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Akwesasne Border Action
The April 19 “Day of Rage Against Globalization” near the Akwesasne Mohawk territory began in an abandoned, weed- choked parking lot shadowed by a GM plant. Organizer Shawn Brant, a Mohawk activist from the Tyendinaga reserve near Belle- ville, Ontario, was frying some of the 2,400 pounds of pickerel speared from his home territory and trucked several hours to the site in upstate New York, just a few hundred yards from the St. Lawrence River.
“That's because the water here is polluted,” Brant said, as organizers and reporters milled around the dusty lot designated as a staging area for the action after tribal leaders made it known that the activists were not welcome on the reservation.
The river teemed with fish that sustained Mohawk communities in the St. Lawrence Valley for centuries—until it was spoiled by toxic discharges from nearby industrial plants and by massive dredging projects that created an international shipping channel.
The traditional fish fry was a gesture of welcome for a caravan of 500 or so environmental, labor, and human rights activists who were on their way to Quebec City to protest the Summit of the Americas. It was also a show of unity between anti-globalization forces and Mohawk activists who have endured years of struggle for environmental justice and native sovereignty. The meal, along with an open speaking forum and a song about imprisoned Native activist Leonard Peltier, steeled protesters for a mile-long march across the international bridge that spans the river to Cornwall Island, Ontario.
Demonstrators weren't sure what to expect as they approached the bridge. Fear of violence had spurred Mohawk tribal leaders to bar activists from assembling on the reservation, close schools, and set up random police checkpoints to monitor organizers.
Whatever the heavily armed U.S. and Canadian law enforcement agencies massed along the border were expecting, it didn't happen. Marshaled by traditional Mohawk warriors in olive green jackets and red armbands, demonstrators carried signs and banners, banged on drums, and chanted anti-corporate messages as they made their way across the bridge.
They were met by lines of Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Ontario Provincial Police on foot and ATVs, along with a wall of border patrol agents blocking lanes and perched on the roofs of Customs buildings. A few dozen Mohawk children and adults watched from behind a fence as Brant stopped at the foot of the bridge to address the crowd.
“You were told the people who are coming here are rioters, they're going to destroy your homes, they're going to burn your businesses. That's not the case. They're here on your behalf,” he said. “Free trade legalizes the poison that governments throw into our water.”
Marchers complied with an order from Canadian customs officials to file back into the cars and vans that had been following them to be processed at the border. Still, agents ran background checks on each protester, searched vehicles, rifled through bags and trunks, copied documents, and hassled activists about their plans for the Summit.
Customs officials said they denied entry to only two protesters, either because of prior convictions or what they described as “intent to commit criminal acts” while in Canada. But, delayed at the border for hours while their comrades were processed, most activists turned around in solidarity with those denied entry to Canada. When they made it back to the U.S., protesters were met by state troopers and tribal police and threatened with arrest if they stopped anywhere on the reservation. Most left the area to find another place to cross the border.
While authorities might have viewed the day's events as a victory for “law and order,” their reaction only drove home arguments against corporate globalization more clearly.
The nearby Alcoa, Reynolds Metals, and GM plants—already the source of pollution that has hit Mohawk residents hardest—have announced another round of layoffs in recent months, with corporate officials blaming “the competitive global environment” and workers wondering every day how long it will be before the factories close.
To activists, the message was clear: If the multinationals could dump their industrial leftovers in the St. Lawrence River and then delay cleanup for years, how much easier would it be to do the same and worse in Guatamala, Paraguay or Haiti, where every job offered by export companies would attract impoverished and repressed workers by the thousands?
“We are standing on the border of two illegitimate countries with a history of 500 years of oppression,” said New York City activist Nisha Anand, whose parents emigrated from the state of Punjab in India, another region that continues to experience the devastating effects of colonialism. “The FTAA is a reaffirmation of the freedom to rob and exploit poor and indigenous people. It's had different names, it's taken different forms. They've been able to get away with it. (But) the FTAA is trying to make it legal.”
The Akwesasne territory, which straddles the international border and is nestled between two counties that regularly compete for the highest jobless rate in New York, is a community plagued by the poverty, substandard housing, and alcoholism endemic to many reservations.
The aluminum and engine parts factories, all three of which are unionized, have been among the few places over the last half-century that have offered steady work at good wages to Mohawks.
But those jobs have come with a high price. In addition to the destruction of traditional hunting and fishing, PCBs, dioxons, heavy metals, and other pollutants have left the Mohawk community with birth defects, miscarriages, and cancer. Mothers are advised not to breastfeed their children because of industrial contaminants in the food chain.
Activists say the FTAA—which could allow corporations to weaken environmental standards through lawsuits—would make an already horrible situation worse. “The statement to the Canadian government and the United States and to the world is that the injustice in the environment, they're not going to push it aside,” said local Mohawk activist Stacey Boots, whose father John—another organizer of the April 19 action—is a veteran of native sovereignty struggles at Akwesasne in the early 1990s.
“We have many problems and governments are not looking toward solutions. They have pushed us into reservations that economically are just above the minimum living standards,” he said. “We are trying our hardest to talk to these governments and these international industries and they don't seem to be listening. Make them listen to you,” Boots told demonstrators bound for the FTAA talks.
Even if delegates from 34 countries assembled in Quebec City did their best to ignore the tens of thousands penned behind the “Wall of Shame” during the Summit, activists who came to the border at Akwesasne did broadcast their anti-corporate message to the throngs of Canadian and American media drawn to the protest. As they spoke to the world, anti- globalization and native rights activists used the event to communicate with each other and strengthen movements for justice in diverse communities affected by the FTAA. “We are looking to give out numbers and names. We're looking to become friends,” Boots told reporters at the rally. “We are setting an example for the whole world.” Z
Matt Guardino is a newspaper reporter and a freelance writer who lives in northern New York state.