The modern-day social justice movement that has commonly come to be known under the "Black Lives Matter" umbrella continues to echo Dr. Martin Luther King’s insistence that the “sickness of poverty be exposed and healed – not only its symptoms, but its basic causes.” Standing on the shoulders of those that came before us, our movement has consistently articulated that the violence enacted against Black communities takes many forms – from police killings of our people to the destruction of our neighborhoods through gentrification to the economic exploitation of our labor.
We have grown the broadest, most sustained movement against anti-Black racism in a generation. Yet we are currently in danger of overlooking a massive expansion of the anti-Black violence already rampant in our economic system: the Trans Pacific Partnership.
On May 21, the Senate voted (62-37) to grant the White House “Fast Track” Authority to negotiate a series of agreements that will further cement anti-Back racism as a pillar of the global economy. The first of these agreements–the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP)– would be the largest trade deal in US history. Developed by 12 nations, this new set of policies would initially apply to 40 percent of the world’s GDP, but could quickly expand its reach as more nations sign on. This week, the debate over fast-track approval will move to the House. Should they also vote in favor, the TPP and a series of similar deals will be able to pass through Congress without debate, amendments or filibuster.
In the name of racial equality, the White House has vigorously promoted their minor police reform efforts, such as body-worn cameras and community policing practices, with detailed press releases, briefings and reports. Yet when it comes to a deal promoting devastating racial inequality across the globe, the White House not only remains silent, but is actively working to develop and advance the TPP behind closed doors. It is up to us to not to be distracted by their smoke and mirrors.
For the most part, the public has not heard much about the TPP because it has been negotiated and advanced in unprecedented secrecy. In fact, members of Congress can more easily access information about Iran sanctions and the CIA than they can about the TPP. Only recently, as a concession from the White House, have members of congress been able to see the draft text, unaccompanied by staff, and under the condition that they not share what they read with the public. Even now, policymakers can only read one chapter at a time provided they surrender their cell phone, read it in a basement while being watched by a proctor, and leave any notes taken in the room.
While members of Congress can barely access the TPP, hundreds of corporate employees deemed “trade advisors” have been working hand in hand with the White House to construct the agreement for years. These trade advisors represent over 500 companies, many of which have actively led the war against Black lives. Partners on the TPP include: Geo Group, the private prison magnate; Comcast, a central player in the fight against free and open internet; and Walmart, a corporation that has consistently fought efforts to raise the minimum wage and profits from the exploitation of prison labor.
The systemic exclusion of the public is a clear sign of just how dangerous the TPP is. Other than a few disclosures from Wikileaks, much of the agreement remains secret. While there is currently no way to know the precise cumulative impact it will have on Black people, we do know that corporations have crafted the TPP to expand their power through global exploitation of Black labor, reduced access to healthcare and the destruction of a free and open internet.
Given the devastating impact that the TPP will have on the lives of Black people, here are four key reasons why the movement must defeat it:
1. The TPP, like all free trade policies, will destroy economic opportunity for Black people and the working class.
Since the 1970s, so-called "free trade" policies have decimated the US economy by allowing corporations to ship living-wage jobs overseas to save money. The burdens of unfettered capitalism have fallen most heavily on poor Black and Brown people domestically and internationally.
While the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement promised to bring 200,000 new jobs into the US, estimates show that instead nearly 700,000 jobs were lost. Historically, Black Americans have been disproportionately concentrated in industries hit hardest by these massive losses, particularly manufacturing. Since NAFTA was passed, 1 in 4 manufacturing jobs have been lost. In Chicago and Detroit, cities once home to thriving Black middle class communities, Black unemployment has risen to 25 percent and 27 percent respectively.
Once industries move abroad, corporations jump from country to country in a race for profits, exploiting Black and Brown bodies in the process. Of the 20 countries the US has already established free trade agreements with, 10 use forced or child labor and 17 are guilty of human rights violations “directly related to labor rights and the conditions of workers.”
It is unlikely that the TPP will break the mold on labor exploitation. As Senator Elizabeth Warren explains, the “US repeatedly fails to enforce or adopts unenforceable labor standards in free trade agreements.”
2. The TPP will decrease access to health care and exacerbate an already exploding health crisis facing Black people and poor people throughout the world.
In the midst of a growing global health crisis, poor people across the world lack access to basic resources such as food, water and affordable drugs. The TPP will only exacerbate poor folks’ right to survive by awarding corporate pharmaceutical firms new rights to increase prices and limit access to generic drugs. Doctors Without Borders has called the TPP “the most harmful trade pact ever.”
