Free trade and protest: Salon's readers flock to both sides of the barricades and respond to Marisa Handler's "Notes of an Activist" series.

By Salon Staff
Published December 2, 2003 8:50PM (EST)

[Read the dispatches from Miami]


Your coverage of the FTAA protests has been simply beautiful. Marisa Handler has done an excellent job breaking down the issues and showing us the humanity and intelligence of the protesters. The pro-FTAA powers want to paint the trade talks and the logic behind them as amazingly complex issues that everyday people cannot possibly understand. The corporate-owned and -operated media facilitates this because it is in their interest, better to bring us real news like the fate of Michael Jackson. Marisa strips the issues into their stark naked simplicity -- it is corporate greed vs. human need and it is time for each of us to choose a side.

The events of Seattle and 9/11 have blown away much of the fog that has kept many people on the sidelines of the debate. Every day more Americans are realizing that it is time to stand up for humanity and against those who are perfectly willing to trade the future of our children for money and gratuitous comfort today. Hats off to you folks at Salon.com for bringing a relatively clean look at the protests and for giving a glimpse at what lies behind them.

-- Matt Earley

This article is sorry. It dedicates the majority of the space to sentimentalities, like hugging friends at the Miami airport, and decrying the fence placed to keep order, without touching upon the issues. I am sure that the author has no clue about what is at stake here, namely that Latin American countries desperately want to be able to trade with the United States, exhibited by Chile's free trade agreement beginning next year, Central American countries willingness to talk, and Andean nations open to trade negotiations.

Look, everyone knows that trade helps economies grow. Argentina cannot export its main products, like beef and grains, to the U.S. due to restrictions. If it cannot sell to the largest economy in the world, how does it expect to achieve sustainable growth? Brazil is crippled by steel tariffs. If anything, not being able to trade damages the environment and labor rights. The unemployment rate in Brazil is 12.9 percent and in Argentina 19 percent. Without jobs, these people will resort to anything. Elitists like the author think they know best for the Third World. I am of the opinion that people of the Third World know what's best, and they overwhelmingly choose trade.

-- Mateo Gallina

Marisa Handler's article about the police response to protestors in Miami is terrifying. This is not America. Anyone who still thinks it is never knew what America meant in the first place. The right to speak, to protest, is the signature difference between the America of the Constitution and the America of George Bush.

Call your congressmen, write a letter to the editor, organize a protest in support of protests. Move, act, speak. Tomorrow may be too late.

-- Frances Burmeister

Perhaps you might consider having a police officer write a series of postings during the next one of these meetings. Or how about having a small-business owner whose shop is threatened and/or damaged write a diary of all that he or she went through. You do a disservice running self-serving polemics from just one side of an issue. If I have to spend more bandwidth receiving love letters to mindless middle-class anarchists with their daddies' Visas in their backpacks I will cancel my subscription.

-- Mark Levine

I've been concerned for quite some time that I've failed to understand the motivations of the leftist (yeah, most protesters would grumble at that word, but I don't have a better one handy!) groups protesting free trade accords, the WTO, and of course, the invasion.

Your articles left me with the impression that most of these protests are about the protesters themselves feeling like they have no community outside of these protesting organizations. It's sad but true, because there really aren't many communities in the U.S. anymore. In particular, most Californians probably haven't even met their neighbors face to face. But I do feel it's unfortunate that people confuse their need to belong with the adoption of a system of political beliefs.

That is to say, it is my opinion after reading your article and many others, that most of the participants in these demonstrations are there primarily because of the "feelings" of participation in direct action that you aptly described, and not because of any particular political belief(s).

-- Brian Chrisman

Melissa Handler sure gets it right: "Certainly the mainstream media will continue to portray us as clueless, dissatisfied radicals looking to make trouble." Well, duh. Maybe because you are "clueless, dissatisfied radicals looking to make trouble." Add "ineffective and juvenile" to the description and you've got it about right. Do they honestly think anyone in a position of power so much as notices, let alone gets affected by, these self-congratulatory, nihilistic public displays of vague and conflicted concerns for the vaguely defined "oppressed"? Surely, there must be a better method by which clear-thinking, concerned individuals can bring their opinions to the attention of the power brokers. I'm not convinced that unnecessarily violent re-creations of mythologized '60s protest marches are the way to go.

-- Shawn Cullen

I enjoyed the series on the anti-FTAA protests and I think Ms. Handler is an engaging writer and the protesters come across as dedicated and fun people putting out a lot of effort to try to make the world a better place. But they're wrong about FTAA and globalization generally.

They're wrong for two reasons. First, if a person (or a group of people organized into a company) wants to build something in Brazil and sell it to me in San Francisco, he or she should be able to do so. It's a freedom and shouldn't be infringed without a compelling reason.

Second, countries that are open to trade grow faster (in terms of GDP per person) while countries that are closed stagnate. When countries grow, poverty declines. And poverty is bad!

I'm tempted to go into economic detail here but I know it's not the place. So I'll just call on anyone opposed to globalization to step back from your views and look again. Surf over to Web pages for economics departments and read a bit, maybe e-mail some professors and grad students, start a little dialogue. Ask: Does trade promote growth? Does growth alleviate poverty? Is FTAA, on balance, good? Ask a lot of people, try to get a sense of the overall opinion of the discipline. If you really do this, with an open mind, you'll change your mind. No doubt.

Then you'll focus your efforts where they belong: helping dislocated workers, both north and south, to adjust. Protecting the environment. In short, the kind of social and environmental policy we'd all like to see. Well, not Republicans, I guess. But you get my point.

Trade generates net gains to society. Assume free trade. Think about allocating the gains.

P.S.: Special note -- if you undertake this exercise, avoid researchers associated with think tanks. They have a political agenda. Whether they are right-wing freaks, like the Heritage Foundation, or associated with organized labor, they're promoting the interests of their funders. Ms. Handler cites a study from such a source. Industrial labor unions represent people likely to lose their jobs as a result of freer trade. It's a free country, and they're doing their job by promoting the interests of their membership ... but listening to labor on trade is like listening to Exxon on the environment. Stick to academics. Their writings are actually peer-reviewed.

-- Matthew Harrington

Salon Staff

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