Protesters with a multitude of causes united Sunday in San Francisco against a common foe: the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum taking place in the city this week and the corporate-powered economic growth it seeks.
The issues espoused by the more than 3,000 people who rallied with signs and flags at Embarcadero Plaza downtown before marching up Market Street spanned the rights of Indigenous people, women’s empowerment, LGBTQ equality, and the environment, with a heavy dose of freedom for Palestine and calls for a ceasefire in Israel’s bloody war with Hamas. Starting around 12:30 p.m., speakers from various groups took the stage and amped up the crowd in a noisy but peaceful rally before the march began two hours later.
“All of these issues, and all of these organizations, represent different aspects of oppression, and the kinds of exploitative conditions that are imposed on all of us by these large corporations,” said Nancy Hollander, 84, an Oakland resident and member of the Bay Area activist organization 1000 Grandmothers for Future Generations. “The bad distribution of wealth and resources and opportunities, and the potential for a decent life, is so askew at this point that it brings all of these issues together. We stand in solidarity with everyone around the world who is suffering the consequences of what they decide secretly, behind closed doors in APEC.”
Brandon Lee, center, give an interview during a rally at Embarcadero Plaza to protest the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders Week on Sunday Nov. 12, 2023, in San Francisco, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)
The protest was organized by Bay Area group No to APEC, an umbrella for dozens of activist organizations, mostly from this region. The group’s signs, with the slogan “People + Planet Over Profit + Plunder,” were ubiquitous at the rally, along with placards calling variously for climate justice, an end to fossil fuel use, and workers’ rights. Many speeches and signs reflected outrage over failure by the U.S. to stop the bombardment of Gaza launched by Israel after Hamas, considered a terrorist group by the U.S., Canada, and the European Union, attacked Israel, which is not an APEC member.
The APEC Economic Leaders’ Week, which runs through Friday, is being promoted as the largest gathering of world leaders in the city since 1945. Heads of state from member countries, including President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, are to attend, with about 1,200 CEOs and nearly 30,000 delegates from governments and organizations expected for the event and a complementary CEO Summit running Tuesday through Thursday.
The 21 APEC countries make up almost 40% of the world’s population, nearly half of global trade, and are seven of the top U.S. trading partners, according to APEC. Bay Area companies engage in substantial trade with APEC members: The San Jose metropolitan area exported $15 billion in goods to APEC countries last year, and the San Francisco metropolitan area exported $21 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
A large contingent of activists attended the rally and march to show opposition to the government of the Philippines, an APEC member whose president Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos, Jr., — the son of notorious dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. — has been criticized for failing to address human rights abuses. San Francisco resident Brandon Lee attended the rally in a wheelchair, and said he’s quadriplegic after his work alongside Indigenous residents of the northern Philippines got him shot four times by government soldiers in 2019. Deals made at APEC summits have enabled expansion of mining, and when Indigenous people protest, they’re shot and bombed by the Philippine military, which has received billions in U.S. military aid and arms sales, he said.
Established in 1989, APEC is dedicated to economic growth and regional political and business integration. Like other free-trade groups, it has become a target for protests against governments and powerful corporations.
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Rally speaker Katie Comfort, a Portland-based U.S. coordinator for the International Women’s Alliance, called out several APEC-nation leaders scheduled to attend APEC events in San Francisco, including President Joe Biden, whose name drew loud booing. Comfort, 29, also took aim at Marcos, Peruvian President Dina Boluarte, whose administration was recently accused by the United Nations of human rights abuses, and South Korea President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea, who has attacked feminism and pledged to abolish the country’s gender-equality ministry. APEC leaders tout “false solutions” to the troubles facing women, Comfort shouted to the crowd, while “women and their families are left landless, displaced, hungry and poor throughout the Asia-Pacific region.”
Comfort told the crowd that at an APEC meeting in Seattle in August, protesters “got inside and disrupted them in their lunch break,” and said, “We’re going to do it again.”
The San Francisco Police Department said there had been no arrests related to the protest as of 4:10 p.m. Sunday. At one point, protesters blocked the intersection of Howard and 5th streets near the Moscone Center.
Additional demonstrations are planned throughout the week. Activists are targeting the CEO Summit for another big protest Wednesday, with plans to disrupt meetings between corporate leaders and government representatives.
To San Francisco State University lecturer Sheila Tully, 69, APEC fits with trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement that have “devastated economies.”
“They have made billionaires richer and richer while they’ve exploited natural resources, destroyed Indigenous land,” Tully said. “We have some of the worst dictators on the planet being hosted by our city.”
Lorena Gonzalez of Richmond, ethnically from the Indigenous Mexica Purepecha people of Mexico, and a professor of La Raza Studies at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, said she attended the protest to support Indigenous women, and out of a belief that such events bring important issues into public dialogue. “Things like this,” said Gonzalez, 48, “start to shift the narrative.”