Notes from the Streets of Seattle

WTO On-Site Report, December 1, 1999
WTO Seattle Protest

Photo by Alan Graves.

The following is part of a series  of commentaries by people associated with YES! magazine and Positive Futures Network on the events unfolding in Seattle at the time of the World Trade Organization's meeting.

November 30, 1999

Here's what you probably didn't see on the news about Seattle today. The sun came out in the midst of the giant rally of some 40,000 labor union members, environmentalists, and human rights activists. There was one rainbow we saw as we entered the stadium, a second clearly visible as we marched. There was drumming and dancing along with the chanting and banners during the march. A group of farmers from Japan carried banners made from straw mats that object to WTO rules that threaten their continued independence - when the march's progress got slow, they used the banner to sit on. A couple of men marched under the banner of CEOs against the WTO "We're CEOs and we say 'no,' we don't want no WTO." There were large groups of drummers, dozens of people dressed as sea turtles, people on stilts - one dressed as TINA (There Is No Alternative), and a giant green condom, courtesy of Greenpeace, recommending that the WTO practice "safe trade."

As the march neared the Trade and Convention Center, organizers from the direct action groups urged people to leave the march to join those blocking streets. People had joined arms to block access to various streets leading to the WTO meeting sites. There were people who had tipped over dumpsters in the middle of the road, and were dancing on them, creating a large drum. There were large areas where the protesters seemed to be in control. I saw several delegates try to leave via an alley, only to be blocked by lines of protesters. They turned around, thwarted, but unharmed.

As you know, the opening ceremony was canceled, but some delegates made good use of the time in dialogues with protesters, learning perhaps for the first time, why so many are upset with economic globalization. A wonderful moment happened inside the meeting hall, where the handful of delegates who had been able to get past the protesters' blockade to participate in a planned opening ceremony were waiting for the session to begin. A woman from Global Exchange slipped in, took the microphone, and, noting that the meeting seemed to be off to a slow start, she calmly proposed beginning a dialogue on the issues. The microphone was cut off, and she was quickly escorted from the hall.

The news coverage focused on the violence that day, but as my daughter calculated, the crowd was more than 99 percent peaceful. Those who did break the peace only directed their anger at property. I know of no incidents in which either delegates or police were the subject of violence or threats. And the crowd clearly did not condone the vandalism. Whenever people would begin breaking glass, a group would shout, "No violence, no violence" and in some cases protestors stood between the vandals and their target. Early in the morning the day after the big protests, a group of protesters was on the street scrubbing the graffiti off the walls and sweeping up the glass.

Non-violence was by far the preferred method, although the massive police presence gave the impression of something very threatening. The threat was there alright, but it wasn't so much a threat to person or even property. It was a challenge to the morality of the global trade system. Lori Wallach, speaking at one of the gatherings on women and development held yesterday, told of the ways that trade laws were used by multinational corporations to pressure Guatemala to undercut laws that restrict the advertising of baby formula. Poor mothers, seeing happy baby faces advertising formula, are convinced their babies will be happier and healthier than if they are breast fed. In reality, of course, these babies are far more likely to die from the poor water used and the scarcity of formula for those without enough money. The real violence is coming from the WTO, she pointed out.

This process is creating the political space in which a real dialogue on the merits of globalization can take place. There can no longer be a blithe assumption that "there is no alternative." Economic growth and corporate freedom are not the values most people hold dear - we value life, community, ecological health, and prospects for the future. Making explicit this clash of worldviews is creating a remarkable opportunity to examine the alternatives.

I keep asking myself how this much energy could have been mobilized for something as obscure as trade rules, in the rainy month of November. I still don't know the answer to that - I'm sure some of it has to do with the power of labor and other groups to turn out members in large numbers. But there is also something about these times. There has been so much frustration with the degradation of the environment and declining labor standards, declining quality of life, and the threats of genetically modified foods added to so many other uncertainties about the future. People may be ready to reach beyond their particular concern to the root causes of the problem (which many now believe includes corporate globalization as well as the money-first worldview connected to it), and reach into their own inner capacities and their larger sense of community to find next steps.

December 1, 1999

An important phenomenon emerging out of the events surrounding the WTO is the strengthening of collaboration between civil society groups that had been at odds. The AFL-CIO and a number of environmental groups collaborated on the largest of the week's marches and rallies, which drew some 40,000 people on November 30. The national and international labor leaders spoke forcefully for environmental protection and human rights along with the needs of working people, and the environmental leaders pointed to the importance of jobs and living standards.

Today, founders of the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment ( told reporters at a press briefing that workers and environmentalists have more interests in common than we might suppose.

The coalition was formed when activists who are trying to preserve the ancient redwood trees of in Northern California encountered locked-out steelworkers at Maxxam's annual meeting. In early October, the Alliance announced their beginnings with a full-page ad in the New York Times. "Have you heard the one about the steelworker and the environmentalist?" the ad asks in banner headlines. "They wish we were joking. We're serious."

Sarah Ruth van Gelder
Executive Editor, YES! magazine

No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.