The TPP would extend patents, keeping generic alternatives off the market. Typically, when a patent expires, any company can enter the market with a generic version. Generic drugs can be developed and sold for much less money, which is beneficial for those that lack access to affordable care, but bad for corporate profits. With patent extensions, pharmaceutical companies will essentially have endless monopolies over drugs, giving them no reason to make them affordable especially since they frequently develop drugs only intended for wealthy people. As the CEO of Bayer remarked about a drug used to treat cancer, “we developed this product for Western patients who can afford this product, quite honestly. It is an expensive product.”
Access to generic drugs is essential to fighting disease in the developing world where the extension of patents can mean the difference between life and death. The TPP will also eliminate a government’s ability to regulate drug prices, leaving the health of people most in need in the hands of an industry that has already proven to care more about profits than the lives of those it was supposedly set up to serve.
In a world where Black Americans account for 44 percent of our country’s new HIV infections and where there are roughly 1.2 million AIDS related deaths annually throughout the continent of Africa, we cannot afford to be met with more policies that thwart our right to live.
3. The TPP will grant corporations control over the online platforms essential to the Black Lives Matter Movement
As a result of increased censorship in mainstream media, the growth of the movement for Black lives has depended partly on internet organizing. Without the internet, many of us would not have seen the people of Ferguson marching down West Florissant following the killing of Mike Brown and decided to join the uprising. Without the internet, we would not know much outside the police-driven narrative surrounding the killings of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, or Walter Scott. Without the internet, many of us would not have been able to elevate the names of Black women killed by the police, even though they have been completely absent from mainstream media coverage. Indeed, this is why Black activists advocated for net neutrality in Congress last Winter. The internet provides a space for Black people to connect, organize and fight for our survival. The TPP will threaten all of this.
Under the TPP, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would be required to read everyone’s email, monitor websites visited, and regulate content for copyright infringement – a term that is purposely loosely defined in the treaty. After six infringements, deemed “strikes” in TPP language, websites and email addresses would be deleted.
With the average wealth of Black people being 12 times less that of white people, we don’t have the funds to defend ourselves against wealthy multinational corporations. Furthermore, conservative ISPs may target voices that challenge their power under the pretext of “strikes.” With posts about Black lives already being taken down by social media providers under claims that this content is “inappropriate,” it’s easy to envision a scenario in which those using the internet to fight for racial justice would be disproportionately targeted for prosecution by copyright holders.
4. The TPP will allow corporations to avoid domestic courts and challenge economic and social reforms won by the Black Lives Matter Movement in a corporate-driven foreign tribunal.
While the TPP will have a number of negative consequences for Black lives, the Investor-State Dispute Settlement System (ISDS) is perhaps the most alarming. The ISDS would allow corporations to contest laws and regulations of TPP member nations in a foreign tribunal. These foreign tribunals, known as international arbitration tribunals, would grant corporations the right to sue nations for unlimited sums when domestic laws are perceived to reduce their past, present, or future profits. Cases brought before these tribunals would be heard by three corporate lawyers who take turns between being the “neutral” judge and corporate advocate. There would be no option to appeal decisions and no ability to elect members to the tribunal. If found liable, national governments (meaning taxpayers) would be stuck with the bill.
With no ability for nations to bring claims against corporations, the corporations could use tribunals to extract regulatory conditions that favor their interests. This perverse arrangement has immediate implications. In dozens of cities across the country, communities are fighting for a $15 minimum wage. The work is groundbreaking and effective. Workers who make less than $15 an hour are building broad multiracial coalitions and escalating impactful tactics. In a relatively short amount of time, Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles have all taken steps towards a $15 minimum wage. While these victories are impressive, should the TPP pass, they may be short lived. McDonald’s has already challenged Seattle’s mandate in Federal court and lost. If the TPP is approved, McDonald’s would be able to challenge a $15 minimum wage before an international tribunal designed to serve corporate interests.
From Ferguson to Tel Aviv, Black people are rising to demand an end to every form of oppression that we are forced to endure. We are connecting the violence perpetrated against our bodies to the economic commodification of our communities to the malicious nature of white supremacy that facilitates our oppression.
Our movement has exposed the realities of police violence and forced the world to listen. Now, we have the power to open the TPP and the economic subjugation of Black and Brown people to public debate too. Doing so will connect the material conditions of Black people and other oppressed groups globally to actions taken by those with the most power.
We can push back. We have the chance to shed light on the shady deals our government makes in the name of “promoting freedom.” The TPP is secret for a reason. Let’s show we won’t be distracted by minor reforms the White House has put forth, while simultaneously enacting massive systems to destroy basic human rights. As those who care about Black people and all people outside the global 1 percent, let’s expose the TPP and demand a system that centers the needs of those most marginalized.
Steven Gilliam is an activist based out of Portland, Oregon. You can connect with him on Twitter at @stevengilliam
Rachel Gilmer is a NYC-based activist, currently serving as the Associate Director of the African American Policy Forum. You can connect with her on Twitter at @Ragilmer