The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

Lessons from Seattle
By Ward Morehouse

Commentary May/June 2000

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Early in the afternoon of Monday, November 29, 1999, I was jailed for exercising my right of conscience, the heart of the fifth UU principle. That day, I crossed a police line in front of the Washington State Trade and Convention Center in Seattle, where the World Trade Organization was meeting. Apprehended by the Seattle police, I was handcuffed, driven off to the King County Jail, fingerprinted innumerable times, interviewed by a public health nurse who took my blood pressure (jailers prefer that their charges not expire, unless it's at the hands of the justice system), and then led to a holding cell until I could post bail the following morning.

Why would a citizen who professes to believe in the rule of law commit an act of civil disobedience? This is a complicated question. The answer lies in what I'd been doing the two days preceding my arrest, perhaps best described by the text of the citizen arrest warrant we were trying to serve on the trade ministers of the major industrialized countries when we were arrested. The warrant called the ministers of the Group of Seven leading industrialized countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom, and the United States) accomplices after the fact in the commission of crimes against humanity by some of the world's leading corporations, such crimes having been defined under international and Canadian law as "murder, extermination, deportation, persecution or any other inhumane act or omission."

The evidence submitted to the Tribunal by people whose human rights had been violated by these five corporations—Cargill, The Gap, Shell, Union Carbide, and Unocal—repeatedly reflected the existence of an agency relationship between major corporations and their home country governments in which government policies and actions have protected and advanced the interests of the corporations, even and often at the expense of violations of internationally recognized human rights and environmental standards. These interests have also been protected and advanced by the international trade and investment regime established and being extended by the World Trade Organization.

Two days of testimony at the Tribunal, some of it very moving, on the "inhumane acts and omissions" of giant global corporations would impel anyone with a modicum of compassion and human decency to some form of action.

Responsible civil disobedience goes to the heart of our faith. When we join a Unitarian Universalist congregation, we join a body that has come together to "affirm and promote. . . . the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process." This fifth principle of our faith has a long tradition in our denomination, going back at least to Henry David Thoreau, who was jailed for an act of civil disobedience, refusing to pay a tax he considered unjust.

That tradition continues to this day. In a truly heroic act of civil disobedience, the Rev. Nick Cardell, a retired UU minister in his mid-70s, spent six months in federal prison for trespassing on government property in order to protest the continued operation of the US Defense Department's training camp in Georgia for Latin American dictators and death squads, the School of the Americas, which has been accurately dubbed by its opponents the "School of Assassins." "Some causes are so vital that when our letters to the editors and Congress and lobbying of legislators fail to inform the public and change the situation, we must resort to responsible civil disobedience," says Cardell.

History tells us that civil disobedience (when effectively planned and carried out) is a powerful tool in the struggle for justice and democracy. After all, it was nonviolent civil disobedience that brought independence for India. Gandhi recognized the difference between violence against persons, which he steadfastly opposed, no matter how oppressive they might be, and violence against objects that were symbols or instruments of colonial repression. I don't know of a single case in which the Seattle protesters inflicted physical harm on the police or anyone else, including delegates to the WTO meeting. Destructive behavior by protesters was limited to a handful who targeted only physical objects that they saw as symbols of corporate dominance. The behavior of the Seattle police is another matter. They attacked the protesters with tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets.

Once the tear gas had dissipated and all those demonstrators (20,000? 50,000?) had gone home, was the course of history changed by the Battle of Seattle? The answer at this stage is "yes and no." Shutting down the WTO on its opening day was a symbolic victory for people all over the world opposed to the growing dominance of the global political economy by a handful of giant corporations. Resistance on the streets may have also contributed to the WTO's failure to reach any agreement at the Seattle meeting. On the other hand, the power structures that led to the creation of the WTO and whose interests it serves are still there, working in collusion with the G-7 governments they dominate. Global corporations will regroup and press forward with their agenda in other forums if they decide the environment in the WTO is not to their liking.

In the United States, the problem is even more acute than in the rest of the world. Corporations for the last century have been insulating themselves from effective democratic control. We already have a WTO-style regime in place within the US; because of the sheer size of its economy and enormous political power, the US is bound to be a major obstacle to building more democratic processes and institutions at the international level.

We cannot achieve real democracy— "use of the democratic process. . . in society at large," to use the language of our fifth principle—when so much wealth and power are concentrated in so few hands. And since the giant global corporation is a principal means for concentrating wealth in society, we have no alternative, if we're to be true to our principles, but to join the struggle for democratic control over these giant corporations by working to dismantle the mechanisms of corporate rule. Indeed, we're enjoined to work toward that goal by the 1997 GA resolution on economic justice.

Though one component of the struggle will surely continue to be nonviolent civil disobedience, there are admittedly many other ways in which to carry forward this struggle besides civil disobedience. However, those who decide to make that commitment should be reassured that exercising their right of conscience is not only permitted, but I would argue, encouraged by our faith.

How else can we live up to the standard set by one of our Universalist forebearers, L.B. Fisher, who observed, when asked what Universalism stood for, that "the only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand at all, we move."

Editor's note: On March 16, Judge Arthur Chapman of the Seattle Municipal Court dismissed the charges against Ward Morehouse and his co-defendant, Cheri Honkala, director of Philadelphia's Kensington Welfare Rights Union. Chapman acknowledged that Seattle authorities had seriously abused the defendants' First Amendment free speech rights by seeking to impose a two-year political gag on them as a condition of a plea bargain, effectively muzzling Honkala as one of the principal organizers of a massive protest against poverty being planned for this summer's Republican National Convention. Both defendants refused to accept those terms and were proceeding toward trial when charges were dismissed.

Ward Morehouse is president of the Council on International and Public Affairs, a human rights advocacy organization in New York, and codirector of the Program on Corporations, Law, and Democracy. He is a founder of the UU Fellowship of Croton-Briarcliff-Ossining, New York.

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