Taking offense at defense put up by WTO protesters

THE anti-traders are at it again this week in Washington, D.C., blocking people from entering buildings. Last November, it was blocking delegates to the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. Now it's the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

I was one of the persons blocked in Seattle. I wasn't a delegate, but that didn't matter. I faced a line of people linking arms, I broke through it twice, and I was stopped by a big guy who planted himself in front of me and declared, "You can't go this way."

Seeing my angry face, a woman said, "We have a right to do this."

A couple of weeks ago, I thought I might find out what that right was. I was a panelist at "Free Speech and the WTO," a forum at the University of Washington. About 60 people showed up to hear from a panel of six - four opponents of the WTO, the chief of the UW police and me. The audience was solidly on the side of the protesters. I asked them, "How do you justify blocking me?"

The general answer was that their mission was important and mine wasn't. One woman admonished me for thinking the "story" was in the convention center, when it was really in the streets. If I'd have followed the correct story, I wouldn't have been blocked.

One man said he had a right to block WTO delegates out of self-defense. He said, "We were defending our country from an outside entity that erases our laws."

The WTO cannot erase any law. Its arbitrators can rule that a law violates the WTO treaty. In the past year, arbitrators have ruled that two of our laws, a 1984 tax break for foreign sales corporations and a 1916 anti-dumping law, violate the treaty. But the most the WTO can actually do is authorize the complaining country to slap punitive taxes on goods from the offending country. Under the WTO treaty - legally an "agreement" passed by a majority of both houses of Congress - we're supposed to change our law. But the WTO can't make us do it.

Those who don't like the WTO treaty can speak and publish against it. But the Direct Action Network's plan last fall was to "shut down the WTO." That's an attack, not a defense.

Another man said his right to block me was his fight against the ravages of capitalism. Did I know about Occidental Petroleum's effort to drill for oil in Colombia? He had blocked the street in Seattle, he said, to defend the land rights of the U'wa tribe.

Ah. Defending, again.

"Hey," I said. "I'm not Occidental Petroleum." Nor were any of the WTO delegates representing Occidental Petroleum. Nor did the agenda of the meeting in Seattle have anything to do with land rights in Colombia, which is not an issue of trade.

That didn't matter. If this man's intention was to defend the U'wa, then it was OK to block me.

One woman said, "We don't care if you feel bad about us blocking access to this meeting."

I wasn't offering up my feelings. I was asking her to respect my rights.

Some seemed to think that their right to block me arose out of the will of the people. They were the people, and it was their will. The streets of Seattle on Nov. 30 were "what democracy looks like," they said.

But Seattle had elected Paul Schell, not the Direct Action Network. Paul Schell is what democracy looks like around here. It was the police, with their rubber bullets and pepper gas, who were agents of a government elected by the people. The Direct Action Network was a private organization responsible only to itself.

When I said that, a woman called out, "Don't they have a right to protest?" Sure; they have a right to assemble and speak. Had they done it while being respectful of others, as the 30,000 supporters of the AFL-CIO did, the mayor would not have suspended the right of assembly in downtown Seattle.

But the protesters' goal was to prevent the delegates, who were guests of the United States, from attending their assembly. That's what it meant to "shut down the WTO."

My audience was all for shutting down the WTO. They thought it was great, and itched to do it again. But they were split on breaking windows. That was going too far, some said. Others said window smashing was defense, too.

An anarchist denounced the characterization of window smashing as "violence." The correct term was property destruction. He said, "Property destruction is not violent, but property ownership is violent."

There you have it: It's violent for you to own it, but not violent for him to wreck it. It's defense for him to block your way, and an attack when the police remove him.

One person in the audience said she thought my rights had been denied by being obstructed. But she added, "We had to do what we did." Why? Because it worked. "That's the way to get attention," said a man at the back of the hall.

Davis Oldham, the organizer of the forum, took the microphone and asked, "How is that different from saying, `Might makes right'?"

Good question, for an academic audience. But in a world in which attack is defense and property is theft, who's to say what's right? You do what works. Afterwards, you can play games with words.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com.