Activists from around the world gathered at the first People's Global Action conference in Geneva, May 18th-20th 1998. Interviews by Gibby Zobel with additional material from his colleagues at SchNEWS.
Squall 16, Summer 1998, pp. 44-45.
Mereana is a historian and grandmother from Aotearoa/New Zealand. She takes part in direct action as part of the movement for political sovereignty for the Maori people.
"We were the last of the Pacific countries to be colonised, when Britain, France and Germany decide to 'liberate' the natives under the Waitangi Treaty of 1840. Britain dumped it's world poor. It took six million of its own people and sent them out to the world. In Aotearoa/ NZ, 750,000 immigrants outnumbered Maoris three to one. They began a process of illegal legislation setting up illegal government, military power and confiscation of land. A lot of what the White Acts passed last century were based on Irish Acts of Parliament they had used the century before. So they duplicated colonisation, so that by 1900 there were only 42,000 of us left out of a quarter of a million. They began a process of legal and military genocide. Once we had been colonised to the extent that we began to die, they started to put up monuments to the Maori people. They began a process of assimilation. The message was: to survive you have to be like us. And so it was for the next 70 years. In the early 1970s, Maori people as young students went to university for the first time and gained a political conscience. To educate the oppressed is not a good thing - you should always keep them silent! From there came a number of contemporary Maori sovereignty movements. Our aim was to gain back our political sovereignty. It's been a process the last 28 years of learning our own language again, and what we call Pueaoeao (reclamation). The Maori Unity Movement/Kotahitanga was founded in 1983 by the late Eva Rickard. There are many organisations affiliated to the same cause pressing the Maori claim to 70 per cent of the country's land. We are now a fifth of the 3.5m population and maybe half of us reclaim our identity as Maori - the movement is growing. Fiji is the closest model we have. The indigenous became outnumbered by immigrant Indians, but staged a coup under Rabuka in 1987. Now the whole system is once again based on Fijian customary law. We believe in lore not law. Natural laws accumulate over centuries, about how we behave, how we treat the land, how we fish, about burying your dead, about birthing your babies, about speaking your language. We call it Tika - The Truth. Our culture's lores have proceeded the country's laws, made by groups of White people for interim periods of time. Customary laws are not negotiable. One individual cannot change the law.
In the last ten years Aotearoa/NZ has been a big experiment in free market enterprise. A decade ago our Government began to dismantle trade unions, put up student fees, sell off all the state assets, bring in fishing quotas then give it all to the multinationals. They opened more prisons and limited the choices of people.
The Government offered a 'fiscal envelope' of $1Billion to settle all Maori claims for land six years ago. Our paramount chief called together all 44 nations who unanimously rejected the plan. So then the government introduced the Resource Management Act of 1992, which acknowledged Maori ownership of land but said that everything above and below that land belonged to the state! So the trees belong to us, even though you own the land, and they negotiate with multinational for the cutting rights. Of course Maori people cannot bid for these resources - and why the fuck should we? - and so we've been protesting. Our protests are quite like yours - innovative. We cut down pine trees, behead statues, burn down forests - we started fires in 16 locations in one night. Because we are only a small nation against a huge military force we have to innovate. We can't take up arms, but we can chain up bridges. We carried huge chains, about 80 of us, and stopped traffic and had a party and left. We occupy our lands, we steal huge million-dollar paintings. We occupy construction sites, destabilise machinery. We hack down flagpoles. Recently the government dropped 1080 poison to kill the possums on the land of one nation, so they gathered all the possums, threw them on a truck, dumped them on the steps of the environment department and split them open.
There's a huge education program going on teaching the population about the history, and a lot more whites are also finding out that we've ALL been lied to. The Government is frightened to be morally challenged by its own people, and has reacted by becoming a lot more divorced from the people. They are doing all their deals but there's nothing on the news, a couple of white guys shaking hands over another million dollar deal. Multinationals are increasingly capturing small governments. But I'm optimistic about our own struggle and our own people. You've got to teach your children. I've got five grandsons and my delight is teaching them how to speak our language and this year we are going back to live on our own land.
I'm really concerned about the impact of the economics of globalisation has on our people and our culture. Specifically I'm looking at genetic engineering and the patenting of indigenous people's genes and the whole concept of cultural and intellectual properties. Because fundamental to our culture's survival is that we remain in charge of our customary laws and our plants and certainly our life pattern.
A lot of the people here all come from the position of love rather than the position of hate. We all love something, we all love our people, our culture, we don't want someone to hurt them somewhere down the line. We don't want to smash anything except the institutions which oppress us. We are all oppressed by the same thing here and we have to devise strategies of how to get rid of the bastard.
