Talk by WTO Director Disrupted: Activists and Audience Members Forcibly Dragged Out
On Wednesday, November 1, the JFK Forum at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government hosted Pascal Lamy, Director General of the World Trade Organization. The subject of the lecture was posed as a question: "Is the WTO Accountable?"
Shortly after the address began, three Boston activists took turns standing up and loudly disrupting the event. Each wore a bright red headband inscribed with the words, “NO WTO.” They read, in part, statements charging the WTO with putting profits before people and destroying the lives, ecosystems, and communities of people around the world. All three were quickly and forcibly dragged from the building, while still delivering their indictments, by Harvard security and Cambridge police.
Jonathan McIntosh grabbed by police
The activists’ message included a list of demands, compiled from numerous organizations leading the struggle in the Global South, such as the Third World Network and Focus on the Global South. The demands include no more top down and non-transparent negotiations; that agriculture and food be taken out of the WTO; a total end to the patenting of essential life saving medications, especially HIV/AIDS drugs; and no corporate control over natural resources and environment.
The second protester to stand up shouted from the second floor balcony, "We call for an alternative to the WTO and the current trading system, one which is based on human needs rather than corporate profits…" His voice trailed off as officers carried him from the premises while Kennedy School Dean, David Elwood, suggested that he "enjoy the nice, cooler weather outside."
When asked about the reasons for the disruption, Mike Borucke, one of those involved, responded, "The time for polite talk has long since passed. We don't want to hear any more excuses from the WTO and its powerful backers while people's lives are devastated from Indonesia to Colombia. I mean, the people of the world have been making their opposition loud and clear for years and years. Today, we are just reiterating their rejection of the WTO in person, to it's director."
In his address, Mr. Lamy declared, "The WTO is a classical international organization, where the governments are members and only governments are members. Many argue that the WTO has a problem of accountability. Now accountability among our members is high." He went on to acknowledge though that, "Vis-a-vis non-state actors however, the situation is more problematic. Indeed we have no mandate from our members to enlarge the WTO family beyond government representation."
Jonathan McIntosh, another of the three dissenters, responded, "The WTO's position is that anyone other than the various unelected government trade representatives are classified as "non-state actors" and therefore have officially no voice inside the WTO. So that's basically everyone in the world right? I mean really, minus a few hundred powerful officials pushing corporate and state interests. Now if that's not undemocratic, I don't know what is."
In reaction to the talk Jason Lydon, the other protest participant explained, "The topic of Lamy's presentation, 'Is the WTO Accountable?' is absurd. To have the figurehead of a powerful institution discuss accountability without the voices of those directly affected is impossible. There is no structure or mechanism at all for farmers in the global south to have a voice in shaping the trade policies that will affect the survival of their community. But this has to be in place before we can talk about any form of accountability."
Though some may try to frame their action as interfering with free speech, the activists assert otherwise. "We have no problem with free speech," said Jonathan, “what we take issue with is these policies being granted a large platform and 'megaphone.' The billions of people around the world directly affected by the atrocious policies of the WTO are not afforded any such platform for their opposition." He continued, "I'd say that for every event, like this one, held at elite western universities, Lamy should hold an open forum in a thousand fishing villages and farming communities around Asia, Africa and Latin America. Tonight's event with its brief questions and answer sessions for mainly privileged students who are in no way directly impacted by WTO policy, has nothing to do with accountability and everything to do with shoring up support for the institution among future global elite, while continuing to ignore the opposition from the majority of the planet."
One audience member, Kaveri, who asked a pointed question during the Q&A, expressed her feelings on Lamy's speech: "He talked about how there were values and accountability, but there was no substance in what he said at all. I think the WTO has learned be attentive to discourse which developing countries are bringing to the table, but I don't think from his speech that they have learned anything about the values or ideas behind the concept. For example, he said he was cognizant about the imbalance of power and agriculture trade and so on. His primary accountability was to WTO states and his primary value was that the free market was "good."
She added, "Veiled behind all the language, he made it very clear that while he was cognizant of the imbalance, that it wasn't something he could change because the trade rules are what maintained the status quo."
Meanwhile, outside the building, about two-dozen protesters, including Harvard students, held a lively "good-bye party" for the WTO. They chatted and carried banners, one reading "Globalize Resistance" in large black letters.
Ever since its inception, resistance to the World Trade Organization has been vibrant and worldwide. The negotiations at the most recent ministerial meetings in Hong Kong collapsed, due in part to the tens of thousands of protesters from impacted communities across the Global South.
Back inside the forum three additional audience members were also forcibly dragged out of the building. They maintain that they were not creating a disturbance before being accosted, and were not part of the planned interruptions.
Two of them were Susana Stringer Velez, a Boston public school teacher, and her husband Alex Papali, a staff member at the Dorchester juvenile detention center. In a phone interview with BIMC, she recalls arriving to the forum late, finding her husband in the audience and whispering with him about whether they would stay for the Q&A or go directly to the movies as they had planned. "We were being very quiet and had no intention of disrupting anything."
Shortly after they saw the protestors being removed, the two and a friend with them were approached by several uniformed officers and ordered to leave the forum immediately. When her husband questioned this order saying he hadn't done anything, "They grabbed him and started pushing him away. There were probably five or six of them. I tried to hold onto his arm and they grabbed me too. Those police slammed my husband into the wall on the way down the stairs." She continued, "I was just in such shock that all I could think of to say during the incident was 'This is ridiculous, why are you doing this to us?!'"
"I don't know why they forced us out- maybe they were feeling frustrated because they failed to stop the people from disrupting earlier on. Regardless, no one should have the right to touch you, much less roughly pull you out of a public forum- without any justification."
Her husband recalls being dragged out without explanation, intentionally slammed into a wall as soon as he was out of view of the audience, then kicked down three or four steps as he was pushed outside. “In a way the Harvard Police's violent and unprofessional behavior only serves to mirror and reaffirm the WTO's own lack transparency. And this is mild compared to the repressive tactics used in poorer places and at their ministerial meetings,” said Papali.
She plans on filing a formal complaint with Harvard Police, the University and the Cambridge Police Department objecting to both her removal and the use of "unnecessary force" in the process.
When asked about why she thought they were singled out of the audience, she responded "Looking back on it, I think the choice to remove us exposes their attitude. I mean, they are profiling people. If you don't look like Harvard material, then you are suspicious. It seemed like part of a pre-emptive strike."
Several other people interviewed by BIMC expressed the opinion that the expulsions and harassment after the initial 3 planned disruptions, were part of a concerted effort by Harvard officials to shield Mr. Lamy from further public criticism and embarrassment.
An official video of the event is up on the Kennedy School web site. While activists cannot be seen in the video, they can be heard. The planned interruptions take place at approximately minute 12, minute 16 and minute 18.
The video link is:
Focus on the Global South - www.focusweb.org
Third World Network - www.twnside.org.sg