest that what we are seeing is the last imperialist gasp of a failed state. This should make the neo-liberals cringe but it apparently is lost on them.

But beneath all this rhetoric and the police vs. demonstrator confrontations, there is a growing sense that serious change is coming, that our years in the street were not wasted that we are coming to understand the linking of our issues and our futures, that political parties and the elections they organize and the leaders they choose, will not raise the real issues or illuminate new directions.

Another world is possible but it demands of us a major change in the way we do things.
Economic decision-making by responsible community centered bodies not corporations. A genuine, structured commitment to fairness and equal opportunity and a living wage, health care and education for all and a commitment to food security and the careful use of water for all.
I heard this talk in the streets and the cafes of Europe just as I heard it in Hong Kong and Cancun.

We are coming together. We understand what we have lost but we also are beginning to see what we have won. The generation gap on the Seattle demonstrations is amazing. The young refer to it as the Myth of Seattle. For me it was not a myth but a reality. The reality of a wide variety of interests coming together and sharing a common purpose understanding each other, holding out the hope of a common purpose. And at the same time giving the countries of the global South some reason to say NO to the powerful north, which was determining their future. The United States was no a monolith it could be swayed and defied and was as fractional as their own countries. There were soul mates across the divide not just do-gooders seeing the South as the indigent poor victims but people with common interests from which one could build a movement.

That it did not materialize then or still is a product of the power of the north to dictate the reality, to dictate what political action could mean: elections, candidates parties… not street demonstrations and masses of people coming together across their differences. Gradually the movement in the north has seen this, has begun to learn some lessons from the south as to how to get change, how to move strongly, powerfully and non-violently to a different alignment of power.

In the United States when we talk of political development movement people no longer see it as a tutoring of the folks in the south but as a questioning of our own political rites and beliefs. We have after all seen a disavowed president elected twice. We have been lied to and our Constitution and values destroyed. And clinging to a party system of selection we have seen the opposition party returned to power with no real change taking place.

We need a clear policy on a national government run single payer health care plan. And we need to vote only for those who will do battle with the insurance companies and fight them for our health care.

We need a foreign policy, which is based on creating broad agreements on nuclear weapons and the use of diplomacy and the abjuring of violence and a commitment to a peaceful world, and we need to vote only for those who agree to our proposal.

And the list goes on. We create community-based proposals, we push them forward, we tell our representatives what we will support, and we let our votes reflect that. We try to put an end to these meaningless TV extravaganzas.

At Rostock the key words were “de-legitimize” and “precariousness”. Do not give the G8 legitimacy. Do not ask them; do not expect of them anything. They have no rights. Just as the present government of the United States has lost its legitimacy and has no right to rule. Do not recognize their right to meet and talk, do not recognize or accept their closed doors and high fences.

The idea of precarity can help us move in a different direction. We are accustomed to talk of the disadvantaged, the less developed, etc. We talk of class but we do not say ‘class’. Precarious means the vulnerability of all of us to these forces that are loose in the world

Look to the precariousness of the community we live in, the causes we support. It is not just the poor and disadvantaged that are suffering… it is all of us. A citizenry that allows its government to hunt down, imprison, and deport migrant workers is not a safe place for anyone.
A government that can forcibly kidnap people and put them in a concentration camp without recourse to trial for years is not safe for anyone. A government that can spy on its own citizens and read their mail at will is not safe for anyone. A government that lies, that ignores the law when it suits them is not a safe place for any one. It is a very precarious place.

The Europeans I talked with said the same things about their electorates as I hear said about the U.S. electorate, they are ignorant and uninformed and do not understand they accept Merkl or Sarkozy or Putin or Blair because they don’t know any better.

But it is agreed that we are at a very dangerous place now. At same time as we are witnessing the defeat of the WTO, as it was conceived and pushed by the G8 countries, we are seeing the attempts to replace it with even more devastating control mechanisms of regional groups.

Economic Partnership Agreements worked out between countries of the European Union or the United States and Canada with a country in the global south makes that economically weak state hard put to stand up to the demands of the northern economy. Their economy has come to depend almost entirely on the wishes of the north.

The attempt to extend NAFTA to other south and Central American areas is another attempt to bring about the same events with less effort.

The fight has grown more desperate, more complicated. But I see evidence that we can move forward into what I hope and believe is a creation of left based, community created proposals for resolving the deep crises of our world.

Or maybe “Hope springs eternal….

Jean Grossholtz
Professor Emeritus,
Mount Holyoke College
South Hadley, MA