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The "Battle in Seattle" at 10

WTO+10: Did the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization actually make a difference?
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WTO 1999 by Steve Kaiser

During the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, police use pepper spray against protesters.

Photo by Steve Kaiser

Ten years ago this fall, Kevin Danaher, the bareheaded, white-goateed co-director of Global Exchange was making the rounds to student groups, encouraging young people to take part in upcoming protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO). He had worked up a theatrical pitch:

"How many people here were at Woodstock?" he would ask, and, with his own hand raised, look over his audiences.

"Only me, eh? Well that's too bad for you. But if you want to be part of something equally important and historic, you get your ass to Seattle."

Rarely do protesters have the satisfaction of achieving their immediate goals, especially when their stated aims are as grandiose as shutting down a major trade meeting. Yet the direct action in Seattle did just that on its first day.

Before the fact, and amid an era of celebration for corporate globalization, this prediction of the event's magnitude seemed exaggerated at best. Afterward, not so much. The protests—a massive grassroots effort by unions, environmentalists, organic farmers, solidarity activists, and diverse community groups—made headlines around the world. They marked the beginning of a new phase of popular mobilization around issues of corporate power and international trade. They even inspired a 2008 film dramatization, Battle In Seattle, which featured Hollywood stars Woody Harrelson, Michele Rodriguez, Charlize Theron, and Andre 3000.

But, in the long run, did the protests promote meaningful change?

In assessing any single historical incident, this question is a difficult one. Generally speaking, the response of many Americans is to dismiss protests out of hand—arguing that demonstrators are just blowing off steam and won’t make a difference. But if any case can be held as a counter-example, Seattle is it.

The 1999 mobilization against the WTO has never been free from criticism. As Andre 3000’s character in the movie quips, even the label “Battle in Seattle” makes the protests sound less like a serious political event and more “like a Monster Truck show.” While the demonstrations were still playing out and police were busy arresting some 600 people, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman issued his now-famous edict stating that deluded activists were just “flat-earth advocates… looking for their 1960s fix.”  (Comparisons to Woodstock might not have helped with the latter charge.) In 2008, an article in the Seattle Weekly dismissively asked, “Remind me again what those demonstrations against the WTO actually accomplished?”

While cynicism comes cheap, those concerned about global poverty, sweatshop labor, outsourced jobs, and threats to the environment can witness remarkable changes on the international scene. Today, , sister institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have been knocked from their once-imposing pedestals, and the ideology of neoliberal corporate globalization is under intense fire, with mainstream economists defecting from its ranks and entire regions such as Latin America in outright revolt. As global justice advocates have long argued, the forces that created these changes “did not start in Seattle.” Yet few trade observers would deny that the week of protest late in the last millennium marked a critical turning point.

What Happened in Seattle?

During and after the demonstrations, the mainstream media was largely focused on the smashed windows of Starbucks and Niketown—property destruction carried out by a small minority of protesters. In the past two decades, the editorial boards of major U.S. newspapers have been more dogged than even many pro-corporate legislators in pushing the “free trade” agenda. Yet, remarkably, acknowledgment of the WTO protests’ impact on globalization politics could be found even in their pages. Shortly after the event, a front-page story in the Los Angeles Times read, "On the tear-gas shrouded streets of Seattle, the unruly forces of democracy collided with the elite world of trade policy. And when the meeting ended in failure... the elitists had lost and [the] debate was changed forever."

WTO protesters, photo by Alan GravesThis is What Democracy Looks Like
by Paul Hawken
On November 30 (N30), thousands of protesters blocked WTO delegates from reaching the meeting. Author Paul Hawken was among them.

Seattle was supposed to be a moment of crowning achievement for corporate globalization. Big-business sponsors of the Seattle Ministerial (donors of $75,000 or more included Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, Weyerhaeuser, Boeing and GM) invested millions to make it a showcase of “New Economy” grandeur. Any student of public relations could see that the debacle they experienced instead could hardly be less desirable for advancing their agenda.

Rarely do protesters have the satisfaction of achieving their immediate goals, especially when their stated aims are as grandiose as shutting down a major trade meeting. Yet the direct action in Seattle did just that on its first day, with activists chained around the conference center forcing the WTO to cancel its opening ceremonies.

By the end of the week, negotiations had collapsed altogether. Trade representatives from the global South, emboldened by the push from civil society, launched their own revolt from within the conference. In a statement from the Organization of African Unity ministers railed against “being marginalized and generally excluded on issues of vital importance for our peoples and their future.”

The demands of the developing countries’ governments were not always the same as those of the outside protesters. However, the diverse forces agreed on some key points. Expressing his disgust for how the WTO negotiations had been conducted, Sir Shridath Ramphal, the chief Caribbean negotiator, argued, “This should not be a game about enhancing corporate profits. This should not be a time when big countries, strong countries, the world's wealthiest countries, are setting about a process designed to enrich themselves.”

Given that less powerful countries had typically been bullied into compliance at trade ministerials, this was highly unusual stuff. Yet it would become increasingly normal. Seattle launched a series of setbacks for the WTO and, to this day, the institution has yet to recover. Efforts to expand the reach of the WTO have repeatedly failed. The overtly unilateralist Bush White House was even less effective than the “cooperative” Clinton administration at getting its way in negotiations, and the Obama administration has yet to change things.

In 2008 analyst dubbed the current round of WTO talks the “Dracula Round” because it lives in an undead state. No matter how many times elites try to revive the round, it seems destined to suffer a new death. Other agreements, such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which aimed to extend NAFTA throughout the hemisphere, and which drew protests in places like Quebec City and Miami, have since been abandoned altogether.

“We Care Too”

The altered fate of the WTO and other “free trade” deals is itself very significant. But this is only one part of a wider series of transformations that the global justice protests of the Seattle era helped to usher in. The Seattle protests launched thousands of conversations about what type of global society we want to live in. While they have often been depicted as mindless rioters, activists were able to push their message through. A poll published in Business Week in late December 1999 showed that 52 percent of respondents were sympathetic with the protesters, compared with 39 percent who were not. Seventy-two percent agreed that the United States should “strengthen labor, environmental, and endangered species protection standards” in international treaties, while only 21 percent disagreed.

A wave of increased sympathy and awareness dramatically changed the climate for long-time campaigners. People who had been quietly laboring in obscurity for years suddenly found themselves in the midst of a huge surge of popular energy, resources, and legitimacy. Obviously, the majority of Americans did not drop everything to become trade experts. But an impressive number, especially on college campuses and in union halls, did take time to learn more—about sweatshops and corporate power, about global access to water and the need for local food systems, about the connection between job loss at home and exploitation abroad.

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