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7 Ways the Battle of Seattle Changed the World

Ten years later, the protests of 1999 are still having an impact.
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WTO protest in Hing Kong

Farmers protest the WTO during the 2005 Hong Kong Ministerial Conference.

Photo by La Jace.

Did the 1999 protests against the World Trade organization in Seattle make a difference? After all, the WTO still exists and continues its push for the corporate-driven free trade agenda that was on the table 10 years ago. Now, especially in light of Wall Street’s evident political and financial clout, it’s easy to forget just what the world looked like in 1999. As I attended talks and workshops commemorating the Battle of Seattle, I was reminded of how much has changed. Here are a few of the lasting impacts of those protests.

1. Changed the story on free trade

Prior to Seattle, there was a widespread pubic perception in the U.S. that free trade was a good thing. Good for America. Good for poor countries. Everyone would get richer as goods and services became integrated into a single global market. Momentum was on the side of the free-traders and few politicians or journalists dared to speak against it. Seattle changed that story. As protesters put their bodies on the line, a clueless press, surprised by the size and passion of the crowds, began to see there was another, much darker side to free trade. Journalists’ articles on free trade became more balanced—pro and con, politicians got braver in expressing dissent, and the public learned a new story about the effects of free trade.

2. Stalled the WTO

Not only was the WTO unable to reach agreement in Seattle in 1999, but every time it has met in the intervening 10 years it has been unable to move its agenda forward. Many feel this is because delegates—particularly from developing countries—who had been steamrolled by the U.S. and its allies became emboldened to speak up for their own countries’ interests. As the WTO meets this week in Geneva, many experts feel there is little chance they will reach agreement this time, either.

3. Defeated the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas

Once NAFTA had passed in 1993, trade officials assumed the next step was to expand the free trade area to cover all of North and South America with a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. Cities were vying to host the FTAA secretariat and planners were laying out expanded transportation systems to bring massive amounts of goods from South America to the U.S. and Canada. But when trade negotiators met in Quebec in 2001 and again in Miami in 2003, they encountered massive protests and many delegates voiced their opposition. No agreement was reached, and there is currently no expectation of reviving the effort.

More reflections on the 10th anniversary of Seattle WTO protests:
Walden Bello
Mark Engler
Anuradha Mittal
Sarah van Gelder
Rebecca Solnit
David Korten
David Solnit
Dispatches from the 1999 event:
YES! Magazine archive

4. Inspired the World Social Forum

As the world watched the progressive social movements from all over the world come together in Seattle, imaginative strategists saw the possibilities for holding multi-movement events that were not protests but rather gatherings to bring forward a positive agenda. And so was born the World Social Forum, first held in Brazil in January 2001, just 14 months after Seattle. It’s success spawned yearly World Social Forums, attracting over 100,000 people, as well as regional and national social forums, including in the United States in 2007, with another U.S. Social Forum planned for June 2010 in Detroit.

5. Gave birth to the Independent Media Center—indymedia.org

A group of activists wanted to ensure frontline coverage of the Seattle protests by people who understood what it was about—something the mainstream news could not be counted upon to do. So they created the Independent Media Center, which enabled online reporting from people close to the action. Soon indymedia centers spread across the world, providing unprecedented close-ups of protests to this day.

6. Seeded the idea of green jobs

As the “teamsters and turtles” marched in the street, environmentalists and labor leaders began to see the power of joining their movements in campaigns for living wage jobs that would help the environment. That alliance, and the tireless work of Van Jones and the Ella Baker Center, and subsequently Green for All, built the momentum for green jobs until the term became a household word and a common part of state and federal legislation.

7. Reignited the idea of people power

The specter of people in the streets stalling the agenda of an organization backed by the most powerful corporations in the world reignited efforts to both protest and to create new institutions everywhere. It helped bring over 10 million people into the streets to protest the U.S. invasion of Iraq and thousands of towns to hold “350” demonstrations on climate change this last October. The chant “This is what democracy looks like,” born of a phrase Van Jones once said to a group of policemen and turned into a chant by the Art and Revolution folks in Seattle, rings to this day as people continue to work for a just and sustainable world.


Fran KortenFran Korten wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Fran is the publisher of YES! Magazine.

Interested? See more reflections on the legacy of the WTO demonstrations.

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