Two days before the opening of the World Trade Organization's Fifth Ministerial, I sat on the lawn of the Ritz-Carlton in Cancun eating beans and rice. Three young men keeping the rhythm on hand drums, sang in Spanish: “In the path of truth, humanity can save itself. In the path of justice, the new man can triumph.”
A cadre of policemen stood watching. They had arrived when volunteers for Food Not Bombs—an organization that serves free vegetarian meals as a political act—began setting up on the Ritz's front lawn. The officers asked every-one to leave, but the volunteers just smiled and offered them dinner.
It worked. Through playfulness, music, and conversation, activists stalled the police long enough for everyone to eat. That pulse of defiant, joyful celebration fueled the mobilization in Cancun.
Like most protesters, I was both nervous and thrilled to be there. We were demonstrating against one of the world's most powerful institutions in streets already stained by bloodshed. Two years ago, students demonstrated at the World Economic Forum in Cancun, and 60 were beaten by police.
But the fear of violence didn't keep activists away. Instead, it inspired in-your-face art expressing visions of a better world, according to Starhawk, a writer from northern California who helped to organize the resistance. “We're demonstrating something of the world that we want, not just what we're against,” she told me.
Anuradha Mittal, co-director of Food First, a food-policy think tank, agreed. “We have been painted as an anti-globalization movement. And somebody needs to tell the world that this is the movement that is not anti-anything,” she told me. “It is actually the one that is pro-democracy, pro-human rights, pro-women's rights, pro-indigenous rights, pro-workers' rights. It's the one with a vision for a better world for all of us, and that is the truth that needs to be told with celebration.”
Students from Mexico City constructed giant puppets of Mayan gods angry with the WTO. Filmmakers aired political documentaries at a public park. A radical marching band from Seattle imbued the marches with rhythm. Protesters spelled out “NO WTO” with their naked bodies on the beach.
The actions caught the attention of locals, who had been primed by the media for a deluge of raging, window-smashing “globophobes.” Instead, they encountered peaceful visitors distributing information and making music.
“I don't have any reason to be scared of them,” said Mario Hernandez, owner of a Cancun bar. “I can understand that they are struggling for the benefit of a lot of people.” Hernandez's words reflected a widespread blossoming of support for the activists.
“The good news is that our side is growing,” said Kevin Danaher, co-founder of Global Exchange. “Our side is gaining more legitimacy; the organizational connections are being built. We will win in the end.”
Activism appears to be gaining strength as it evolves toward a peaceful network structure. In Cancun, nonviolent tactics prevailed, with art and song drawing media attention. Responding in kind, the police showed restraint. Dozens of panels and symposiums organized by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) gave the movement a scholarly backbone. The developing nations that banded together as the G-21 were buoyed by the support of progressive NGOs, according to Peter Kyalo Kaindi of the Kenyan Parliament.
The commitment to nonviolence was most dramatically evident on September 14, when protesters confronted a forbidding barrier constructed by police, designed to separate the crowd from the negotiations inside the convention center. Women took the front line, making holes in the fence with wire cutters. They worked for more than four hours in the 90 degree heat, their sweat rinsed off by the rain that periodically pounded down and then subsided.
After the women cut through the first line of fence, activists from South Korea attached ropes to the weakened barrier, and the crowd pulled it to the ground. The police stood ready for the crowd to surge forward, but protesters held back to keep the action peaceful. Following the protest, activists streamed into the Independent Media Center where I was working. They were exhausted but jubilant.
“The purpose was to do a symbolic, pacifist gesture of tearing down the WTO and letting them know that they can't build walls to keep us out,” said activist Meredith Crafton, showing me palms cut from the fence wire. “Every-body was dancing and hooting and hollering. It turned into a celebration.