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As APEC Kicks Off, Protesters Are Descending on San Francisco. Here’s What You Need to Know

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A large crowd of people holding signs and flags faces a stage with people on it holding a sign that reads, 'shut down APEC.'
Thousands of demonstrators rally in downtown San Francisco on Nov. 12, 2023, in opposition to the APEC international economic summit. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Thousands of protesters and activists rallied in downtown San Francisco Sunday in opposition to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which brings together heads of state and over a thousand CEOs from 21 APEC member states from Nov. 11-17. The APEC summit has drawn an estimated 20,000 people and put San Francisco on the world stage.

The “mass mobilization” on Sunday kicked off a week of protests organized by the No to APEC Coalition. Here’s a guide to help you understand who the activists are, why they are protesting the APEC summit, and what they have planned in the coming days.

Who are the activists?

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The No to APEC Coalition is incredibly diverse and represents over 100 grassroots community action organizations nationwide, active in the fields of migrant and immigration rights, indigenous rights, human rights, labor rights, climate and environmental justice groups, women’s rights groups and more. Activists are also protesting the Israel-Hamas war, joining the growing international calls for a cease-fire.

Bay Area climate organizer Nik Evasco describes it as “a very broad intersectional coalition that touches on diaspora peoples from the Global South, labor and the climate bloc … anti-militarist groups … and people who are really focused on certain opposition to certain particular world leaders like Xi Jinping or [Bongbong Marcos].”

A young woman holds a sign that says "your missiles will never be stronger than our spirit" in a crowd of people.
Zayna Elkarra protests alongside thousands of demonstrators in downtown San Francisco on Nov. 12, 2023, in opposition to the APEC international economic summit. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Suzanne Ali from the Palestinian Youth Movement took part in the action Sunday to protest the Israel-Hamas war.

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“We gather to declare to the U.S. government and to the whole world that the masses here and the masses all over the world stand on the side of justice, of dignity, of liberation, and on the side of Palestinian people,” Ali said.

Mwezi Odom, a member of the African People’s Socialist Party, said APEC represents colonialism.

“When we say ‘shut down APEC,’ we mean shut down colonialism,” Odom said. “Because colonialism takes on all these different forms, and we begin to lose sight of what was the root cause of the oppression of the people of the world.”

An older woman uses a walker with a sign that says "free Palestine" in a large crowd.
Lovinia Alfaris marches in downtown San Francisco. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

San Francisco resident Brandon Lee was among the protesters on Sunday who were concerned about environmental issues and workers’ rights.

I spent nine years working with the Igorot indigenous people of northern Luzon [in the Philippines], and they protested APEC because APEC’s policies, like the Mining Act of 1995, opened up the mining industry,” said Lee. “That mining industry really exploited the indigenous people’s land and destroyed the environment, displacing the indigenous people. And when the indigenous people protested, they’re met with violence.”

Why are they protesting at APEC?

In their media advisory, the coalition said that companies sponsoring the summit, such as Amazon and Microsoft, have a legacy of causing environmental harm and that APEC’s free trade agenda harms millions of workers, women, and migrants in the U.S. and across the Asia-Pacific. Spokesperson Rhonda Ramiro said the coalition aims to “expose APEC’s false solutions and build a movement to address the very real crises of climate change, economic crisis, and militarization.”

People holding flags and signs face a stage with people standing in front of microphones behind a large sign.
Speakers kick off a rally at the Embarcadero Plaza in opposition to the APEC international economic summit. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In the days leading up to the summit, the coalition and other activists have been protesting the attendance of heads of state whom they consider responsible for human rights abuses, including China’s Xi Jinping, Philippines President Bongbong Marcos and Peru’s Dina Boluarte.

In the media advisory, Brandon Lee of the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines describes APEC as“ a tool of big business and the ruling elite to increase their profits at the expense of people and the planet,” adding that “APEC will not be epic. It will be a waste of millions of taxpayer dollars, and it will only result in further worker exploitation and environmental destruction.”

APEC leaders have been promoting the organization — along with President Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework — as a better way to connect global economies and peoples and to create clean and green economies.

A young woman wearing a red and white head covering and a black shirt raises her arm in the air among a crowd of people holding signs.
Amaani Cassim marches in downtown San Francisco. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

But climate activist Nik Evasco said what they’ve seen happening is “giveaways to corporations, deregulation of countries, particularly in the global South, and the opening up of natural resources for exploitation … resources that tend to often be in lands that are in indigenous communities or in environmentally precious areas.”

“When you have world leaders representing a huge portion of the global economy and of the world population meeting with CEOs from ExxonMobil to Lockheed Martin to big tech and security, it doesn’t take a cynic to think that maybe the trade that’s being negotiated really isn’t in the best interest of the people,” Evasco said.

What protests and actions are planned?

The coalition started with a counter-summit at San Francisco State University on Saturday, Nov. 10.

On Sunday, the “mass mobilization” began at Harry Bridges Plaza in the Embarcadero and made its way to Moscone Center.

Demonstrators gave speeches that lasted nearly three hours at the plaza before the crowd headed down Market Street. The protesters shut down Howard and Fifth streets in the afternoon near the security perimeter set up by law enforcement near the Moscone Center.

A large group of people hold signs behind a barrier in the street.
Thousands of demonstrators march on Market Street. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Protests are expected to continue throughout the week, including at the APEC CEO Summit on Wednesday, Nov. 15, and more protests planned for the CEO meetings from Nov. 14-16.

Nik Evasco said they would focus particularly on the CEO summit, which he referred to as “one of the biggest causes for concern of the entire negotiations,” and said they would plan street protests to “shut down the CEO summit.”

“When the people like the CEO of ExxonMobil have literally direct access … to people like Joe Biden or [Bongbong] Marcos from the Philippines or [Xi] Jinping,” Evasco said. “That type of unfettered access to world leaders when they’re negotiating a framework that could dictate how trade is done for decades to come is just unacceptable.”

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KQED’s Attila Pelit, Annelise Finney, Dana Cronin, Rachael Vasquez, and Spencer Whitney contributed reporting to this story.

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