The namer of names is the father of all things. I'd like to see us start naming some names and tracking them. We've got Rio Tinto, which have huge subsidiaries. Find the enemy. They hate it when you're in their face."
FOOD NOT BOMBS
Keith McHenry is the co-founder of Food Not Bombs, Homes Not Jails, October 22nd No Police Brutality Day and is active in the Free Radio across the USA.
"We are going into a really brutal period where there are 800,000 more people in US prisons which has doubled inside two years. The national welfare programme was abolished last year, so many people are becoming homeless. The Police State itself is becoming huge. With the Crime Bill the Clinton administration called for 10,000 more cops on the streets. The Defence department has a new law where they can give the military weapons to the Justice Department who can give it to the local police departments. In San Francisco it is virtually impossible to protest. You assemble for a short while, may be able to march for a little bit, but it is very unusual for them to allow protests to end. They like to round you up and arrest you. The death penalty is becoming much more extensive. It is now national instead of only five states, as it was a year ago.
Then there's the Telecommunications Bill. Before this, there would have to be competition between radio, TV & newspapers. You couldn't own the lot in one town. Now you can have every single media outlet in one city owned by the same company. In San Francisco one of the major rock stations is broadcast from Chicago! We are getting less and less information and more and more oppression and most people don't even know these laws have happened.
The economy is collapsing for most people. Some people are getting super, super rich but the majority are getting so, so poor. And so there is the resistance. The Militia movement is probably the most famous. Europeans assume the Militia are White Supremacists, Nazis, Ku Klux Klan. There are many of these. But there are a lot of independent militias, white & black who are trying to organise areas that are independent of the US. So there's been alliances between left-activists and Militia members. Some have joined Food Not Bombs because they were angry that the government was shutting us down for serving food. Food Not Bombs started 18 years ago, and we've been arrested 1,000 times in San Francisco for serving food, and it is starting to expand across America. One of the big problems for the state is that it is a very good organising tool. The police when they arrest us say that we are making a political statement, and that's not allowed. They are worried that people will be gathering together and feeling empowered because we are able to get our own food and our own resources and if we keep doing that... it's a big problem for the government because they are getting rid of all their social welfare programs so they are no longer feeding people. If you are an immigrant you can no longer get any food stamps, or health care.
The other thing about Food Not Bombs is that we support many movements. Food Not Bombs - which is largely white - is uniting very strongly with the native American movement. We have for 18 years. But it's always with people that are calling for total separation from the government and from corporations and are for changing the economic system. We are able to embarrass the government by being unemployed people who can feed hundreds of people for free and they are saying we need more tax dollars to feed the homeless.
We have 400 unlicensed radio stations and we've been building radio transmitters. Maybe five years ago people would be frightened to do free radio. Ten years ago people wouldn't squat - you could get five years.
Now, for some people, it's so bad that being outside prison and being inside prison is starting to no longer be much of a difference. In fact, for many, being in prison is better because you have running water, TV, food comes every day and your clothes are washed. And so for many millions of Americans it is increasing your standard of living to go to prison! It's no longer the deterrent than it once was.
It's shocking to see that they just did away with welfare, there's no guaranteed welfare in the US. They have to make you work, workfare. In San Francisco you have to work 17 hours a week to get $136 every two weeks. The theory is that if you do this Workfare you'll learn a skill, you end up having a job, right, but the reality is that they lay off city workers in each of the municipalities and replace them with people getting Workfare. So you might have been getting $10 a hour as a City employee, common in San Francisco, with full health benefits and retirement. They lay you off and then within three or four months you're doing the same job on Workfare with no benefits working for $136 every two weeks. In San Francisco the cheapest apartment would be $400 a month, so you basically have to do some underground work just to, you have to sell pot just to make it on Workfare. There's a new statistic that 70 per cent of the homeless are employed, but they just never make enough money to live."
EAST TIMOR CONGRESS
Ceu Brites is from the East Timor Relief Association. She's been in exile for 22 years.
"In 1998 East Timor is still under military control. We have to ask permission to move around. They used to use sticks but since the Dili massacre in 1991 they use gas. We are forced to sell our land because Tutu, Suharto's daughter, is selling this oil-rich land, our land, to multinationals to exploit it. We also have the rarest marble in the world. The health situation is very bad. We can send only two doctors to East Timor who can stay for just three months. Tuberculosis is rife because of a lack of treatment and expensive medicines. But, since the East Timorese Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximines Belo and Jose Ramos Horta won the joint 1996 Nobel Peace Prize we have been able to organise more openly within countries in the Asia Pacific region.
