Just before noon last Saturday, the No War Drum Corps marched up NE 12th Avenue. They rounded a corner and strode into Holladay Park to the applause of a growing swarm of citizens. All were focusing their energy toward the World Trade Organization's fifth ministerial meeting in Cancun, Mexico.
"We want to bring some rhythms to boost the energy," said drum corps member Will Seaman. "We're about the music, but we're more about the politics."
As soon as the corps put down their drum sticks, politics took center stage. Several hundred protesters, from union workers to anarchists, crowded into the park and railed against weakening trade barriers. The Portland protest joined marches in 80 other cities worldwide--including some 10,000 protesters who gathered outside the Cancun talks. (In the most dramatic affront to WTO policies, last Friday a 56-year-old Korean farmer, Kyung Hae Lee, committed suicide outside the meetings in Cancun. Protesting the WTO's stifling of small farmers, he stabbed himself.)
But compared to the protests against the WTO four years ago in Seattle and other labor-oriented marches--like May Day--the gathering in Portland was calm, almost polite.
Possibly because of the distance from the protest's global epicenter in Cancun, Saturday's sedate demonstration also revealed a changing base of protesters, indicating that these issues--the lack of regulation of multinational corporations--could be moving more toward the mainstream.
"The impacts of this free-trade agenda are just compounding," said Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt. "More and more workers are paying attention," he added. Nesbitt noted the state has lost some 35,000 manufacturing jobs in the last five years, including outsourcing across national borders by Freightliner and Pendleton Woolen Mills.
Meanwhile, members of Oregon's Hispanic community spoke of their personal experience with the WTO's free trade policies. Raul Velaquez, a social worker who immigrated to Oregon from El Salvador 24 years ago, said he has seen the destruction left behind by large multinational corporations who set up maquiladora factories in El Salvador, where they pay workers $5 a day and then, eventually, uproot and move to China.
On Sunday, the WTO conference in Cancun collapsed--not from protests but from internal strife. Delegates from Africa and Asia walked out, blaming developed nations for being unwilling to compromise on agricultural issues. The walk-out brought the conference to a screeching halt and almost assures that the WTO won't be able to dismantle global trade barriers by 2005, their self-imposed deadline.