Fuelling the Fire of Youth Rebellion

"I don't get it," an old friend said after his daughter had announced that she was going to Quebec City to protest the Summit of the Americas next weekend. "Free trade is such a complicated issue. Why is this the issue youth are rallying around?"

The answer is not difficult. For years, our politicians and much of the media have been telling us that there is no alternative to the free trade agenda of cutbacks, no alternatives to:

  • privatization,
  • deregulation,
  • shrinking public services and bloating executive salaries,increasing poverty in the middle of plenty.
Even our governments, we are told, can do nothing to stop the inevitable.

Then there was Seattle.

One of my favourite slogans from the 1960s was Mao Tse Tung's "it only takes a single spark to start a prairie fire." Seattle was the spark. The prairie is a generation of young people growing up in the midst of corporate culture with little hope for their own future and a world going to hell in a handbasket to satisfy the insatiable greed of the economic elites.

Seattle showed that something could be done. A few thousand people determined to take a stand were able to derail the very powerful World Trade Organization (WTO). Now, the fire of youth rebellion rages. It is so widespread that the WTO is planning its next meeting in Qatar. Qatar. (According to The Globe and Mail, it costs about $7,000 to fly there from Ottawa.)

In Seattle, North American young people got a taste of their own collective power for the first time since the 1960s. They always provide the fuel for social change because they have the energy, the idealism and the personal freedom needed to change things from below.

Those commentators who are concerned that the media focus is too much on police repression and not enough on the actual issues raised by the trade agreements should relax. Democracy is the issue and police repression is part of the problem. The movement against free trade agreements is a movement for democracy.

Globalization has come to mean the power of corporations over governments and citizens. The massive police presence at these demonstrations is a powerful symbol of the poor state of democracy.

On the April first weekend in Ottawa, anti-globalization activists organized a brilliant series of actions that pointed the finger clearly at the problem.

First they held a "People's Parliamentary Committee Against the FTAA" right in the Parliament Buildings. Our elected politicians were screaming insults at each other in question period. These citizens were figuring out the massive free trade agreement for the Americas, for which our government has been a leading promoter. Lawyer Clayton Ruby explained that police repression was political not legal. They try to intimidate you, Ruby said. That's what this massive military-like presence is about.

When a young woman asked, "I've organized a bus to Quebec City from my high school, but with all the publicity about repression, some of their parents don't want them to go. What should I do?" The audience answered, "Tell their parents to go, too."

Then organizers, including famed American civil rights activist George Lakey, demonstrated non-violent direct action training in full view of the media. What became clear was that the training was about how not to be violent in face of provocation.

The next day was the "search and rescue" operation to liberate the FTAA documents from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. The building was on Sussex, just down the road from Jean Chretien's house. It was surrounded by police and their barriers. The operation's spokesperson was a fluently bilingual young man with a face like an angel. He wore a Robin Hood outfit. As each group of two hopped over the barricades, they read a statement making it clear that it was their right to see what their government is negotiating on their behalf.

The action was an enormous success. A week later in Buenos Aires, International Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew announced that Canada had convinced other governments that the document they are discussing should be released. Of course, Pettigrew did not give credit to the protesters. No politician ever does.

There is little power greater than the collective rebellion of youth. The last wave left us women's equality, civil rights, gay and lesbian rights, environmentalism and a transformation of the family. Let's hope this one leads to more fundamental changes.

Originally published by cbc.ca. Judy Rebick's column appears every second Thursday.

For more rabble news coverage of the Quebec Summit and its aftermath, please click here.

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