In Lisbon this May ['98] we will hold the Timorese National Congress - like the African National Congress - to look forward to forming our own government. It could happen in just a few year's time."
SOUTH KOREA RIOT TACTICS
'Kwon' is from the group on Policy and Information Centre for Solidarity.
"The USA made South Korea a capitalist window. Because of North Korea's extreme communism, in South Korea there is still a national security law so we cannot have communism and we cannot resist the fundamental concept of capitalism. If we say we reject the capitalist concept we will be arrested. The Socialist Workers Associations existed a few years ago in the early '90s but this organisation was underground. The leaders, Paek Pae Oony and Park No Hae are now in jail. They will be there for their whole lives.
There was a general strike for two months last winter. There were many workers and students in the streets. In Seoul maybe 300,000 people were fighting against the government's globalisation programme. The biggest rally, the Rally for the Revision of the evil Labor Law and the Victory of the General Strike was held in Chongmyo Park. We fought in the street against the police. When the distance is far we throw the stones and burning bottles. When we are close to the police we use metal pipes. About 200 people were arrested. But the struggle was across the nation: in one region someone burned themselves. This is also the way of protesting in South Korea. All the leadership of the Korean Federation of Trade Unions cut their hair. Many people had a hunger strike in Myongdong Cathedral in the centre of Seoul. But the general strike failed. After the financial crisis in December '97 the new president, Kim Tae Jung, was elected. He and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposed a new globalisation programme on the Korean people. The IMF plan has affected our salaries. Many people say their salaries have dropped and have not received them for several months. Korean capitalists said we must reduce our pay or face layoffs."
AZTLAN - A NEW NATION
Bobby used to be leader of the largest Chicano gang in Los Angeles, and spent fourteen years in prison, some in the notorious Marion control units where he was tortured, once spending eleven days with his hands cuffed behind his back. In prison he met Leonard Peltier, leader of the American Indian Movement who turned him into a revolutionary.
"I represent the Salaam Liberation Organisation, an independence movement in the south western part of the United States. The majority of the population in California, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Texas are indigenous. We are not Mexican, and we are not American, we want to form a new nation of which we are the majority and we call that Aztlan, because that was the name of it in the first place. Aztlan is where the Aztec people came and we are re-claiming that land. It's our land, we've always been there, we're not foreigners but we are treated as foreigners. The land used to belong to Mexico but they signed a treaty, which guaranteed the right of Mexican people to keep their land, language and culture - but all three of these have been violated. So we are saying now we are living under an apartheid system - it is white, colonial rule, so we are asking to separate, there is no future for us in the United States.
We are denied education, denied equal rights on labour, denied the right to speak our own languages. We are not able to work or when we do work and we are still in poverty so we've got to steal to adequately feed our people. Our youth have been criminalised; 85 per cent of people in prison today are in there for selling marijuana or possessing small amounts. Then they created three strikes. One of my kids stole some balloney and he was caught, then he stole a car radio and was sent to prison. When he got out he didn't have any money and they gave him really outrageous looking clothes to wear, so he stole a pair of Levi's. Now he's in prison for twenty five years for stealing balloney, a radio and some Levi's.
Some of us in San Francisco worked for many many years to legalise marijuana, this way we would de-criminalise our youth. Most of our kids smoke pot, which I would rather have them do than cocaine. But no matter what, the government twisted and manipulated our arguments, so we realised we are bullshitting ourselves. If we fight for affirmative action, fight for housing, if we fight for all these little band aids we get nowhere, the only real way is to take the land from our own government and get rid of the United States of America. We can talk about free trade today, or immigrants tomorrow, but it's pushing little band aids while we die of haemorrhage because of the world system. In 1992 our movement, the Movimento Liberation de Nacional, the Independence Movement of Puerta Rico , the Black Panthers, the New African Peoples organisation, the Black Liberation Movement and white resisters of north America came together. We got Professor Francis Boil, a professor of international law to help us develop a document so we could prosecute the United States of America and dissolve the federal system, which was found guilty of genocide and committing human rights violations. Now there are groups like Food not Bombs and Earth First! who are joining us. This is not a racial thing - we need the white people who live in Aztlan as well.
We are exercising our legal right to self-determination to reclaim our land in violation of treaties and being guilty of genocide. We have to take the lead, and overthrow the United States to make the whole world safer. America is the monster, America doesn't recognises the United Nations it doesn't pay its bill, it dictates to it - so we need to form a new United Nations, and overthrow these governments over here in Europe also.
We are not pacifist organisation - you must understand our need to defend ourselves. Just a few months ago the police walked into our leaders house and in front of his mother shot their baby thirteen times. They are sending the same message they did to the American Indian Movement. What I'm gonna tell you right now is so mind boggling. Two weeks ago we had a treaty between the Chicano gangs and the black gangs. In Los Angeles there's now one gang with 20,000 members. Myself and Russell Means and Zack Delayrose from Rage Against The Machine, had 1,200 different gang members in one spot with Rage playing - these guys didn't fight each other, and I told them to ask whose land is it - and they all shouted back 'our land'.
We ain't no political party, it's a matter of you gotta do something fuckin' now man - the rainforests are gone, the fish are floating on top of the water - we don't have to get lab experts to figure our what the fuck is causing their death - they dead!
Recently, Mexico came to Los Angeles to play football with the United States. When the United States ran out on the field 93,000 started throwing debris and beer bottles at the American team, who soon found out that they are not the home team in Los Angeles. Two years ago I was in San Diego during the World Cup and same thing happened. When the American national anthem was played all the fans booed, some even urinated to the star, spangled banner. The reason for this hatred is because of the treatment the United States has given the indigenous population. When the Mexican national anthem came on it was very silent but not support for the Mexican government because the Mexican government has treated us the same as the US."
ARGENTINIAN HUNGER STRIKE
Alejandro Demichelis, is the press secretary of CTERA, the Federation of Argentinian Teachers, an organisation with 220,000 members. They have been on a 'rolling' hunger strike outside the Argentinian Congress in the 'White Tent of Dignity' since April 2nd 1997. In an imaginative tactical alternative to an all-out strike, up to 50 different teachers are refusing food each month, protesting against massive World Bank-inspired cuts in education.
"The last few years has seen the privatisation of all public services of the country: water, rail, communications, gas. They are now trying to destroy public education. The state doesn't give enough money to the provinces, so some departments have good high-quality education but others are without resources so they start with reducing salaries by up to 64 per cent. They closed some schools and some courses, so the conflict started hard with four huge demonstrations.
Different working times meant a simultaneous struggle, a normal strike, was not possible. Also, the mass media which is controlled by the government would say we are harming children's education. So we decided to build a White Tent of Dignity in front of the congress.
We thought: 'how many days will we be here? One week, one month?' But this movement started growing and growing with the support of a big slice of society: the Mothers of the Disappeared, national and international artists, musicians, human rights organisations, environmental organisations, organisations against police repression. So our movement was a union of all different movements against repression and lack of justice.
Thousands of teachers and children came to the tent. At first the media was confused, they asked themselves 'what is this?' Then they started giving support. They collected a petition of 1,200,000 calling for the Education Act. 200,000 people, including children, went on hunger strike for two days in support. Also 25 teachers go on hunger strike for 30 days at a time on a liquid diet. They are still at the tent because there has been no answer. 88 per cent of the Argentinians support this movement [in a survey by the National Science University], and 26 per cent have actively participated in the movement. There have been more than fifty cultural activities. The last one was a rock concert and there were 50,000 people there. When Clinton came to Argentina we held a big march at night with torches. The most important ballet group in Argentina came to the tent. They are so important that streets around the tent were completely occupied. There was a football match in the street and the traffic was stopped. It was very funny.
There's been five national strikes and eight marches against the government. One week they built tents in front of the local parliaments where different teachers made a one-week hunger strike. There was also solidarity from Paraguay, Chile, Brazil, and in Uruguay they made a ten-day hunger strike. Despite everything, the Education Minister wrote a terrible Act inspired by the World Bank who want to give $600m to the government in return for a Structural Adjustment Programme. We asked for an increase in taxes for the richest people and businesses in the country. Education and health are the last two sectors not to be privatised. In Argentina there are 250,000 children that are working when they should be at school. There is 20 per cent unemployment due to Structural Adjustment.
For a year people have been very worried about education, so that is a real victory. We hope that our law will be passed but if it isn't we will keep on with the struggle. Before, the young people didn't like the unions because of how the unions were run. But now they see there are honest, uncorrupted unions that would rather die fighting than die on their knees."
KANATAKA STATE FARMERS
Professor Nanjundaswamy, 62, is a farmer and the president of the ten-million strong Karnataka State Farmers' Association (KRRS). Their Gandhian-style brand of direct action has seen 50,000 members taking apart every brick of a Cargill's building, and publicly burning a Kentucky Fried Chicken branch. He lives in Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka, the city with the most multinational corporate power in India and the only source of gold and silver.
"I have a farm, my family have been farming for centuries. We formed a farmers' union at all state levels and we have an interstate committee of all India. The KRRS organised itself within the state. Non-farmers are not admitted, nor are members of other political organisations.
We believe in direct action and direct political methods. Our democratically elected representatives have failed us in India. We have lost confidence in all the political parties. The only alternative for people in the human democracy is to protect themselves with direct action. Thirty seven multinationals are in my city Bangalore and all 37 have been given free police protection by the state government.
Trade Related Intellectual Property rights [TRIPs] would mean peasant laws being changed according to American desires. In India I am challenging the government because we are planning to violate that law from day one. We would like a movement similar to the salt movement Gandhi launched against the British, and start selling our own indigenous seeds in all the streets. Whatever they do in Geneva could not be implemented in India.
We have been successful in blocking the Act in India even though the government is ready to introduce a bill again. For example, W R Grace & Co is a notorious company which patented the Neem tree, a tree useful for farmers and Indian people. We have been using different parts of the tree and different preparations from the tree, for agriculture and medicine for centuries. Not a single tree grows in the US, yet they now have the patent on that tree. [The Euro Patent Office reversed this in March '98]
"The Multilateral Agreement on Investment would also be a disaster. It yields sovereign status to multinational corporations. They'd be able to sue sovereign governments. They can transfer anything to any other country because of cheap labour. Most of the Multinationals think it is more profitable to transfer their industries to countries who have laws which are very lenient.
The North and South has to work together whether it is fighting industrialisation, patents on life forms or patents on plants and seeds. The impact is not just on the South, the impact is global, it has an impact on the whole of humanity. There will be an erosion of bio-diversity through TRIPs and technology.
The name given by Gandhi for non-violent civil disobedience, Satyagraha, literally means fight of truth. It is a non-violent fight. It's about violating unjust laws and facing the consequences, being prepared to suffer for the cause to the extent of sacrificing one's life. In no circumstances do you retaliate. For example, when we targeted Kentucky Fried Chicken our activists didn't run away. They sat on the street waiting for the police to arrive, were arrested and went to jail. We don't disown what we have done - we say that we have done it, and done the right thing. The American ambassador insisted that I be arrested even though I wasn't present at the event and I have been falsely charged with attempted murder. The case is still pending."
CANADIAN POSTAL STRIKE
Dave Bleakney works for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, one of the country's more radical unions. He recounts the events leading to their three-week strike in December '97.
"We were telling everyone that we're going on strike so no-one was mailing anything - and then we didn't go on strike. Post Offices were empty and we're all just sitting around talking and they were paying us. It really fucked them up and they didn't know what to do - you could see them on TV saying we're losing 25 million dollars a day and finally they started laying off people and then at that point the whole place went on strike.
It was beautiful, in Toronto alone four thousand people on the picket lines. There were no scabs this time, 'cos last time we really put the run to scabs. In the '91 strike they had to hire helicopters to get the bosses out of the plant, we didn't let anybody in or anybody out for a week. This time they thought they're going to strike we're just going to close the Post Office, we're not even going to try that this time.
We found that government and big business and employers had colluded behind closed doors. We had evidence, a memo from a meeting that the board of the Direct Mail Association had with the government minister responsible for the Post Office, and a representative of our employer. Basically laying out exactly what they were going to do to us.
It occurred to us that maybe we shouldn't be targeting our employer, but these other fuckers too, right? We shut down major streets, and then closed the international Airport for a half-day. Hundreds of trucks were lined up inside trying to get cargo out and outside trying to get cargo in. The drivers were getting out of the trucks and walking the line with us and wishing us best of luck.
Canadians are considered, I think, a very pliant, peaceful people, and just chase bears and that sort of thing you know - and play hockey of course. In the past two years, we've had ten city-wide general strikes in Ontario. A few years ago if you chanted 'general strike' people looked like you were crazy, the postal workers would do it because we just did that, but everyone would look at us like we're nuts. Now people are picking it up."
Globalised Resistance - The first Peoples Global Action conference in Geneva in February 1998 and the international neo-liberalism they are up against. Report by Gibby Zobel - Squall 16, Summer 1998.
Resistance Allstars vs Globe Rotters - this May the temperature rose on streets across the globe in protest against the G8 Summit and WTO 50th Anniversary - Squall 16, Summer 1998.